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.

"Most complete"

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 of football? 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

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  • Guest - Ignacius

    Great Article.

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  • I too saw the over-the-top praise on Messi's 10-year anniversary at Barcelona and wondered why?
    Quite correctly you identified that in the popular imagination (and in the imagination of some in the mainstream press) Messi is the Wonder Boy Who Can Do No Wrong, and CR7 is a preening prima donna.
    This view of Ronaldo as the Black Hat began I believe at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Yes, there were many who didn't like his fancy stepovers and long-distance shooting, but the tide turned against him in the Portgual vs. England quarter-final when Wayne Rooney was sent off for stomping on Ricardo Carvalho. The English press went ballistic when video showed Ronaldo walking to the sideline and winking to the bench, allegedly as if to say, I got Rooney wound up and sent off.
    The ref has always said the Rooney-on-Ronaldo shove had nothing to do with the red card; it was because of Rooney's challenge on Carvalho.
    Still, the press wouldn't let go of it and it hurt his reputation. How? Well, indisputably he was the breakout player of the tournament and should've won the Young Play of the World Cup award. Instead, it went to. . . do you remember who?
    Lukas Podolski.
    Repeat: Lukas Podolski was picked over Cristiano Ronaldo as the breakout start of 2006! (And there was some hotshot from Argentina, too, what's his name? Um, Leonel Something or Other!)
    No need to trace Podolski's career in the decade since he was handed that honour.
    There you have it in a nutshell.
    And Messi can do no wrong. . . even when he's again in a Spanish court our money matters.
    That little accounting nightmare will not tarnish the reputation of the Teflon Boy, but if CR7 gets a parking ticket his reputation suffer some more.

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  • Guest - Nuno Gomes

    No offense Guest Leo, but this article wasn't trying to downplay Messi's achievement and shove Ronaldo down our throats.

    First off the article was about Ronaldo and said so in the title. So no excuse to be mad that they were praising Ronaldo here.

    Second off the pint of th article was tinting to everyone's attention that Ronaldo is overlooked or not given enough credit.

    You say give credit where credit is due. Well Ronaldo a lot of the time doesn't get the credit and messi gets too much credit(remember this World Cup, no one thought he would get that award except maybe people who don't understand th game).

    I'm sorry if I a me off a little harsh, but that comment annoyed me. Ronaldo deserves the credit that he has earned and not the criticisms based on likening messi more!

    Also I am glad to be bac at portugoal, it's been almost a year, I had some pressing things to take care of!

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  • Guest - John

    @ Leo

    And you my friend are a true Messi/Barca Fan ... Can not swallow what reality has happened in the last ten years. Don't get confused with perceived humbleness vs a true professional.

    I am sure deep down all you midget fans that .... Messi was super hyped by the team around him.

    Where as CR is mostly talked about his arrogance and not what he has achieved.... That's changing...CR will blow your Messi out of the water again this year.... Something CR has done.... But the blind refuse to admit due to the midgets perceived humbleness and the support task he has had for so long.

    And yes this is Portugoal...... Don't like it got to Argentinpessi.... Where they will provide a one eye view of your midget.... And pretend that Messi is all in in football .... Wel he's not. Peace

    And yes Forca Portugal and CR

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  • Brilliant read Nathan. I think it's only right there are a few of us who are (like you), tired and jaded by the hype machine that is a plague on most professional sports. What many people fail to realize is that futebol is no longer a "pure" sport, since it is now run by shady old men in $1000 suits who conduct business behind closed doors.

    These men (and I use the term loosely since my first choice descriptor would be "lizards"), are born and bred in business schools where they are taught to worship ideas such as "marketing", "revenue", "profits", "growth", "market capitalization" among others. When people like this get involved in professional sports, you can expect to see a lot of corruption, and this is precisely what we see with the fabricated Messi vs Ronaldo rivalry. They want to build a narrative where there is a "good" guy that people identify with, and a "bad" guy who people love to hate.

    Messi is a gem, and no one can question his greatness. But the reality is, he has only ever played on one team, and in one league. Ronaldo has replicated success on 3 different teams, and become the best player in each of these entities. You cannot shun this kind of quality. The other issue I have is with Messi's false image. He has shown to be a petulant child many times at Barca when calls don't go his way, or other star players take attention away from him (Ibrahimovic). This is not to mention the fact that he committed tax fraud in order to avoid paying millions in back taxes. I don't see any "good" in that.

    In Ronny's time at Man U and Madrid, I cannot ever recall an instant when a new star has been brought in and he has caused any primadonna issues. The fact is Ronny is the greatest, along with Messi (though edging the Argentine in my books), but he will never get his due because the system requires his evil image in order to sell tv revenues, tickets and jerseys. There's big money in watering things down for the masses.

    Cheers, and again Nathan, great work.

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  • Guest - Marco

    As with all other greats, they only become legends once their playing days are over and we begin to truly appreciate what they truly meant to their game. Both Messi and Ronaldo are unarguably 2 of the greatest talents the world has ever seen on the pitch but I absolutely agree that CR is the most complete and transformative athlete that the sport has ever seen. It is hard to argue greatest and legendary status in a sport that has evolved so much but we are absolutely watching the greatest of this generation in Ronaldo. Messi is part of a system that has begun to slowly show cracks as the rest of the world has picked up on their game but Ronaldo, on his own can transform and carry a team.

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  • Guest - Jerrold

    Speaking of Ballon D'ors, I think two of Messi's should have gone to Iniesta. Whatever Messi with Barca, Iniesta won as well, PLUS, he won back to back Euro cups and a world cup. He should have had two of those trophies. There is bias in Messi's accolades. Don't get me wrong he's AMAZING, but tile wise, there has been some favouring in their hand outs.

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  • Guest - Jao

    It's amazing how much publicity Messi is getting for reaching 250 goals in 10 years and yet no one mentions the fact that in just 5 years Ronaldo has scored 192 goals for Madrid. It's sad how bias the media is towards the two!

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  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    I couldn't have said it better. This article is literally everything I have wanted to say about the situation.

    from New Jersey, USA
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  • Guest - Nelson

    I agree that this is a great article. But I also sympathize with the Messi supporters who have posted. We should all give Messi his due respect as he is absolutely one of the all time greats.

    I actually thought the tide of public opinion was turning until the PK goal in the CL final last year. Sympathy regarding the "commander" comments made by Blatter, his outrageous performance in the playoff vs. Sweden and the ballon d'or win were resulting in more positive press up until that display in the CL final. And that is the issue with CR7, he is viewed under such a microscope that just about any "transgression" is amplified regardless of what precedes it. That PK celebration followed by a poor showing at the WC was all the ammunition the critics needed, and who could argue right?

    Having said that, CR7 may yet have his day in all of this if he can overcome his recent fitness issues for the long term. When he retires and the spotlight is off and a new "prima donna" whipping boy has their attention, the critics will start to pay more attention to the statistics along with CR7s team and individual accomplishments. My prediction is that eventually CR7 will get his due as the greatest of this generation.

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