Cristiano Ronaldo is now the best footballer in the world. So, why does that bother so many people?
For the last several years, the debate among football fans raged on: Who is better, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Only, it hadn’t really raged on, anyone who genuinely knew football and could approach the subject with a modicum of objectivity would agree that Messi was the better player.
The argument could have been made that Ronaldo was the more talented of the two, but that argument would have been made by people who prefer Ronaldo and were looking for some face to save1. It was all but undeniable that Messi played better in big games, that Messi seemed like a less selfish, better teammate and that Ronaldo was more concerned with his own accomplishments than that of his team.
At the same time, Messi’s Barcelona were winning everything in sight under manager Pep Guardiola and while Real Madrid were certainly more combative and competitive under José Mourinho, they hadn’t beaten Barca at much. For better or worse, whether it’s baseball MVP voting or “who’s better?” arguments like this one, it’s nearly impossible to separate the player’s team’s success rate with that of the player’s. For instance, in any team sport, it’s inconceivable to me that a player on a team that doesn’t make the playoffs could win an MVP award. What’s the point of being the most valuable player on a shitty team?
Anyways, all of this contributed to why Messi was the better player. But things in life are cyclical, and in football, those cycles often take three years. One could argue, as I would, that Mourinho’s appointment to Real Madrid a) stopped the bleeding that was Barca’s dominance2 and b) put an incalculable amount of stress on Guardiola, quickening his departure from Barcelona into a year-long sabbatical in New York.
When Barca lost Guariola, it signaled the beginning of the end of their peak run. But at the same time, Mourinho’s relationships at Real were becoming untenable and he was replaced with Carlo Ancelotti. Both clubs were surrounded, somewhat, with relative uncertainty and the balance of power was there for the taking.
It’s during this time— not suddenly, but gradually, as Barca and Messi descended, Real and Ronaldo ascended. We’re talking about a slip on an individual level from #1 to #1 a) here, so it’s not as though Messi can’t figure out how to kick a ball anymore, but all too often feel is discounted in sports, and the Messi v Ronaldo argument feels different now.
For starters, despite the fact that Atletico Madrid pipped both clubs to La Liga’s title last season, Real Madrid picked up their most-coveted prize: “La Decima,” as it was known to Madridistas— their tenth European title, to you and me. Real Madrid’s spending on big-name, high-priced Galacticos are well-documented, but the fact remains that despite all the spending, the club hadn’t won the Champions League since 2002. It was Ronaldo who brought Real their Decima.
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It’s a funny thing we expect from our idols— those among us who managed, through talent or otherwise, to become famous in this society— to be both confident and humble. It’s a widely-held belief that to be truly great in sports, politics, entertainment or anything really, that one must have an extraordinary amount of self-belief. The difference though, is that once you attain that level of greatness, we expect you to damn-well shut up about it and pretend it was nothing, all luck, could’ve happened to anybody.
That brings us to the second, more uncomfortable (maybe more interesting?) layer of this comparison: regardless of whether Messi is better than Ronaldo, why do people want Messi to be better than Ronaldo?5
At five feet, six inches tall, Messi is a small man by any standard, not just for a professional athlete. Incredible talent and accomplishments aside, He’s pretty unassuming both on and off the pitch. He isn’t ugly, but he’s by no means handsome. He strikes me as a simple fellow, not consumed by media attention. He goes about his business playing football at an unimaginably high level and for the most part keeps a pretty low profile[He has been in the news over the past couple of years, embroiled in a tax scandal the remains in the courts. Somehow though, it still seems like something that’s happened to him, not something he’s done.[/footnote]
Ronaldo is the polar opposite. Ronaldo may have the best physique of any professional athlete on the planet. He is a statuesque six feet, one inch tall of pure muscle. This is his Russian model girlfriend. Ronaldo knows how good he is, and he wants to make sure you know how good he is too. He wants to win, he wants to be the best, and importantly, he wants to be recognized as the best.
When Messi has bested Ronaldo to the Ballon D’or (the award for the best player in Europe, and, basically, the world,) Ronaldo has been visibly angry and upset. People don’t like this. Their juxtaposition makes it easy to place these two superhuman athletes as David and Goliath, but more than that it’s easy to place Messi as the hero to Ronaldo’s expertly played villain.
In the excellent I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman explores villainy in popular culture and describes relating as a boy to the figures who represented goodness—but as an adult, unconsciously relating with their enemies. This wasn’t because he necessarily liked what they were doing; it was because they were doing it on purpose.
This is something I can certainly relate to, and this is why I prefer Ronaldo6. He doesn’t care if you take umbrage with his eschewing of masculine stereotypes: the always-in-place hair, the streamlined eyebrows, the short shorts in training to better help his tan — Ronaldo cultivates his image as much as his ability and that rubs people the wrong way too.
All of this being said, society’s love of the underdog is greatly exaggerated. People love winners. Polarizing teams like the New York Yankees, who it is said you either love or hate, always have the largest fanbases. As Ronaldo’s trophy haul and goal tally grows, so too does his fanbase. He recently reached 100 million Facebook fans to become the most liked athlete on the site.
Why then, Facebook likes aside, does it seem so difficult to fathom him being more beloved Messi?
People like me, for instance↩
Make no mistake, Mourinho’s three year spell at Real is seen largely as a failure, despite winning a league title, the Copa del Rey and a Spanish Super Cup during a time when Barcelona was nearly unbeatable.↩
242 goals in 211 matches according to soccerbase.com.↩
Not that Messi’s record isn’t stellar for Barcelona↩
By people, I’m excluding those personally invested like, say, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans whose opinions can’t reasonably be trusted— most of them, anyways.↩
Would it be a different story if Ronaldo hadn’t started his big-stage career with Manchester United? It’s hard to say, but I doubt it.↩