Yesterday, during my daily routine (a personal addiction, I confess) of scouring the net for the latest and greatest football news, I encountered a succession of articles in tribute to Lionel Messi’s 10 year anniversary as a Barcelona player. The ESPN FC blogs alone featured no less than five individual posts on the subject, with Yahoo news, the Daily Mail, and many other football tabloids running stories in honor of a decade of Messi’s influence on the sport of football.
Let me just say upfront that this editorial is not an invective against Messi, Barcelona, or any other individual entity or organization that praises Messi for what he is: a great footballer. Rather, it laments the underdeveloped capacity of the football community to truly appreciate what we call “greatness.” It’s not that we don’t talk about it. No, we are endlessly comparing statistics, measuring individual performances, even appraising the personalities of those players that we call “the greats” in an effort to determine who is the greatest.
In my generation, this discussion has been dominated by the comparison of Messi with Cristiano Ronaldo, and rightly so. Clearly, by every measurable indicator, they are “the greatest” players of this age. No other player comes even remotely close to expressing the footballing genius that they have made look so routine over the last 10 years.
This declaration comes as little surprise to the well-informed football fan. But over the years I’ve noticed a worrying paradigm for discussing the great Messi vs Ronaldo narrative. It’s not so much a comparison as it is a contrast between the two players, one in which Ronaldo permanently occupies the dark side, while Messi epitomizes the light. For every one of Messi’s personal or professional qualities, so the discussion goes, Ronaldo demonstrates the antithesis. For example, many have stated that Ronaldo’s achievements are tarnished by his self-indulgent behavior (dark side of football) while Messi is unaffected by this or any other corruption common to professional athletes. Or, that Messi’s style of play is graceful and carefree while Ronaldo employs brute strength and raw power to overwhelm an opponent.
Pondering this reality, and after reading through some of the articles on Messi yesterday, I came to a startling and tragic realization: the international community at large refuses to sufficiently appreciate what Ronaldo has brought to the game of football itself. It isn’t that they don’t recognize his individual accomplishments. No, they are forced to do that, because his trophy cabinet is as full as any other recognized hero of the sport, Messi included. It’s also not that they don’t recognize his talent per se. Again, they are obligated by his genius to pay tribute when it’s due. It’s that the footballing community consistently fails to appreciate what Ronaldo has done for the institution of football.
The age of Messi?
Yesterday, Messi was revered all across the world for what he has brought to the sport over the last 10 years. The past decade was regarded almost unanimously as the “age of Messi”, an era in which the diminutive Argentine has brought joy to the football crazed masses. Graham Hunter, an ESPN FC columnist and Barcelona supporter, went so far as to speak of a future without Messi (when he retires) as being “monochrome” and “entirely human.” Other columnists salivated over Messi’s gaudy statistics while being sure to remind readers that his modesty in the face of such accomplishment is simply unheard of in the sport.
Now, I cannot and will not speculate as to whether Messi is a better player than Ronaldo, nor should I due to my strong Portuguese bias. I’ve looked at every available statistic, read every opinion, and watched every YouTube video relevant to the debate and still cannot conclusively say who is “better”. What I can say is that the footballing community has created a caricature of “greatness” in the form of Lionel Messi, declaring him the standard by which we measure the worth of every other footballer, including Cristiano Ronaldo.
What is the true measure of greatness? It’s the title of this little rant, so I suppose that means I have to talk about it. And my argument is that it isn’t just statistics, although that plays a part. And it shouldn’t be about personality because that has absolutely nothing to do with whatever end product is generated on the field of play. My case is that truly great players revolutionize the way the game itself is played. They irrevocably transform the way we as fans think of the sport itself. The “institution”, as it were, must be thought of in a completely different way so as to accommodate the contribution that a “great” player has made.
If Messi has altered the landscape of football as a sport with his driving runs, mesmerizing footwork, and incomparable humility, then surely Cristiano Ronaldo has, at minimum, redefined what it means to pursue perfection in the face of relentless personal and professional criticism. I’ve wrote before that no other player has ever been subjected to more unsubstantiated accusations or blatant disrespect of his talent than Ronaldo. During the World Cup in Brazil, football pundits everywhere repeatedly (and unjustly) referred to Messi as the world’s best player even though Ronaldo rightfully holds the Ballon d’Or.
In spite of this, Ronaldo is often regarded by many to be the most complete player in the modern game. In other words, no other player embodies the state of consummate perfection quite like Ronaldo does and this is validated not by the press or by fans, but by his professional contemporaries, coaches, and closest friends. There is simply no word in the English language to properly describe the extent to which he has combined raw energy and visceral strength with striking finesse. You cannot say, “well, Ronaldo reminds me of….” He is the original. He has given birth to a prototype for the wing position that cannot be associated with anyone else, past or present.
In the United States, we have an honor called the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. The idea of this award is simply to honor the best player in the same manner as the Ballon d’Or in professional football. But the name of the award captures an idea that I think sums up Ronaldo’s career quite well: there is no other player who has been more valuable to whatever team they play for than Cristiano Ronaldo. Take Ronaldo out of Manchester United’s Champions League winning side in 2008 and what have you got? Take away Ronaldo’s 17 goals during last season’s Champions League campaign with Real Madrid. Do they still make the final? How about an even more vexing question: where would the Seleção be without Ronaldo? In every situation, no matter what league or team or competition, Ronaldo always carries his team.
Can the same be said of Lionel Messi? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know, but that isn’t what I’m trying to decide. What I’m trying to determine is whether or not it’s fair that Messi’s 10 years in the professional game have been regarded as a hallowed era while no such adulation has ever been expressed for Ronaldo. I’m questioning whether it makes sense to treat Messi as the very definition for greatness because he’s humble. I’m questioning whether or not the footballing community even appreciates Ronaldo’s influence on the game for anything more than the stat sheets that he’ll undoubtedly fill by season’s end.
Honest appreciation of true greatness
Do we, the collective supporters of the sport of football, appreciate the greatness of Cristiano Ronaldo? Do we truly grasp the significance of an age in which we are so fortunate to behold the unbridled intensity and sheer force of will that Ronaldo exerts on the game? Are we perhaps missing the importance of Ronaldo’s self-belief and confidence in his abilities that drives him to defy the limits imposed on ordinary footballers for generations?
Messi is a great footballer. In the chronicles of footballing history, he will be spoken of in the same way as his predecessor, Diego Maradona. He already is in many ways. Messi’s 10 years have brought joy to the footballing world, but I make the case that the love of Messi has unfairly shrouded the distinctive footballing legend that Ronaldo has so elegantly composed. If greatness is best demonstrated by those who change the way we think about the game, then the “Lionel Messi model ” is surely imperfect at best. Ronaldo has brought football to the world in a way that nobody else has. The love of this brand of football has changed my life, and I have the greatness of Ronaldo to thank for that.
by Nathan Motz