Great rivals and the joy of debating

Unfortunately, for all Ronaldo’s skills, trickery and dead-ball proficiency, his greatness is presently measured against Messi’s accomplishments. Such estimation by some journalists and fans poses the danger of a loss of perspective when we assess the Portuguese’s achievements. By Priyansh.

On June 13 this year, Portugal met Denmark at the Euros in the Ukrainian City of Lviv. Though the Portuguese won the match in thrilling circumstances, the post-match discussion on various forums was hardly fixed on the team’s fortunes going into the final group game against the Netherlands. As it so often happens with teams that depend on one single outstanding player for their success, the debate largely focused on captain Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘non-performance’.

The match, eventually sealed by an 87th-minute winner, could have been put to bed earlier if the skipper had finished two easy chances midway through the second half, many argued. The Guardian, in its post-match report, even went on to question the “the merits of him wearing the armband” since in addition to the missed opportunities, Ronaldo had also “spent much of the game berating his team-mates whenever the ball was given away.”

To add insult to injury, the Real Madrid playmaker had to contend with chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi” by the Danish fans whenever he was in possession of the ball. Such jeering, one would presume, wouldn’t fluster a player of Ronaldo’s stature. However, that presumption somewhat weakens when one reads his views on the chants in the post-match press conference. After insisting it was the victory that mattered, the Portuguese star lost his cool when another journalist asked a question on Lionel Messi.

“You know where he (Messi) was at this time (last year)? Do you know? He was being eliminated in the Copa America, in his own country. I think that’s worse, no?” said Ronaldo. Unfortunately for the Portuguese captain, even the facts were incorrect since Argentina only bowed out of the competition in the quarterfinals.

The major issue, however, is not whether Ronaldo’s awareness of the developments in world football is comprehensive enough. Rather, his exasperation at being constantly compared with the Argentine irresistibly begets the question of the extent to which Messi affects Ronaldo and vice-versa.

The debate surrounding the present Argentina and Portugal captains is one of many such discussions that have existed ever since football or any other sport has been played. Debates on who is greater among two great players are the by-products of popular interest in any sport. Eventually, even if the agreement remains elusive, as it largely does, the discussion is seldom rendered redundant and has continued, in some cases like Maradona and Pele, for decades now.

Such discussions are led forward by a ‘conventional wisdom’ which invariably sees one of the two great players as a perennial challenger and the other as the king. Importantly, the objectivity of this ‘wisdom’ is in no way established as it is itself shaped by debates in the media, pubs, coffee houses etc., which possess the ability of prejudicing the whole discussion.

The Ronaldo-Messi debate hasn’t been able to escape this popular disposition either. Contemporary opinion in world football has come to see the Portuguese playmaker as the challenger to Messi’s throne. Such a perception is fuelled by Barcelona’s success against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final and its continued domination of Real Madrid in Spain, even though the capital city-based club has recently bested its traditional rival in the league and Super Cup.

The duo’s performance in their teams’ opening Champions League fixtures gave further ammunition to believers in this ‘conventional wisdom’. A day after Ronaldo scored a 90th-minute winner to cap a remarkable comeback for Real Madrid against Manchester City, Lionel Messi scored twice in nine second-half minutes against Spartak Moscow to lead Barcelona to its own comeback victory from 1-2 down to 3-2.

Though the ex-Manchester United player had scored a winning goal against a far tougher opposition, it did not seem to matter much as some pundits went on to say, “Whatever Ronaldo can do, Messi can do better.” Even if players were to not read newspapers or watch news channels as they are often advised to, it would be unrealistic to expect them to remain unaffected by such issues.

Unfortunately, for all Ronaldo’s skills, trickery and dead-ball proficiency, his greatness is presently measured against Messi’s accomplishments. Such estimation by some journalists and fans poses the danger of a loss of perspective when we assess the Portuguese’s achievements.

It would, however, be improper to focus only on the media and public in this issue. While the debate till now has largely focused on the attacking merits of the two, Ronaldo’s recent defensive failings have added another facet to this discussion. The Portuguese has never been known for his defensive abilities but his reluctance to mark the opposition’s full-back was one of the major reasons behind Real Madrid’s exit from the Champions League last season and both Denmark’s goals in the aforementioned Euro match.

Messi, since he largely plays as a ‘false-nine’ for Barcelona, has rarely had to indulge in any defensive duties recently. The Rosario-born lad started his career on the right side of the midfield and is yet to display any major apparent defensive weakness.

The defensive abilities aside, both Messi and Ronaldo are yet to win any major trophies with their international teams. While Ronaldo plays for a Portugal side that is not among the best teams in the world, Messi’s relationship with Argentina is more complex. Since the Argentine played club football only at the junior-level in his country, he is yet to endear himself completely to the Argentinean public. However, his recent performances for La Albiceleste have been encouraging and it wouldn’t surprise many if he were to lead Argentina to World Cup glory in 2014.

Finally, a lot has already been said about Messi and Ronaldo on various forums. While the opinions have differed in certain aspects, the very presence of such a debate is an implicit assertion of the duo’s greatness. Though a rivalry on the lines of the one between Antonio Salieri and Amadeus Mozart, fictionalised and immortalised by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, is yet to surface, it has already brought immense joy to football lovers across the world. And the best part? Messi is only 25 and Ronaldo still 27.