The Wikipedia article entitled ‘Messi-Ronaldo rivalry’ runs to nearly 9,000 words, or a third of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The most important word is its sixth, an adjective which describes the rivalry neatly: ‘supposed’.
Football is a team sport; the constant self-improvement that coincidentally resembles one-upmanship between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is not, as such, a rivalry. Although to Ronaldo, it probably is.
The Real Madrid forward’s unstoppable rise was, in late 2015, documented in a film titled Ronaldo. Directed by Anthony Wonke, a man whose most recent films were about Afghanistan, the Syrian civil war and the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster that killed 167 people, Ronaldo is no less serious in the treatment of its subject matter, charting the journey of a Madeiran schoolboy to the pinnacle of world football.
Messi is almost nowhere to be seen. It’s not that he isn’t relevant; Ronaldo focuses on its eponymous hero pipping Messi to the Ballon d’Or, seemingly the most important trophy a footballer can win. The narrative is framed by successive Ballon d’Or wins that ended Messi’s four-year run. Meanwhile the Argentine – runner-up both times – is largely conspicuous by his absence, cast in the role of Godot. Ronaldo passes the time. It would have passed anyway.
Ronaldo vs Real Madrid?
In the film, his greatest achievements are personal. In 2015 it was the same. Ronaldo won his third Ballon d’Or in January. The same month, he was named the greatest Portuguese player of all time. In May he finished as the season’s top scorer in the Champions League, the Spanish league and all European leagues. In September he became the European Cup’s all-time top scorer, and in October, Real Madrid’s. In many ways, 2015 was his annus mirabilis. Yet his teams won zero trophies.
Does this matter? Ronaldo gives the impression that it doesn’t. Every vainglorious goal celebration, every overambitious shot, every frustrated wave of the hand as one of his less talented team-mates misses (or scores) when he’s on the pitch, and every new fragrance, film and hairstyle off it, presents a man who seems to care more about his image than leading a team to greatness. That isn’t the case.
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most ambitious characters football has ever seen in the century-and-a-half since the sport’s codification. He has a high sense of self-worth because he has made himself worthy.
If he appears to think he’s perfect, it’s because he’s driven to be perfect. That six, eight, 12, 36-pack on his torso didn’t come about by accident. Ronaldo has dedicated every single day to reaching the twin peaks of physical fitness and technical prowess.
Ronaldo vs Rooney
It’s hard to believe now – increasingly so – but there was a time when Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were on the same path, at the same crossroads, facing the same divergent roads (and the same strained metaphors). They were, then, of similar quality, and of similar age. During the 2006/07 season even their scoring statistics were almost identical: Rooney netted 23 goals in 55 games for Manchester United; his team-mate scored 23 in 53. Both were on the cusp of something big. Something massive.
Only one of them scaled that height. Rooney has fulfilled a very creditable career, becoming top scorer for England and, soon, Manchester United (he’s a dozen goals away from giving Bobby Charlton a second kick in the shins). For several years, he was counted among the 10 best players in the world. He worked for that. All the while, Ronaldo worked for much more. He wasn’t going to be content until he was the world’s greatest player, bar none, and he won’t be content now until he’s the greatest of all time. Which is why he may have to consider leaving Real Madrid.
It sounds nonsensical – he’s averaged a goal per game in each of his six-and-a-bit seasons there, and he isn’t yet at the stage where he must think about preserving his status. However, as Paris Saint-Germain flirt with Ronaldo, and Ronaldo coquettishly accepts their offer of a drink while saying he really shouldn’t because it goes straight to his head, you feel they’d make good bedfellows.
Joining PSG isn’t seen as a brave move. They’re virtually guaranteed to win Ligue 1 each season (current lead over second place: 13 points after 16 games) and don’t skimp on wages. For Ronaldo, though, it would be brave: at Real Madrid he’s head honcho, with the power to crush any new rival. It’d be much harder to win the Champions League with PSG. So if he could take them that far... well, that is a legacy.
Ronaldo turns 31 in a couple of months, and his greatest assets stem from his physical attributes. It’s not inconceivable that Florentino Perez may sell the forward while he’ll still fetch an absolutely massive sum.
If that possibility becomes a probability, Ronaldo could channel the ambition that got him this far and back it with courage, taking on the challenge of improving an inferior team and potentially becoming a legend.
He’ll go down in history as one of the greats, with an array of personal awards and a galaxy to his name. Cristiano Ronaldo, though, wants that stage to himself. So, CR7: what next?
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