The Messi vs Ronaldo Debate is the Low-point of Modern Football Conversation

Like the mythological snake, Ouroboros, the self-consuming egos of Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi have devoured Portugal and Argentina’s World Cup chances. And we, the fans, are responsible.
Let’s talk. Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli.

For those who only watch football when the World Cup rolls around, Russia 2018 was supposed to be the final showdown of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Media-propagated rivalry was meant to reach its climax with the duo chasing the opportunity to be labelled as the undisputed GOAT (greatest of all time).

Having written my matriculation examination essay about this opportunity, I may have to raise my hand and admit that I bought into the narrative as well. Like so many others, I just wished it was meant to be. After the countless hyperbolic and profound articles that have revolved around them and their perceived rivalry, it felt like this summer could be the moment when they reached their zenith and played through football. The end of one of their relationships with the World Cup could have involved two golden human figures holding up the Earth.

In the end, however, their relationship with the World Cup (might have) ended in a drag as both of them ripped captain’s armbands off their arms—just hours apart from each other—before heading over to the airport. Both of their journeys had been stamped by frustration, seeming like the expectations, the focus and the rivalry had become a burden too heavy to carry.

With all the spotlight on their main men, Portugal and Argentina stifled, suffering from an apparent Zlatan Ibrahimović syndrome.

It’s not ideal to spend the lion’s share of the pre-World Cup year experimenting for the finest Messi-centered system. After all the work, all that was left was puffed cheeks, desperate dribbles, hopeless glares and unlikely-to-reach-its-target long shots. Argentina was a harrowing mess and it’s difficult to imagine it would have been such a mess if it weren’t for Messi’s ubiquitous presence. Too much was laid on his shoulders.

Having been baptized as capable of ending Ronaldo dependencia during the tournament’s prelude, the same now applies to Portugal and Ronaldo as well. Technically, without his goals Portugal would have finished dead last in their group—behind Spain, Iran and Morocco.

It’s not what we expected, but it’s partly our fault it happened. The situation reminded me of something Alfred Hitchcock said during a 1962 exchange between him and Truffaut (transcripted in a 1966 book Hitchcock/Truffaut). As the Master of Suspense reminisced about the movies he almost took on but never did, there was a predominant rationale behind most of his choices. The preponderance of those scripts had premises that were just simply too good. He feared that the finished film would never live up to its expectations.

Both Ronaldo and Messi more or less dragged their respective nations to the World Cup stage.

Whereas we all know how the troubled Argentina depended on Messi and how their amulet rescued them by bagging a much-needed hat-trick against Ecuador in their final qualifying match, Ronaldo too was directly involved in more goals than any other player in the European edition of the qualifiers: Portugal having lost just one match during the qualifying process, a match in which Ronaldo did not play.

Fresh out of qualification, fans around the world began to highkey entertain themselves with the thought of one of them conquering the World Cup. Their magic was so overwhelming that, for a moment, the public did not pay too much attention to minor details, such as their teammates. As if someone asked Jean-Paul Sartre to write Nausea with a pencil while being sober in a dorm room filled with eight-year-olds. Possible? Yes, but pretty fucking difficult.

After the first moments of heat, Madridistas and Culés got busy arguing which member of the duo had been blessed with finer second fiddles. Los Blancos supporters were understandably keen to bring up the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Agüero, Éver Banega and the reinvented Nicolás Otamendi, while the Stans of Messi FC pointed out Portugal’s collective cohesion with Bernardo Silva and company.

As I predicted in March, the realization of World Cup triumph would not have just required an enormous amount of luck but Portugal’s (and Argentina’s) talisman would have also had to defy the laws of physics.

To some extent, Ronaldo managed to do just that by scoring four of his side’s six goals despite missing a self-acquired penalty against Iran. The hat-trick performance against Spain especially deserves a seat at the same table with those Netherlands and Sweden showings, as Ronaldo produced a spectacle worth writing cover stories for, overrunning and outmaneuvering some of the game’s finest (ever) defenders, Spaniards who should’ve already known his style by heart. It was a showing the 2011–12 edition of Cristiano would’ve been proud of.

In the following game against Morocco, Ronaldo scored a lone strike so good New York Times dedicated a whole article to it alongside Toni Kroos’ free kick. The way he took a step back to lose a marker there left the defender impotent and flummoxed by a peach of a body swerve.

But as the tournament wore on, Ronaldo’s gunpowder began to get wet. Perhaps the turning point to his eventual downfall was the moment when he saw his penalty saved by Iran’s Alireza Beiranvand, even though he tried to surprise the goalkeeper by striking the penalty to his right, instead of his evidently near-unfailing left.

Uncannily, Ronaldo couldn’t cope with the disappointment but started to force things to happen and grew increasingly frustrated. The dastardly gestures to his teammates, supercilious glares and despairing long shots, they were all there. The whole sequence of chaos was crystallised in the episode that could have easily had the man sent off, having caught Iran’s Morteza Pouraliganji in the face with a flailing arm.

As Ronaldo looked on, the referee Enrique Cáceres reviewing the challenge from different angles for a good 30–40 seconds, his eyes looked as if they devoured by fear and the knowledge of having let feelings get the better of him. In the end, as we all know, Ronaldo was not sent off but the yellow card acted as a testament to this torrid evening.

The penalty miss, however, had more far-reaching repercussions. Not only did Ronaldo potentially lose a golden opportunity of grabbing any individual silverware, but Portugal also had to face Uruguay in the round of 16 instead of Russia. The match against Uruguay was a difficult one for Portugal even though for the first time, in the whole tournament, Seleção—kind of—outplayed their opposition.

Nevertheless, the Uruguayans managed to control the game by getting an early goal and then forcing the Portuguese to roll the sphere outside of their shape. Once again, Ronaldo desperately tried to invent something out of nothing but failed to breach Uruguay’s gritty defense, outnumbered and man-marked time after time.

Uruguay’s low block reduced Portugal’s opportunities to utilize that surprisingly blistering pace of his. Hence Portugal crashed out. 1–2.

“Over the years, I have also realized that it is not good to let your dreams become an obsession. It increases the pressure and reduces the possibility of reaching them.”

— Somewhere in the middle of actual goats and Argentina jerseys, Messi found time to admit this in an interview with Paper

The aforementioned troubles represented the wider picture of Messi’s and Ronaldo’s situations. In the World Cup, they both appeared to be more than just frustrated with the lack of delivery from defence and midfield, and their respective national teams failed to show that they were more than just their captains.

“I just got another free coffee because I bet on this question! I get the coffee. Thank you for the question,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos wryly joked at a news conference when he was questioned about the team’s dependence on Ronaldo before the Uruguay match.

One could tell he was getting tired of the questions about Cristiano. And it was sad, to be honest.

Prior to both Argentina’s and Portugal’s matches, all the talk revolved around Messi and Ronaldo. It was about them, not about the nations or twenty plus other guys performing on those nights. No wonder, they started to feel enervated.

During the national anthems before Argentina’s 3–0 defeat to Croatia, Messi melodramatically clutched his forehead. As if Santiago Muñez or Alex Hunter was preparing to take on Juventus while attempting to nurse a migraine in total isolation.

It must be weary, for every party involved, to know that no matter what you do on the pitch, the failures and successes would always be personified to one person.

As Messi was forced to stare down the barrel of a falling dream, his expressive behavior took a turn for the worse. With his shoulders slumped in dejection, he repeatedly stared at his shoelaces at the moments of setbacks, signalling to his teammates “I don’t feel so good”. This inspired a plethora of experts to accuse him of not being a proper captain.

Who knows, perhaps Javier Mascherano could have been a more competent captain, but comparing Messi’s leading abilities to Ronaldo’s ones was once again a low and lazy effort to compare the two. All the same, the criticism aimed at Messi propelled the Argentine to pantomime a half-time team talk in the tunnel in their decisive group stage match against Nigeria.

“Why didn’t he do that in the dressing room?” one might wonder. The answer is simple. There weren’t any cameras in the dressing room. Messi had to do it in the open, so that his speech wouldn’t go unnoticed. He was letting the comparisons between him and Ronaldo affect him.

During the tournament, the whole Messi vs Ronaldo debate seemed so archaic yet typical to modern football conversation.

As we uncover more and more information on the importance of the game’s different phases, we should already sense that one player won’t bring the good weather in an international tournament like the World Cup. Club football is different because there the differences between top teams are so negligible and insignificant that one generational talent can actually make the difference.

But the differences between Portugal and Argentina are so complex and vast that we shouldn’t even be talking about them in a same sentence.

Would it have been rational to define one’s legacy over a sample of four games?

Luck and luck plays such a huge part in the World Cup. First, a single team can outdo their xG, the metric that shows the expected goals if the particular match were to be played a million times, a couple of times in a row and win a few games with a bounce. Second, you don’t get to choose the team you represent unless you want to represent Qatar.

During sleepless nights I ponder whether Cristiano winning the World Cup with Brazil would have closed the debate. I don’t mean to take anything away from Neymar, but it is obscure and telling of our culture that had Brazil attained the world championship, his odds to capture the Ballon d’Or would have surged.

And then we often forget that Brazil have the luxury of benching Fernandinho, Marquinhos and Ederson. How is that comparable to sharing the moment of national anthems with José Fonte, Willy Caballero or Enzo Pérez? Portugal’s second biggest star, for example, is a benchwarmer at Manchester City.

Or what if Mohamed Salah had the name of Mohaméd on the back of his Les Bleus shirt, instead of Salah? Would he be a designated Ballon d’Or winner, then? And this is just hypothetical, whereas Messi’s situation isn’t as La Pulga had a legit option in Spain. What if he played for them? What if one World Cup and two European Championship victories stood on the lines of his curriculum vitae, alongside 32 club honours? Would there be any competition between him and Ronaldo? There’s about four questions worth asking.

What I mean to convey here is that this debate between Messi and Ronaldo was (and is) nonsensical, an oversimplifying product of our overly individualistic cult of personality, as a large portion of sports journalism/broadcasting is driven by feelings and clicks. In the modern world of new media, the chasing after black and white shades hangs upon us as heavily as the fear of alternative media. Yes, the analytical pieces are there but compare the covering of the perceived Messi–Ronaldo rivalry to that of the Russia–United States summit, which is set to be held in Helsinki on July 16.

The Messi vs Ronaldo debate is the low point of modern football conversation and it encapsulates some of the problems that continue to plague sports journalism.

For many, many journalists and members of the public, Messi and Ronaldo exiting the World Cup was a relief, more than anything else. The tournament’s curtain-raiser games and group stages had been filled with discussions of the possibility of them conquering the world in Russia. But for some, it felt comforting to see the duo depart the tournament. It is a breath of fresh air to have something else to talk about. Neither needs the World Cup. In fact, their simultaneous demise handed out a new intriguing chapter to their respective stories.

It is fascinating that perhaps the two greatest players of all time could not achieve the game’s pre-eminent prize, in their prime, at least. It is fascinating that these men end up being restrained by the same kryptonite, the same Achilles’ heel. That they could not conjure a single goal in a World Cup knockout game, despite attempting to do so forty-eight times in a combined 1,270 minutes.

Ronaldo lifting Portugal’s first-ever World Cup Trophy would have been iconic, there is no doubt about that, but also a bit tasteless from the perspective of future generations. Now, Messi’s and Ronaldo’s fate have a tragic edge to it and are engaging in that sense.

One of them was separated from a World Cup final by a blatant professional fall, whilst the other missed out on gold due to Gonzalo Higuaín’s failures and Mario Götze’s moment of Götze.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Isn’t it ironic how this was supposed to be the finest hour for Messi or Ronaldo, but how it seems plausible that Russia 2018 will now mark the moment when some of the ‘others’ finally caught up to the outliers’ league.

Deep into Russia 2018, it looked as if Ronaldo was going to pluck the Ballon d’Or as comfortably as Ivan Drago snatched Apollo Creed’s life, but since then things changed and now the torch is seemingly up for grabs: Half a year after Kaká’s retirement, a few months after Wesley Sneijder’s move to Qatar and international retirement, and some four years after Franck Ribéry’s international retirement and last Champions League goal. Just wow.

Once time passes and we get some perspective, we’ll realize it should’ve always been about the singularity of Messi and Ronaldo—not Messi vs Ronaldo.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.