Real Madrid were held by Villarreal but Gareth Bale's goal was an auspicious beginning for the world's most expensive player
• Gareth Bale's debut – in pictures
And then at 10.38pm, it happened. Dani Carvajal dashed away down the right and pulled the ball across the face of the Villarreal six-yard box. Running in from the other side, a figure in white slid in ahead of the defender and nudged the ball over the line. There was a moment's pause, as if waiting for confirmation. Yes, what they thought had happened had happened. Gareth Bale, the most expensive player in history, had scored on his debut for Real Madrid.
The grin said it all. As he stepped over the goalkeeper, finger raised, there was satisfaction. There was relief too: Real Madrid had needed his first goal for the club. They had been trailing 1-0 when he got the equaliser. If the scoreline was a surprise, the shock, by then, was that it was not more. Maybe it would be Bale's night after all. His hour, anyway. With 58 minutes gone, Carlo Ancelotti withdrew him. Cristiano Ronaldo put Madrid in the lead soon after, before Gio dos Santos equalised. On Sunday Bale will be on the covers once again.
He had been at the centre of the buildup, for good and bad. On the radio, they were discussing his chances of success. "Well," said the presenter, "the British never succeed do they?" Soon the names were flowing: Lineker and Aldridge and McManaman, but mostly the protests were waved away. There was a taste, too, of how the Barça-Madrid rivalry is played out in the partisan press.
During Madrid's open training session, Ronaldo had slid in to tackle him during a piggy-in-the-middle session. Soon after Bale had nutmegged Ronaldo, who made a gesture that said: "I missed the ball by this much". According to the Barcelona-based paper Sport, hamming up the first confrontation, he had gloated that he was "this" close to hitting the Welshman hard.
On the other side of the divide, there was excitement. Bale's free-kick technique was analysed, complete with diagrams and "science". They called it a "knuckleball". "Bale plays," the sports newspaper AS had declared. Ancelotti had said as much. What came as a surprise was that he did not just play; he started. It was just after nine o'clock when the news came in: Bale began on the right, Ronaldo on the left. The Welshman lasted just under an hour and as he departed, a goalscorer, he was whistled by the home supporters.
Yet it was the first time they had truly focused upon him. This is a small town. Only Monaco has had a team in the Champions League semi-final with a population below the 40,000 that live here. Real Madrid's front four had a combined cost of €261m. There was a €380m difference in the cost of the starting XIs. Only two players in the Villarreal side earn more than €1m a year; Bale and Ronaldo reportedly make 10 times that. Unemployed Villarreal fans have been given free season tickets.
But there was pride and this was a big night; one that they wanted to make about them too. Back in the top flight after a season away, Villarreal's three wins in three had put them top for the first time in their history. But they knew that this was a different proposition and nothing says La Liga like Madrid. Bars were full around the edge of the ground; Madrid shirts were few.
In the press office at El Madrigal, the list had grown. British journalists came to report the moment, but what colour there was here was brilliant yellow. The stadium was packed. More than half the town jammed in. Outside supporters had gathered: "It's coming, it's coming," they said excitedly. It was the Villarreal team coach that occupied them; the Madrid bus sneaked into the stadium, largely unseen, via the back entrance.
Bale strolled in front of Iker Casillas and behind Casemiro, white headphones wedged into his ears. He came out of the tunnel seventh, leaping to head an imaginary ball. Luka Modric was his port of call, a word of encouragement as the game neared. Ronaldo then approached, leaving the touchline by the bench to take up his position on the left; hands met, an embrace followed. It took 28 seconds for Bale to get his first touch.
But these were difficult moments. That touch was a simple pass for Isco. With his next, possession was lost. There was a slight nervousness to him; he was closed down quickly. Rarely did he get the ball and when he did swap wings, the inversion was instigated by Ronaldo: Bale responded rather than led. "They will do that from time to time," Ancelotti said, "but it was not a specific plan." When the first free-kick came, it was Ronaldo who took it: Bale had previously suggested as much during his presentation, describing Ronaldo as "the boss". When he did get the chance to cross, it was over-hit.
This was not as he hoped. Villarreal were in the lead and deservedly so; Madrid's outstanding performer was the goalkeeper Diego López. "For a long time we were better than Real Madrid," said the home manager, Marcelino. But then Modric's clever angled ball found Carvajal's run and he found Bale. Now, things had changed for Bale, if not always the team. A neat dummy and a dash up the line. Soon after he was heading through the middle, his shot blocked. Early in the second half, his shot sailed not far over. And then there was another dash up the line, beyond the full-back. This time he ended up crashing into the advertising boards.
He had looked strong and fast, but that was the last thing he did. Ancelotti took him off soon after. Ronaldo put Madrid in front, Dos Santos equalised. Villarreal had performed superbly, any other result would have been unjust. The yellow shirts rose again.
"Bale is a magnificent player but he has not had much preparation yet and I am sure he will get better," Marcelino said. "He will make Madrid very happy."
Ancelotti said: "It was a difficult game for everyone and he played well. He showed a good attitude out on the pitch. He scored a goal so I think he will be happy." Villarreal's fans were too.