The generation before me were blessed to be alive to watch Diego Maradona and Pele compete with each other for the title of the greatest footballer who ever lived. I must admit I felt pangs of jealousy when listening to tales of World Cups gone by and the heroics that these players displayed while inspiring their countries to victory. I was peeved that I wasnʼt around to see any of this play out in real time.
While my older friends and relatives were reliving actual memories, I was limited to watching highlight reels and nostalgic Sky Sports football shows in an attempt to understand just how good these players were.
Was it Maradona or Pele? That was always the argument. The fact that this is the typical question speaks volumes. This is a competitive footballing environment with the likes of Cryuff, Eusebio, Beckenbauer and Platini to name a few but Maradona and Pele are spoken about in a plane above this world class group.
My real time experience of these players is watching Maradona get banned from football for taking drugs and Pele becoming the face of a certain happy blue erectile dysfunction pill. It seems between the two best footballer in the history of the game, one canʼt get up high enough and the other canʼt get it up at all, allegedly.
As it happens, my generation have their own pair of superstars in a battle with each other to lay claim to ʻthe best in the worldʼ title. Maybe even the greatest of all time. Weʼll have to wait and see. I am, of course, referring to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
For the last long while, the Ballon Dʼor has been a two horse race between these two. It seems they lay down the gauntlet to each other every week. If you score two then Iʼll score three. What a pleasure it has been to a spectator to this football rivalry. These will be the stories Iʼll be able to tell when Messi and Ronaldo retire to the ʻFootballʼs Greatestʼ retrospective countdown shows on Sky Sports in the coming years.
The same standards apply here. The fact that the debate is always ʻwhoʼs better, Messi or Ronaldoʼ just shows how far ahead of their peers these players are. Nobody else even comes into the conversation.
I have to say that I have always leaned towards Lionel Messi but in recent years I have been struggling with the decision.
Both players have an incredible goal scoring record. Historically, a goal every other game was considered the ratio of a top class striker. Messi and Ronaldo have both raised the bar by scoring an average of one goal in every game. Messi is slightly under that and Ronaldo is slightly over.
Both are breaking records left right and center. Messi scored eight hat tricks in one season, he scored 96 goals in a calendar year, he is the all time leading scorer in the Champions League, the highest scorer in history for Barcelona and in la Liga and he is still just twenty-seven years old.
Ronaldo has broken the fifty goal a season barrier for four years in a row, he has twenty three La Liga hat tricks, the most goals in one Champions League competition, was the fastest player to 200 la Liga goals, has a penalty conversion rate of 93% and has the best goal to game ratio ever in la Liga.
These are absolutely phenomenal achievements at the top level of the sport. Messi and Ronaldo are two ʻonce in a generationʼ type players and they are plying their trade in the same league at the same time. They are, however, very different players.
When Iʼm asked who is my favourite player I always choose Messi. When asked who I think is better, then I find it very difficult to choose.
I would liken Ronaldo to a marauding apex predator of football galloping across the landscape devouring all in his path. He has everything. He has the perfect physique like that of Michaelangeloʼs statue of David. He has the power and physicality, the speed and acceleration, the technique, vision and the intelligence to dominate his opponents on the field. Heʼs a purpose built, perfectly honed, specimen like Ivan Drago in Rocky 4 only with a football.
He even invented a new way to kick the ball. He runs straight at it and punts the air valve head on resulting in an oscillating knuckle ball flight path that has bamboozled Goalkeepers since its inception.
I know it sounds like Iʼm gone a bit gay for Ronaldo here. All iʼm saying is that if he invited me in for coffee after a night on the tiles Iʼd say:
“One sugar and a dash of milk please Christy”.
Messi, on the other hand, does not possess the alpha male physical attributes that make Ronaldo so dominant. In fact, when he arrived at the Barcelona Academy, he was put on a growth hormone treatment just to get big enough to play with the bigger boys. Heʼs still a midget. He may be a midget wizard but a midget none the less. Imagine how small heʼd be without the hormone treatment.
Messi uses his skill, technique, speed of thought, close control, composure and creativity to apply himself to devastating effect and what a pleasure he is to watch. He glides with the ball seemingly attached to his boot and dribbles past multiple players multiple times to score with ease, often lobbing an onrushing Goalkeeper, which everyone whoʼs done it knows, is the most sublimely satisfying way to score. He is the best in the world at evading defenders but not so good at evading tax as it turns out. The investigations are ongoing.
If Ronaldo is the apex predator who will thrive in any environment then Messi is the specimen you would discover on the Galapagos Islands, belonging to a species that is absolutely perfectly suited to its environment. The Galapagos Islands in this case is the Barcelona football team. This team reinvented the short passing Tiki-Taka style of football and are mesmerizing to watch as they move around the field as one living organism.
Xavi and Iniesta are like the nervous system of this team and Messi is definitely the heartbeat. He is the embodiment of a footballing philosophy where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is no mean feat considering the individuals that make up this team. Lionel Messi as an individual is arguably the best footballer on the planet but as part of this all conquering Barcelona team he is absolutely unstoppable.
Messi joined the history books when he won his fourth consecutive Ballon Dʼor and I remember thinking that you may as well just etch his name onto the remaining spaces on the trophy for the next 10 years. Also I pondered what a travesty and injustice it would be if a player of Ronaldoʼs talent would only feature on it the once.
Luckily Ronaldo has won it twice more since. He won it in 2013 and deservedly retained it for 2014. In the tit-for-tat exchange between the two best players on the planet, the score stands at Messi 4 and Ronaldo 3 for Ballon Dʼors. I think this score accurately reflects the rivalry between the players. Messi may be just a little bit better.
Now, I rarely get involved in the Messi/Ronaldo debate. Itʼs grand for having a few beers watching El Classico with your friends but itʼs impossible to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Both parties usually leave the conversation with exactly the opinion that they arrived with and agree to get another pint and talk about Liverpool and Man United instead.
They are different players with different attributes but they do have one thing in common. They are both setting new standards for the game and redefining the meaning of the term ʻworld classʼ.
I am just delighted that Iʼm here to witness this rivalry in real time and that itʼs unfolding as part of my life. I will never get bored of watching these two geniuses inspiring each other to greater heights week after week and season after season.
So if you see me out in the pub for an El Classico, please donʼt ask me whoʼs better. Ask me something more interesting like who would I rather be, Messi or Ronaldo? My answer to that would undoubtedly be Cristiano Ronaldo. He seems to be living the high life all year round and I wouldnʼt mind a getting in on that. I reckon heʼs breaking records for rupturing senoritas up and down the Spanish coast too but FIFA donʼt keep track of those statistics.
Ticaboo Ronaldo, for this year you are the man with the golden balls. Enjoy.
by Bill Keane