COMMENT: It’s often argued that the Argentine attacker is superior to his great rival because of his God-given ability, but the Portuguese should be lauded for his dedication
Felipe Scolari once said, “The only bad thing about Cristiano Ronaldo’s life is Lionel Messi. If it were not for him, Ronaldo would have won the Ballon d’Or five years in a row.” The Real Madrid ace has still managed to claim the last two awards, yet the common consensus seems to be that he remains an inferior talent to his Argentine rival, with ‘talent’ being the operative word.
The prevalent feeling is that while Ronaldo is a product of hard work, Messi has been blessed with a gift for the game. Certainly, Josep Maria Minguella, the man who brought Messi to Barcelona, believes that the Barcelona attacker was touched by the divine. The agent and former Blaugrana scout was so astounded by what he saw of the forward in videos sent to him from Rosario in 2000 that he immediately invited the then 13-year-old to Catalunya.
“When he was a child, Messi stood out as a very skillful player,” Minguella told Goal. “He didn’t have much physical strength but he had great ability. That’s why he has to be considered a natural talent.
“He has now improved in all aspects. When he arrived to Barcelona he was very skilled but he has adapted very well to the style here, grown up and reached a superior level to anyone else playing today. He’s now untouchable.”
Minguella could be considered biased; accused of having a natural tendency towards the player he is credited with discovering. But his view on the great Messi debate is shared by many players.
Atletico Madrid attacking midfielder Arda Turan believes that “Ronaldo is the best in the world, but only because Messi is from another planet”, while Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery says that “there is Messi, and then the rest”.
It must grate with Ronaldo that he is not considered on Messi’s level; that he is not as skilful. Ronaldo remains the same kid that so bedazzled Manchester United during a friendly in 2003 that the players begged Alex Ferguson to buy the Sporting Lisbon starlet.
The stepovers, the feints, the flicks and tricks – he retains all of those. However, he has chosen to prioritise honing his end product over his dribbling skills. He has elected to become the best he can by focusing on his striking ability, and now he is now one of the most complete attackers the game has ever seen.
Quite simply, there is nothing he cannot do. He boasts a blistering turn of pace, explosive power with either foot, the physical strength that makes him impossible to muscle off the ball and a Michael Jordan-like spring that allows him to hang in the air for what seems like eternity before unleashing his remarkable heading ability.
And yet, in the eyes of his detractors, he is not Messi. As Minguella underlines, the perception remains that Ronaldo has had to work hard to become a great player, while Messi was born one.
“Messi is a natural footballer,” he argues. “He has a lot of qualities in terms of technique, dribbling and skill, while Cristiano Ronaldo has to work much more on his physical condition and training to improve his play.
“It’s not easy to calculate who is better because there’s no system to measure quality and inspiration. We can only evaluate what each player produces on the field.”
In that sense, there is very little to choose between the two, as their above statistics for the 2014-15 season underlines. However, for some, character is a key factor in great Messi versus Ronaldo debate.
There is a perception that whereas Messi is quiet, unassuming and humble, Ronaldo is flash, self-absorbed and arrogant. Indeed, Manuel Neuer could not resist taking a swipe at Ronaldo’s perceived vanity after being shortlisted for last year’s Ballon d’Or alongside the Madrid man and Messi. “I’m not some guy who poses in his underpants,” the Bayern Munich goalkeeper remarked.
Dutch legend Johan Cruyff also perfectly illustrated the differing attitudes towards the top two players in the world by stating that Messi “is a treasure for football because he is role model for children around the world”.
By contrast, Ronaldo is viewed as a divisive, dislikeable influence both on the youth and his team-mates, with Zvonimir Boban going so far as to blame the 30-year-old for Portugal’s dismal first-round exit at last summer’s World Cup.
“It’s a sad thing that a team loses its identity because of an unbalanced captain, both for Ronaldo and for an entire generation,” the former Croatia international lamented.
Such a view seems unfair, given Ronaldo is the personification of the belief that one can achieve anything in life through belief and hard work. Sometimes it feels like he is looked down upon simply because he represents perspiration while Messi embodies inspiration.
The implication seems to be that Ronaldo has mastered the game through professionalism and dedication, while Messi is reinventing it, producing what 1970 World Cup winner Tostao calls “a mix of the real and the virtual”, which explains just why the Argentine is so often labelled a “Playstation footballer”.
As Javier Mascherano said during the week, “Football controls us; Leo controls football.”