An appreciation of the great rivalry of the modern era.
By Will Guthrie
In life, it’s only natural to want to compare, to choose sides – Coke or Pepsi, Xbox or Playstation, pineapple on pizza or being a buzzkill. In the modern era, one debate has relentlessly and tiresomely dominated football conversations – the Leo Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo debate. Or rather, the Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo debate. The time has come to end the petty arguments about who’s the better player and just be thankful that we’ve been blessed to see them both flourish from gifted prodigies into arguably the two greatest players who’ve ever lived. To do so, let’s put it this way; Messi is art and Ronaldo is science. You can absolutely have a life with both and loving one doesn’t exclude you from loving the other. Sometime in the next few years, we’re going to wake up and they’ll no longer be there, so it’s time to appreciate just what we have before it’s gone for good.
For a generation of football fans, it’s impossible to imagine football without either of them. They’ve both been prominent stars for the best part of 15 years, ever-present and consistently delivering exceptional performances, notably in big games. A perfect example was Messi’s masterclass against Liverpool in a 3-0 win at the Camp Nou in the Champions League Semi-Final first leg last season. Or Ronaldo’s stunning hat-trick for Portugal against Spain at the 2018 World Cup. The fact that both of these occurred with both players well into their 30’s underlines their longevity and consistency. In a sport where so many are over-hyped and fail to deliver, seeing these two reach their potential to such outstanding degrees deserves our gratitude.
Think back, if you can, to when you first heard about these two. Ronaldo had been signed by Manchester United FC as a replacement for David Beckham, not exactly small shoes to fill there, no pressure. Meanwhile, Ronaldinho, upon winning the Ballon D’Or as the world’s best player was asked “how does it feel to be the best player in the world?”, “I’m not even the best player at Barcelona” came the reply, alluding to the imminent arrival on the world stage of the much hyped Messi. Again, no pressure. The fact they not only developed into the world’s best players, but then raised the bar to new heights is testament to how important they actually are to each other, with Ronaldo’s record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid acting as the catalyst. They had always been compared but now, in the same league, they would go head to head for titles every year. Their individual desire to be the world’s best is what spurred each to new heights, knowing that when one upped the ante, the other would have to match it and then some.
Like Batman and the Joker, they became intertwined, one’s actions directly impacting the other, driving them to keep upping the stakes, while as the audience, we wondered whether there was any limit to how brilliant they could each become. Initially, the narrative was of two completely different characters, who detested each other, one a preening show pony, the other a quiet genius. However, over the years that’s been proven false. You sense there’s genuine admiration for each other, an acknowledgement they each would not have reached the heights they had without the other. Witness recent comments following Ronaldo’s move to Juventus FC about how they miss playing each other, perhaps knowing that the fire burns a little less intensely nowadays. Or at a Ballon D’Or ceremony, where Ronaldo encouraged his young son Cristiano Jnr to go say hello to his great rival, telling Messi “he loves to watch videos of you.” It’s not hard to find instances where they have shown nothing but great respect for one another.
Perhaps the reason for the all the debate is down to how different they are as players. Ronaldo is the body that science built. At the age of 34 he transferred to Juventus where a medical revealed he has the body of a 23-year-old. He has transformed himself from wiry winger to powerhouse forward with an unrivalled and obsessive work ethic. The most common trait discussed by ex-teammates when referring to Ronaldo is his thirst to improve and unparalleled drive to keep his body in peak physical condition. His highlights are a sight to behold for fans of incredible athleticism. Whether it’s power-driven shots such as the infamous freekick he scored against Portsmouth or the outrageous bicycle kick he scored against Juventus that earned him a standing ovation from the Juve fans, or the towering header he scored where he is quite literally at crossbar height, Ronaldo’s phenomenal athleticism combined with his incredible skills have made him a world champion and a marvel of sports science.
None of this is to say that Messi isn’t a formidable athlete with an elite work ethic, far from it. With Messi, it’s just not something you hear about as much, probably because what you do hear about is his otherworldly skill level. Often compared to an alien, a glance at his highlight reel will have you genuinely wondering if this is the case. Whether it’s his audacious chip of 6-foot 4-inch World Cup winner Manuel Neuer in a Champions League Semi-Final (after sending fellow World Cup winner Jerome Boateng off for the papers), or his near carbon copy of Maradona’s famous halfway line dribble World Cup goal against England, Messi has made an artform of making the impossible seem easy. Watching him wriggle away from a mob of defenders, ball seemingly glued to his feet before an artistic flourish of his left foot sees the ball finish in the bottom corner of the net is as spellbinding as it is common.
There’s an old saying that a wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t applicable here. When two such impossible forces collide and manage to leave with reputations not only intact, but enhanced, all that can remain is respect. Especially from those of us lucky enough to see it. The impact these two have had on world football has been nothing short of seismic, two athletes we’ll continue to talk about for decades to come. In the end, that has to be more deserving of gratitude, rather than debate. It’s probably best summed up by a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography, “In all the times I’m asked, I find it impossible to definitely say which is the better player because to relegate either to second place would feel wrong.”