Gareth Bale, Real Madrid’s odd star out, had been stung to start the Champions League final against Liverpool on the bench. Often injured, he was destined, it could seem, to miss out on the biggest games. The Welsh international missed the last of his country’s World Cup qualifiers with a strained calf; now he was fit but told by his club that, yet again, he would be forced to watch.
“Very disappointed not to start the game,” Bale would say later.
He was finally brought on by Zinedine Zidane for Isco just before the midway point of the second half. The match was tied, 1-1, a howler by Loris Karius having been cancelled out by Sadio Mane’s determined counter. The game clock read 60:55 when Bale first felt the cool grass under his boots.
Bale soon exchanged the ball a few times with his teammates. It was involvement enough, perhaps, to clear the worst of his nerves and resentments. “The best I could do was come on and make an impact,” he said later.
The play built toward Liverpool’s end. After Cristiano Ronaldo’s probing run was thwarted, he pushed a short pass back to Casemiro in the middle of the pitch, maybe 35 yards from goal. Casemiro swung it left to Marcelo, surrounded by chalk, wedged into the space between the sideline and the corner of Liverpool’s 18-yard box.
Bale drifted into position inside the box, a few steps behind Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. A trio of Liverpool defenders marked them.
Marcelo settled the pass, touched the ball once to push it to his right foot, and then curled his cross, with swerve and pace, toward the penalty spot. Mane stretched and nearly put a toe to it, but the ball lifted into the night uninterrupted.
The clock read 62:58. Bale had been on the pitch for 123 seconds.
The clock still read 62:58 when Bale started to react, taking a step away from the goal to better position himself. Somehow, he had already decided on his course of action. Somehow, he had chosen to attempt an overhead kick, even though he had never scored on one in his career. Somehow, he had calculated that his best chance of scoring was by making an attempt that had every chance of failing, and his tall, lean body had already begun to obey, following his brain’s fearless, inexplicable instructions.
At 62:59, he turned and leapt into the air, exchanging his feet for where his head might have been. His left foot found the ball. It began its 15-yard journey toward goal. Karius had taken a single stutter-step to his left; the ball was to his right. He dived for it, but he didn’t really bother to reach out his hands. The shot was perfect, maybe a foot under the bar.
At 63:00, the ball was in the goal.
Two seconds. That’s all it took. Two seconds: from Marcelo, to Bale, to the back of the net. It’s hard to understand the physics and the math, the decision-making and the execution, the audacity and the realization.
Bale later added a second goal, on another Karius howler, to secure a 3-1 Real victory, and in the chaos and tears after, there was a feeling that the grace of his bicycle kick might be lost, bookended by greater sins. Failure sometimes outstrips success in the race to permanence, scars masquerading as memories. This time, it shouldn’t. This time, it’s the success that should stick.
At 63:05, Bale was sliding on his stomach in celebration, swarmed by the teammates he had been deemed unworthy of starting beside. Zidane put a hand on his bald head, turned toward the bench that Bale had so recently occupied, and began flapping his fingers in the air, as though he had touched something too hot. Jurgen Klopp, not far down the sideline, also turned to his bench, but his arms were folded. Both managers, along with millions of fans around the world, were experiencing disbelief, only manifesting itself in profoundly different forms.
“The best I could do was come on and make an impact,” Bale said. “And that’s what I did.”
Still, his hurt lingered. “I need to be playing week in, week out, and that hasn’t happened this season,” he said. “Obviously now I have to sit down with my agent and discuss it, and we’ll take it from there.”
A different clock began ticking.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He’s on Twitter @EnswellJones.