The Final Showdown
Last battle of the GOATs?
The biggest hindrance to continued success in competitive sports, even for the most talented players, is motivation. A great player can win, but after that, what next?
Which is why most of the true greats had something to drive them on. Michael Jordan had to get past the Celtics and the “Bad Boy” Pistons. In a GOAT career, LeBron James’s defining moment is his chase down block against the 2016 Golden State Warriors, one of the best basketball teams ever assembled who also won four rings during LeBron’s era.
And when these greats don’t have a bogey team to inspire them to their best, a nemesis serves just as well. In basketball, Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson was that rivalry. However, an even bigger rivalry exists in Football; the titanic battle of Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo for 15 years.
On Thursday, we’ll finally get to see them play again as the Riyadh all-star team face a star-studded PSG side. But how do we appreciate these geniuses for how much they’ve pushed each other to greatness (and thoroughly entertained us in the process)?
How the rivalry began
When Kaka won the Ballon d’Or in 2007, it capped off a glorious year for the Brazilian attacking midfielder who had inspired AC Milan to UEFA Champions League glory against Liverpool. More pertinent, however, is the identity of the two runners-up to the Brazilian: a certain Mr. Cristiano Ronaldo and a Señor Lionel Messi.
The next year, Ronaldo won the prestigious award after inspiring Manchester United to an English Premier League and UCL double, scoring 42 goals along the way.
Not to be outdone, Messi won the 2009 Ballon d’Or after inspiring Barcelona to a historic treble. By this time, Ronaldo was a Real Madrid player after making a then world record move from Manchester United.
The El Clasico years
Ask any football fan what the biggest club fixture is, and the overwhelming response will be the ‘El Clasico’
The true football greats like Pele, Maradona (may they both rest in peace), Zidane belong on the top ten list of the greatest ever players to kick a football, but their genius had not yet been directly tested season after season, game after game, often in direct conflict with each other.
Ronaldo’s Real Madrid move meant that for the first time, the two greatest players in the world were also playing for the two most prestigious club sides in the world. With the weight of sporting &social history between Real Madrid and Barcelona as well as the contrast in styles between the two superstars, interest in the El Clasico was poised to be at an all-time high.
And so, it proved. For eight years, the two rivals battled each other, breaking and setting new records. Most importantly however, they elevated the game of football into a territory no other footballer has managed to reach yet.
Of their many amazing feats, their yearly dominance of the Ballon d’Or award is unlikely to ever be repeated. From 2008-2017, they each won the award five times and for many, Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid directly led to the dilution of their titanic rivalry.
Future Ballon d’Or hopes
There is a regrettable, growing tendency in sports to either undersell the contributions of players when they start to decline, or to deny them altogether. Cristiano Ronaldo has found himself in this position after an ill-advised interview released just before the 2022 World Cup, a regrettable World Cup showing, his eventual move to Al-Nassr, and most damning, how much better Manchester United have performed since he left.
As it stands, the Portuguese legend has clearly won his last Ballon d’Or, but for Lionel Messi, odds of winning at least one more Ballon d’Or win are easily attainable after he inspired Argentina to World Cup victory last December.
If Argentina’s captain can win the Champions League with PSG this year, the Ballon d’Or gap between the two GOATs will increase to three. Can you really bet against that happening?
For most of their careers, the two players have been compared, not just because of their anomalous statistical output, but for how different their public personas are.
Ronaldo is the über-confident superstar who has amassed the largest following on social media. His detractors describe him as “arrogant and overconfident” while his fans play up how hard he has worked all his career to maximize his talent.
To get a measure of the impact he has on football, go out to any football pitch, and watch for the celebrations whenever a goal is scored. More often than not, you’re going to see the “SIUUUUUUUU” that he has become synonymous with.
Lionel Messi on the other hand, is seen as the more private superstar who prefers to do all his talking on the pitch with his prodigious talent. His goalscoring record is ridiculous for a player who creates that many chances for his teammates.
His Ballon d’Or haul and recent World Cup win have, in the eyes of many, finally separated him from his rival, an opinion which we share as well.
Whichever of the two GOATs you support, their time is coming to an end as younger superstars like Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland come into their own. As we tune in to see them play for what is very likely to be their last meeting, we should be expressing our appreciation of how much they both lifted the beautiful game to new heights, instead of the trolling that has dominated conversations about both superstars for over a decade.
Before we end this, consider these questions: Without one of them being a factor, would the other have won 10 straight Ballon d’Or awards? Will we ever see their like again?
And still relevant, who’s your GOAT, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
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