13th July 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
They are the two greatest players of their generation: that much is an undisputable fact. They are both also among the best footballers to ever lace up a pair of boots, with the astonishing ability to break record after record with a regularity that makes such achievements appear like menial quotidian chores.
And for the mere fact that they exist within the same era, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will forever be inextricably bound to one another, whether they like it or not.
As a footballing public, we would be lucky to see one player of such otherworldly quality strut his or her stuff within a period of decades. But that we get to enjoy the immense talents of Messi and Ronaldo together, week to week on opposing sides of one of football’s greatest club rivalries, is a fact for which we should be eternally grateful.
Yet it seems many are too caught up in the need to compare and contrast the two living legends, to fully appreciate the scale of what they have achieved, and continue to achieve.
In a modern world in which information is limitless and available instantly at the tip of our fingers, it is completely understandable how we can easily become caught up in a pre-occupation over quantifying everything we see before us – everything must be measured and placed into a definitive ranking.
And football does not escape this compulsion to put a number next to every person, event, team or occurrence; the rise in prestige and popularity of individual awards such as the yearly Ballon d’Or has served only to popularise such pursuits.
So it stands to reason that, when two players with such vast ability as Ronaldo and Messi are simultaneously at the height of their powers, we want to discern who is the better, there must be a number one and a number two – we must measure the immeasurable.
But there is no definitive metric to apply when judging the relative merits of two footballers. Sure, we can look at goals, assists, key passes and dribbles; we can assess minutes on the pitch and areas of influence. But the beautiful game is so often won and lost within the intangible moments; the unpredictable ricochet of a bouncing ball, or team’s ability to adapt to weather conditions better than their opponent.
This leads to so many people picking a side and backing their bias with militaristic aggression: you’re either Team Ronaldo or Team Messi. No argument could sway one side into believing the other might be superior, but that doesn’t stop them trying.
So when we come to a summer in which both players are competing in separate international tournaments, the chance to stock up on ammunition for the debate is presented.
After a long and arduous 2015-16 season – in which both players experienced success at club level – Ronaldo and Messi each captained their nations in major international tournaments, with Ronaldo leading Portugal into the UEFA European Championship in France, and Messi wearing the armband for Argentina at the centenary edition of the Copa América in the USA.
Messi carried a minor injury into the Copa América which kept him out of Argentina’s opening game, but the Barcelona man came off the bench during the second game against Panama and helped himself to a hat-trick. Argentina were off and running from that point, swatting aside Bolivia 3-0 and trouncing Venezuela 4-1 and the USA 4-0 to reach the final.
In a repeat of the previous year’s final, Chile defeated Argentina on penalties after the match ended 0-0, with Messi missing his shootout spot-kick. The 29-year-old’s disappointment led to him announcing his retirement from international football, having never won a major trophy with the Celeste.
Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 campaign ended on a much more positive note. Despite drawing all of their group games against Iceland, Austria and Hungary to finish third in the Group F standings, Fernando Santos’ men qualified for the knockout stage, where they beat Croatia in extra-time, Poland on penalties and Wales 2-0 to reach the final against host nation France.
Ronaldo scored two crucial goals in the final group game against Hungary and bagged another goal and an assist against Wales in the semi-final. But the Real Madrid superstar was below his best against Iceland, Austria and Croatia, and was particularly wasteful against Poland in the quarter-final.
Then, with less than 25 minutes of the final played, Ronaldo had to be substituted following an injury caused by Dimitri Payet’s overenthusiastic challenge.
With Ronaldo cheerleading from the side-lines, Portugal went on to complete an unlikely triumph, beating France 1-0 in extra-time to secure their first ever European Championship.
Almost as soon as the final whistle blew, Ronaldo supporters were claiming that Portugal’s success represented another blow struck in the battle for supremacy against Messi. The Portuguese had succeeded where the Argentinian had failed, in winning a major trophy with his national side.
But when you examine Messi’s individual performances at the Copa, you find that the diminutive Barça wizard was largely excellent, scoring five goals from five appearances and acting pretty much as his nation’s sole attacking threat in the final, with – as was the case in both last year’s Copa América final and the World Cup final in 2014 – Gonzalo Higuaín failing to take advantage of a guilt-edged opportunity in front of goal.
Whereas Ronaldo, understandably considering the long season he’d played in helping Real Madrid win the Champions league, struggled to consistently find his club form for Portugal at the Euros. As brilliant a captain as he’d proven himself to be, his footballing performances were only of the highest standard in flashes.
Does the fact that Higuaín missed another great goal-scoring chance make Messi a worse player? And does the fact that Portugal, with their superbly organised defensive unit, managed to see off France without their best player, make Ronaldo better?
The truth is, both Ronaldo and Messi were just as good the day before their respective finals as they are the day after; two of the greatest players to ever kick a ball. The misfortune of one does not elevate the other, and vice versa.
It is only our own need to impose a hierarchy on the two men which sees us giving undue credence to relatively unrelated occurrences.
It is absolutely conceivable that neither Ronaldo nor Messi would’ve quite reached the heights that they have without one another. Their drive and desire to be the best has inspired each to try to outdo the other, to achieve greater things on an individual, club and international level.
But whenever one of the two wins a certain award, scores a spectacular goal, or lifts a trophy, it should not count as a knock against the other.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are two phenomenal footballers, and rather than seeking to separate them, they should be appreciated and celebrated together. Otherwise, only when they retire will we realise what we missed while we were too busy keeping score.