We are blessed to be living in an age graced by two of the finest footballers the world has known. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will go head to head once more this weekend. El Classico, the biggest match in Europe, may well decide the Spanish title. It usually does. History has of course elevated the collision of Barcelona and Real Madrid beyond that of everyday sporting theatre, but even once its wider social and political significance is stripped away, it retains a majesty impossible to resist. It needs no subplot to sustain its appeal, but it certainly has one this time.
Comparing great players is a staple topic of a million pub conversations but usually such discussions are hampered by the enormous changes wrought by the passage of time. Different eras cannot easily be bridged. Whether the heroes of the past could have impacted on the modern game is a question forever damned to remain a matter of conjecture. In the case of Messi and Ronaldo, we have no such constraints. Rarely, if ever, have two such masters of their art been almost exact contemporaries. We can make our assessment based on reality, on the dramas unfolding before us. Which then would we elevate to the higher plane?
Probably the most obvious difference between the two men is physical. Messi is short by today’s standards, compact and with a low centre of gravity which translates to astonishing balance. His touch is impeccable, the ball seeming to behave exactly as he wishes. Ronaldo meanwhile is a far more robust and muscular individual, relying more on strength and pace to destroy his opponent. This is perhaps reflected in the type of goals they each score. Messi has the more subtle technique, ghosting into space like a fleet-footed sprite, his trademark scoops and dinks over the goalkeeper; he barely leaves an impression in the turf. Ronaldo favours power. He is a force of nature, strong in the air and with a fearsome shot, regularly employed at set pieces. His free kicks are the stuff of legend, whipped cunningly over defensive walls or bludgeoned straight through with searing pace. Their respective feats are rewriting records. Their goalscoring exploits are prodigious in any sphere. Messi, now beyond sixty strikes this season alone; Ronaldo, whose overall contribution at Madrid stands at above one goal per game. This is all being achieved in one of the world’s strongest leagues when not on the biggest stage of all, the Champions League.
Barcelona have in recent years overwhelmed their rivals and this may in turn be relevant when comparing the merits of the two players. Messi is an acknowledged team man, particularly complementing his equally diminutive colleagues Iniesta and Xavi. They had the crucial advantage of having completed their footballing education together, rising through the age groups immersed in the Catalan club’s style and tradition. Ronaldo has no such relationship with his fellow dressing room occupants at Madrid. Often accused of showmanship, he occasionally appears the only inhabitant of his personal universe, shooting from ridiculous distances and angles when others are better placed. His individualistic approach clearly rankles with certain team mates, whom he is not above showing petulance and disdain. He can however inspire purely by belief and character, dragging his associates along in his wake, but with an ego to massage, could he comfortably slot into a more collective ethos?
A black mark against both Messi and Ronaldo would have to be their relative lack of international success. In this respect Messi loses out in comparison to his compatriot Maradona, though there can be little doubt that while World Cups might still confer immortality, the cosmopolitan world of modern club football means they are no longer the true pinnacle of achievement. Furthermore, Ronaldo is still to adequately counter the accusation that he tends to go missing in the biggest matches. What cannot be disparaged is the fitness record of either. They are fortunate to play at a time when talent is protected. The fate of a van Basten is unlikely to curtail their orbit, but the game is now faster and their stamina and conditioning only adds to their renown.
For the record, I am minded to come down on the side of Messi. It is frightening to think to what degree this little maestro might redefine his profession. His lack of posturing, his serenity at the eye of the storm, his presumed contentment within his genius, all bring a greater substance to his portfolio. I do have one nagging doubt before I can truly recommend his primacy though. Maybe to be hailed the greatest, it is necessary to remove yourself from your comfort zone. Ronaldo has not only flourished in Spain but has proved himself in the more prosaic world of the English Premiership. This ability to adapt his game, to adjust to the contrasting rhythms, might threaten to give him an edge. I will leave the reader to ponder that hypothesis.
I was too young to see Pele live and the footage of his brilliance is necessarily selective. Maradona’s virtuosity will forever be tainted in my eyes by his less palatable qualities. I have marvelled at players such as Zidane and Henry. Bergkamp, an artist for whom the pitch was his canvas, remains a personal favourite. We are sometimes guilty of finding too great a virtue in the past and allowing the present to pass us by. Yet the current duopoly makes this a special time to be a football fan. It is our privilege to be able to watch every moment of two great careers developing, without the need for memory to colour in the missing shades. In the end the comparison is as meaningless as all the others. Whichever you favour, make sure you relish the journey. It may be some time before we enjoy such riches again.