The debate over who is the world's best player rumbles on. This piece looks at the arguments involved and ponders whether there is an answer.
It seems that barely a week goes by without at least one discussion over who is "the best player in the world" and whether Cristiano Ronaldo is greater than Lionel Messi or vice versa.
First and foremost one gets the impression that a great many people, myself included, are bored to death of this argument and wish that people could simply accept that 1) they are two completely different players, playing in completely different teams and being asked to do completely different jobs and 2) that people should just appreciate them for what they are which is two unbelievably good, amazingly entertaining athletes quite literally doing things that no footballer has done before.
However much one may wish for people to reach such a conclusion it seems unlikely. To be fair there is an argument to be made that being able to decide who is the better player is part of what makes sport such an attractive proposition to so many people.
And so it is inevitable that the Messi-Ronaldo debate will carry on for the foreseeable future and that people will be forced to pick one over the other. With the European Championships now concluded, much has been made of the fact that Ronaldo finally seemed to be stamping his authority in a major international tournament and that by doing so he was gaining something over his rival from Barcelona, at least that was until that fateful penalty shootout in Donetsk. The standard line of narration is that until this point neither Ronaldo nor Messi had produced on the international stage and that until they did they could never truly be regarded as worthy of joining the same pantheon as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Puskas etc etc.
First of all I find serious fault in this logic, whilst obviously international success is obviously something which is desired by the top players it cannot be viewed in the same light as it was in the past, for the simple reason that international football is no longer the ultimate benchmark that it was. Whether people like it or not the latter stages of the Champions League are of a higher standard than international football. There are any number of reasons why this is the case but the most prevalent is the fact that elite clubs can attain a level of understanding and familiarity that international teams will always struggle to replicate. It does not seem entirely coincidental that the two teams who reached the final of Euro 2012 did so with a core of players plucked from the same team. Juventus, undefeated champions of Serie A contributed 6 players including 4 of the back 5 as well as Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio who were both outstanding throughout the tournament. Equally with Spain, 5 (6 if you include Jordi Alba) of their side are Barcelona players, and not only Barca players but also all graduates of La Masia whilst Real Madrid also contributed 4 of their own.
Secondly, players and teams now enter major international tournaments often on the back of 60+ games. This is in contrast to the days of Pele and Garrincha where A) far fewer games were played and also B) the major championships were unparallelled in importance whilst now whether one agrees with it or not club competition is unquestionably the dominant power in world football.
Admittedly there are obvious counters to this argument of players being more fatigued than previous generations; travel, hotels, medical technology and far superior pitches are all amenities that were unavailable to Brazil in 1958 and indeed many teams used to travel to world cups via week long voyages on the seas.
Pardon the digression away from the central point of this piece which is fundamentally that the argument over who is the superior player Messi or Ronaldo is as unanswerable as it is boring. People in both camps consistently produce arguments which they feel trumps the other side. A common one is that Messi is far more of a "gentleman" on the pitch and is always quick to celebrate with his team mates whilst Ronaldo's celebrations
are usually designed to ensure no one is in any doubt over who just scored. Equally the fact that Messi rarely complains about the seemingly endless kicks and trips he receives and is unwilling to cultivate the celebrity lifestyle that Ronaldo does is further evidence of his more humble and grounded personality.
Whilst all these points may indeed be true, should personality traits be a decisive barometer in judging an athlete? If one feels that it is then many of the greatest athletes and sportsman the world has seen are subject to serious revision. John McEnroe was one of the greatest players in the history of tennis and his rivalries with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors have stood the test of time. Yet few could forget McEnroe's appalling behavior on court. "Super Brat" as he was known was regularly disqualified for foul mouthed, child like tirades at any person within ear shot.
Equally Mohammed Ali, who has often been named as the greatest athlete of all time, subjected his opponents, Joe Frasier in particular, to some of the most hateful and disgusting "trash talk" ever witnessed in boxing. He would often refer to Fraiser as an "Uncle Tom" and regularly called him a "gorilla". In spite of this Ali is remembered as not only one of the best boxers in history but also as a social and historical rallying point at a time when American society was tearing itself apart.
The list goes on, Tiger Woods will go down as one of the greatest golfers ever and there is a strong case for arguing that he, alongside perhaps Roger Federer, was the most dominant athlete of the century so far. Yet courtesy of a crashed SUV we all now know that Tiger himself was not everything he appeared to be. Should it matter?
Floyd Mayweather Jr, whose fight record currently stands at 43-0 and is a 5 division world champion, presently resides in a jail cell in the state of Nevada and has courted controversy his entire career.
The point of exhibiting these examples is that if one does judge a sportsman on all aspects of his life and character, personal and public, any list of great athletes will be significantly diminished. For those who wish to judge Ronaldo by such standards, remember that Messi, whilst a far more likeable and humble individual is no angel either.
A favored argument of those firmly in the Ronaldo camp is that Messi would be nothing without Xavi and Iniesta and that he is reliant on them hence his relative failings for Argentina. This is one of the more bizarre arguments I have heard and for some reason it only seems to be applied to Messi. Undoubtedly the Argentine does indeed benefit from playing alongside Iniesta and Xavi as well as all the talented players Barcelona possess. However does Ronaldo not benefit from the same at Real Madrid and previously at Manchester United? Did Alfredo Di Stefano not benefit from playing alongside Ferenc Puskas? Did Zidane not benefit from playing in a French team with Laurent Blanc, Youri Djorkaeff not to mention Patrick Vieira and Didier Deschamps who acted as midfield enforcers and bodyguards for Zizou? The point here is that throughout history the best players of a generation have come from the best teams of the generation. Puskas and Di Stefano in the 1950's, Law, Best and Charlton in the 1960's, Beckenbauer and Cryuff in the 1970's etc.
Does a great player need a great team to be great or vice versa? The answer is simple. Football is a team sport and one cannot be achieved without another. So to hold Lionel Messi to this logic and no one else seems at the very least illogical and at the most a sign of pure desperation on behalf of his critics. Also an interesting stat to those who do believe he relies on Xavi and Iniesta. In the 2010/2011 season which Messi ended with 53 goals, to go with his La Liga and Champions League medals, precisely 7 of those 53 goals were via assists from Xavi and Iniesta. Whilst Messi himself assisted 24 goals which is 3 times the amount provided by Barcelona's midfield duo. In the same season Cristiano Ronaldo scored the same number of goals and 17 of those goals were as a direct result of assists from Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil.... Food for thought.
The arguments and debates will continue to rage and who knows in the coming years it may become a three or four way argument. Whatever the case, maybe people should simply let it go and just enjoy watching two of the finest footballers in the world in two of the finest teams in the world. And who knows maybe they will both light up the 2014 World Cup in Rio putting to an end another argument that neither of them do it on the world stage. If such an event does occur don't worry, people will find something else to complain about.