When Gareth Bale first arrived at Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo was among the first to offer help in coming through the challenges of settling into his new country and new team.
Now tonight’s Wales versus Portugal Euro 2016 semi-final meeting could bring further confirmation of what the tournament has suggested so far - that still rising Bale has now surpassed his older waning teammate.
Ronaldo greeted Bale on his first morning at Madrid’s training ground in September 2013, giving photographers an immediately iconic shot of the established galactico greeting the new arrival.
A clearly awe-struck Bale spoke then of how the chance to play alongside Ronaldo had been a big factor in his move from Tottenham.
“Cristiano Ronaldo is for me the best player in the world,” he said.
“He is a massive factor why I wanted to come here. It will be an honour to play with him, and hopefully learn from him. Hopefully we can win a lot of trophies together.”
When Bale then struggled for form and fitness during his first few months in Spain, Ronaldo stood up for his new teammate.
“Since Gareth arrived he has had a difficult time, but I understand,” Ronaldo said that October.
“If you speak with him you can see that he is very excited to play and help the team. People talk about how much he cost, but it is better to leave him alone, and put pressure on other people. He’s a fantastic player, a fantastic boy, and always wants to learn, which is the most important.”
At the time, Ronaldo successfully gave the impression of an older brother looking after someone who at over four years younger needed to be helped and protected.
Bale also appeared delighted to be just playing in the same team as a superstar whose hairstyle and free kick technique he had consciously copied.
Although there was a minor Spanish media debate about who was now the world’s most expensive player, at this stage Bale did not really seem much of a threat.
It also helped that within a few weeks, Ronaldo signed a new contract ensuring he remained by far the club’s best paid player.
Even through the 2013/14 campaign, with Bale scoring crucial goals in the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals, Ronaldo’s position remained untouchable.
The Portuguese’s celebration after his late penalty in the 4-1 extra-time win over Atletico Madrid in Lisbon was the symbolic photograph of Madrid’s ‘Decima’ Champions League triumph.
The first hints of potential issues in the pair’s relationship surfaced the following year when Ronaldo’s anger at Bale’s perceived “selfishness” in front of goal was front page news in the Spanish sports press.
There was also a growing feeling that Madrid president Florentino Perez was keen for ‘his’ newest big signing to thrive, with Rafa Benitez reportedly issued instructions to field Bale as the new fulcrum of the team’s attack when he arrived in summer 2015.
Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett agreed - and explained last October that criticism Bale sometimes received from local fans and pundits was due to “resentment” at how things were changing.
“I think there’s a great love of Ronaldo,” Barnett said. “I think that the new guard is coming and there’s some resentment, perhaps, to that.
“But I think things will change. Gareth’s now playing in a better position [more centrally], where he wants to play. I’ve always said it, I think he’ll be the best player in the world in the next couple of years."
Around that time Ronaldo was openly talking about leaving Madrid and openly flirting with Paris Saint Germain, although the arrival of Zinedine Zidane in place of Benitez last January settled him down.
He ended last season with over 50 goals for a sixth consecutive year, but fans and pundits were increasingly pointing out that these came against weaker opposition.
Bale had an injury affected club season, but was much the better player during May’s Champions League final win over Atletico again, with Ronaldo’s shirtless seen as more embarrassing this time.
Now almost 27, Bale looks more secure in his own skin and comfortable as a leader for both club and country.
His performances both on and off the field so far at Euro 2016 have presented a character at ease with being easily the best player on his team, while also being accepted and liked by his mates.
Meanwhile Ronaldo, 31 already, has seemed edgy and nervous, ungraciously disparaging neutrals favourites Iceland after their group stages draw, sending free kick after free kick off target, and claiming that his below par performances come from being played out of position.
On Monday, Bale faced a series of searching questions about his relationship with his fellow galactico, but batted them away.
“We get on very well at Madrid and enjoy playing together,” was about as controversial as it got, although he did let slip that the colleagues had not even exchanged a text message ahead of tonight’s meeting.
Adding to the intrigue is that both galacticos expect new contracts and pay-rises this summer.
Local media reports say a new Bale deal could run until 2023 [when he will turn 34] and include a salary boost which could put him alongside Ronaldo at the top of the Bernabeu pay-scale.
Ronaldo has apparently changed his mind about wanting to leave Madrid and has talked about wanting a new long term contract and playing on at the Bernabeu until he is 40.
Whether Madrid want to keep paying him €40 million a year gross over that time, or if now is the time to put all his chips on Bale, is a decision that Perez is currently mulling.
Bale is clearly no longer the “fantastic boy” who is just happy to be playing alongside Ronaldo.
Tonight he has the chance to show that he no longer has to play second fiddle to anyone.
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Euro 2016 - Can Wales win Euro 2016?
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