I don’t know if Gareth Bale’s first goal against Liverpool is the greatest goal to ever be scored in the Champions League. I will say that when he scored it, it took me a moment — not only the celebration, but a replay of the goal — for me to really comprehend what he just did. Even the crowd was stunned for a few seconds after; the goal was unbelievable and the context around it made it more surreal.
First of all, that Bale had the audacity to attempt a goal like that in the Champions League final is just ridiculous. Second, that he had the confidence to do so two minutes after coming on, I mean. This coming from a man who is always surrounded by transfer rumors, whispers that Madrid will sell him for being too injured, for not living up to his ability, because Marco Asensio is coming into his own. This was a man who was once part of the famed BBC triangle, and was now on the bench for the Champions League final. Finally, and most importantly, the arrogance of Bale to score something that wonderful while looking like a vagabond samurai whose return is announced by the falling of cherry blossoms.
There was always an inevitability to Real Madrid winning their third title in three years, and after Loris Karius’ mistake for their first goal, it looked like the universe was going to fulfill the prophecy in the most comedic way possible. The goal was made worse because it came after Mohamed Salah, one of the most exciting players in the game and the best story of this year, had to be replaced after he was injured by Sergio Ramos. The game was threatening to become a regretful encounter that wouldn’t live up to the hype beforehand.
Sadio Mane scored to equalize and restore the hopes that the game could still be fun. Bale’s bicycle then was an explosion of that excitement — and for Liverpool fans, despair and helplessness — that had been anticipated beforehand. This was a goal whose perfection was undeniable. Nothing could be used to dismiss it as with the other Real Madrid goals. There was no goalkeeper error. No offside call. There was no foul beforehand. The goal came out of nothing and was so good that even those who were destroyed by it had to admire it.
The only thing about the goal that wasn’t perfect is the cross came in from Marcelo’s right foot. If it would have been from his favored left, then there could be an argument that he meant to set up the bicycle kick, that Marcelo and Bale had planned it beforehand. I could have convinced myself to believe they were so sure of winning the game that they planned to do so from a spectacular goal. This stems from the fact Marcelo doesn’t make mistakes with his left foot. If anyone professes he does make mistakes with his left and they have seen him do so, the person should be branded as a heretic and exiled from the civilized world.
Everything else beyond the right-footed cross was gorgeous and executed as best as it possibly could have been. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema occupying the two defenders to give Bale space, the hard step that Bale takes inside that allows him to jump from an angle, how smooth his connection to the ball that made the goal look more rehearsed and cinematic than real — it’s like he didn’t even think about doing a bicycle kick but his body and mind had entered into a state of “flow,” a complete absorption into what he was doing and reacted on its own.
The Bale goal may or may not be the best goal ever scored in the Champions League final, but that conversation is really unimportant. It represents so many other things.
The goal is a great representation of the beauty of the sport itself: how the mind, body, and a little bit of ambition came come together to create something so breathtaking. It stands as a testament to the potential and confidence of Bale, who is capable of such moments but is restricted and reduced to a bench role by injuries to the same body that can execute such a ridiculous act. Regardless of what happens to his career, Bale will forever live in soccer lore for what he did against Liverpool and the other previous two finals.
The goal is a marker of the power that is Real Madrid, who have won three titles by their sheer overpowering talent. It’s unfair that Bale, who was once the most expensive player in the world, comes on as a substitute to score that goal while Liverpool has to sub on someone like Adam Lallana.
After Bale’s bicycle goal, the game devolved back into comedy. Karius made another mistake and Madrid’s victory was solidified. The regret that this final could have been much better returned. But Bale’s goal will always exist as a counter-argument to the disappointment, a moment so brilliant and satisfying that it made the rest of the game superfluous. In that goal is all the beauty and drama that we watch the sport for.