As you know I don’t like getting wrapped up in unnecessary hyperbole, but we are living in a time of absolute legends, of whom our grandchildren’s grandchildren will tell tales of unfettered genius and unrivaled skill. Yes, I’m talking about the Tale of Two Footballers, the great sporting rivalry of our time, the main reason TV companies around the world are trying to convince you to spend some of your lunch hour watching the first leg of a Spanish Cup semi-final. Yes, I’m talking about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and unfortunately for our Portuguese friend, we really are all obliged to say their names in that order for all eternity. They are Mozart and Salieri, McEnroe and Borg, Pepsi and Coke, the USA and the USSR, Tesco and Sainsburys, er, Professor X and Magneto…
It’s easy to get carried away. For sure, they are the talismanic figures of their teams, Spain’s ridiculously massive Barcelona and Real Madrid (the Celtic and Rangers of La Liga, the Target and WalMart, etc). And fair enough, they both scored so many goals over the past couple of years that no other player in their league comes close, but that’s not to say…oh, let’s accept it, they are unbelievably great footballers. The 2012 Ballon d’Or ceremony recently was another clash between the two titans (oh, and Andres Iniesta, who many smart folk said really should have won it, though he of course doesn’t have the huge bags of goals but did win a European Championship with Spain, not that international football means anything any more). Ronaldo had an outstanding year, finishing 2011-2012 with a whopping 60 goals – sixty, and he’s not actually a striker – and a Spanish league title. But oh no, even though Barcelona didn’t win anything, Lionel Messi had to go and get 73. That is SEVENTY-THREE, in one season, a European record, and that is just for his club. Yeah, he’s not a traditional striker either. Then when he broke Gerd Mueller’s world record for number of goals scored in a single calendar year, well, Messi just had to get that fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or.
I like Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s easy to paint him as the villain, self-obsessed and sulky, and even more so when compared to the cuddly selfless mercurial goody two-amazing-shoes Messi. (I imagine Ronaldo standing there, fist clenched, “Messi!”) When he first broke out as a young lad at United, with his funny step-over and his waving of invisible yellow cards he was pretty easy to deride, but what a player he became. Ronaldo just gets better and better and better. And as he does so, Messi gets better and better and better and better. I often wonder if they spur each other on to reach new levels of greatness; I get the impression Messi would be doing this anyway. Their habit of collecting goals each week really is like an arms race. Ronaldo got a hat-trick at the weekend; so Messi scored four. (“Messi!”). In any other age, our Cristiano would be the legend. What can he do? I would drown my sorrows in hair gel too.