In 2005, when Lionel Messi came to the world stage at the U-21 World Cup which his country, Argentina, won by beating Nigeria in the final, the world knew immediately that a great star and potential legend was being unveiled who would rule the game for years to come. Great legends before him would have remarked, “Here comes another rare one.” Diego Maradona, one of the greatest superstars of the beautiful game and of the same nationality as the young Messi, said of him, “I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius.”
Two years before that U-21 tournament, in 2003, a certain Portuguese teenager, Cristiano Ronaldo, was unveiled by Manchester United under the great coach, Sir Alex Fergusson. Though he was a very promising young footballer, he came with less hype and less expectation from the football world, at least not as much as Messi. But Ronaldo is not here to play second fiddle. His huge football success story as it stands today is simply phenomenal, his records matching and in some ways rising above those set by past legends of the game. Football will never forget him as some of his goal scoring records may be with us for decades to come the way he is extending them. Fifty years from now when Cristiano would be in his old age, he would still be a celebrated icon of the beautiful game, possibly with a well-recognised award named after him the way the Puskas Award was named after Ferenc Puskas, the prolific Hungarian striker of the 50s who verbally claimed to have scored more goals than Pele, the all-time Brazilian legend whose career had well over 1,000 goals to his name.
This comparison in class between these two great players, Messi and Ronaldo, has generated lots of gist in football circle in recent time as both are being labelled the “greatest” by their respective admirers and fans. To make a pass at this ensuing argument here without necessarily drawing an ultimate conclusion, there has to be a wholistic view in scope and time frame, profiling the exploits of football greats of both present and past generations. Football has produced several legends of the game whose legendary status got confirmed by a number of factors such as results for club and country, the art of the game, influence commanded on the pitch, consistency, individual brilliance, versatility and completeness as a player, goal scoring and creation etc. To really be fair and objective, only cumulative points from all these aspects can make any of the legends the greatest of all.
For example, goal scoring prowess alone can’t make a player the greatest. Otherwise, Germany’s legendary striker of the 70s, Gerd Muller, would have been. Another legend by the name, Alfredo Di Stefano, who shone so brightly in the 50s and 60s winning five European Champions Cup, now known as UEFA Champions League, with Real Madrid, certainly earned his inclusion in any list of all time greats. But there is less argument about him greater than his contemporary Pele of Brazil than the comparison between Ronaldo and Messi today. The reason is simple, Pele’s cumulative points based on the aspects above seemed higher than Di Stefano’s, arguably higher than any of the legends. The great Brazilian is football’s textbook, the all-round excellent performer who fell behind in no aspect of the round leather game.
I will liken Di Stefano to Cristiano Ronaldo for a number of reasons. First, both are Real Madrid legends and masters of the UEFA Champions Cup or League. Both are prolific goal scorers, terror for the opponents and courage for their teammates. But both never proved their legendary mettle at the World Cup though Ronaldo has one last chance to change that narrative this summer at Russia 2018. Most of the legends are so because they are World Cup greats winning it for their country or playing a dominant role in an extraordinary outing for their nation. Puskas, Eusebio, Pele, Berckenbaur, Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane, all put up a stellar performance at one World Cup or another winning or nearly winning the trophy for their country. We never saw Di Stefano show at all at the World Cup for some unfortunate reasons. We are also yet to see the real Ronaldo show or even Messi to the level of their capacity: Though the two have been at the semi-final and final of the World Cup respectively, they have not yet stamped their name on a World Cup tournament as much yet like Garrincha did in 1962, Mario Kempes in 1978, Paolo Rossi in 1982, Romario in 1994 and Ronaldo Da Lima in 2002. With three appearances already at the World Cup for each of them, Cristiano and Leo need Russia 2018 to really push their claim as greatest of all.
Claiming all-time best in football without exploits at the World Cup is like claiming to be the all-time best in athletics without achieving at the Olympics, or claiming to be the best in tennis without being impressive at the Grand Slams. Now, achieving does not necessarily mean ultimately winning it. Puskas, Eusebio and Cruyff did not, but the story of 1954, 1966 and 1974 World Cup cannot be told without a good mention of them.
The excuse that Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t done and may never do well at the World Cup because the Portuguese team of his time is not strong is in actual fact countering his claim and buttressing why he and Messi may have a couple of superstars above them on football’s list of legends. First of all, a team good enough to win Euro Cup 2016 without a stellar performance from its main star is not that bad. Secondly, Diego Maradona captained a not-so-spectacular Argentine team to the World Cup in Mexico 1986, a team not as star-studded as any of the three Messi has been part of, in 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cup. No player has ever carried a team on his shoulder like Diego did the Argentina national team of 1986. Without him in that team, Argentina would most likely have lost to a formidable England in the quarter finals. But he put up such a show that it is said till today that he singlehandedly won the World Cup for his country. Diego helped Argentina win that Word Cup making every gift and attribute of his to bear: His dribbles, passes, runs, his selfless leadership and vision on the field, his charge to his team mates, his fear by the opponents, his stirring the fans, his goals and assists, his stocky stature hard to dispossess, his magical left foot causing havoc in opponents’ territory, and even his hand, sorry, ‘the hand of God’ thumping in a goal. It was the height of individual brilliance and dominance in the history of the sport. If Maradona had captained a lowly island to that World Cup, he would have made a significant impression, maybe might not have won it.
Looking at other factors for a much fairer judgment, one can zero in for a moment on the current rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo, both players on five Ballon d’Or awards each. Give it to Cristiano, he is an exceptional athlete who keeps getting better at his sport. He has uniquely shown what dedication and diligence can achieve in the field of talents. From a one-way right winger when he first came to Manchester United, he has grown his potential to a world class, world dominating level, his most outstanding aspect being able to put himself in the scoring position and putting the ball behind the goalkeeper with deftness — well taken and directed shot, tap or header from close or far range. What prowess!
But football is broader than the ability to score goals. What about creativity? What about playmaking? What about the dexterity to create goals with superior vision weaving perfect passes to teammates, which Messi is a master at? What about dictating the pace of a match with effectiveness? What about being a “god among mortals” on the field of play with exceptional runs and moves? The beautiful game of football, for it to remain beautiful, must be judged by all these factors and more. Based on assessment, in the aspects Ronaldo is best like goal scoring and finishing, Messi is right behind him, but in some of the aspects Messi is best at, Ronaldo is nowhere to be found, or not just in the mould. One can begin to have an idea who will have a higher cumulative score between the two superstars.
The argument in favour of Cristiano as the greatest of all is founded on some good laurels and records he has broken, but are they all ultimate laurels and records? Most of the records are centred around goal scoring but he hasn’t neared the 1, 200 number of goals Pele had. He hasn’t scored 100 goals in a season like the Brazilian. Regarding laurels, Ronaldo’s legendary status was confirmed after the 2016 Euro Cup which his country Portugal won, but Mitchell Platini also led France to win the same Euro Cup in 1984 with a far more convincing performance, a feat sandwiched by two semifinal placements at World Cup 1982 and 1986, earning him the Ballon d’Or for three consecutive years, 1983, 1984 and 1985. Ronaldo’s brightest mark is the Champions League which he has stamped his authority on with four gold medals so far, but Phil Neal, full back for Liverpool in the 70s and 80s, did the same winning the trophy for the club four times, scoring in two of the five finals he played. Ronaldo may eventually equal or surpass the five Champions Cup trophy record of Di Stefano before he hangs his boots, but will that make him all-time best? Does that make him a better dribbler, passer, schemer, visionary on the field, influence on his teammates and overall representation of what the beautiful game stands for than Diego Maradona, who didn’t lag so much behind in records and laurels as well?
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