Stop Comparing Messi and Ronaldo

Last night, Lionel Messi did it again. As he stood in front of the Real Madrid fans in the 92nd minute, with his shirt in hand, the concrete was setting as he further cemented his godlike status at the top of world football. Barcelona’s must-win game had been won in the final seconds of El Clásico, on enemy grounds, and Messi had reached 500 career goals. All in a day’s work for the Argentine legend.

On Tuesday night, Cristiano Ronaldo did it again. Deep into extra time against Bayern Munich, with a Champions League semi-final spot at stake, Ronaldo completed his hat-trick. Real Madrid were 3-2 up – later to be made 4-2 by Marco Asensio – and Ronaldo had scored all of the Spanish side’s goals against one of the best teams in the world. Los Blancos were through a gruelling tie, and Ronaldo had become the first man to reach 100 goals in the competition. All in a day’s work for the Portuguese legend.

Two legends that have been engaged in a relentless battle of cat and mouse since the turn of the decade. When one achieves a new feat of greatness, the other steps up to the plate within the week. This pattern is mirrored in their goal records; Messi has 420 club goals since 2009, Ronaldo has 395. If that’s not remarkable enough, Messi has played 416 games and Ronaldo 387; both boasting over a goal a game across a 8 year period.

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These figures are truly incredible, yet their magnitude is decreased by the constant comparison between the two. If players that dominated the game in a more isolated manner had racked up stats like these we would treat their whoscored.com page like sacred text. One example to give is that of Brazilian Ronaldo – adored by many and respected by all – who scored 352 goals in 518 games. Messi and Ronaldo’s stats blow his out of the water, and the Brazilian is largely considered one of the best strikers of all time.

There’s no doubt that these two phenomenons have impacted eachother’s careers. The constant speculation over which is better, and the wrestling for Fifa’s Ballon D’Or award, must provide the most immense of motivation. Every affair between their two Spanish giants points direct spotlights on them and billions of eyes watch the two face-off. We live in an era of two greats battling it out to be the best, yet the ungrateful nature of football fans risks it passing before our eyes without sufficient indulgence.

Sure, it’s fun to debate which one is better, it’s one of the magical aspects of being a football fan, but there is a limit. Whenever Messi achieves something, Ronaldo’s name is dragged through the mud and vice versa. If you just looked at ‘football Twitter’ it would seem that only one could be successful at a time. The level of fandom for each leads bitter degrading of the ‘enemy’.

Imagine criticising a player that’s scored 395 goals in 387 games, labelling him a ‘fraud’ or ‘overrated’. This is likely what is happening right now to Ronaldo – a player that scored a Champions League hat-trick midweek – just because he didn’t play well tonight. It’s also what happened to Messi as Barcelona crashed out of Europe to Juventus on Wednesday. The fickle yo-yo of fans’ opinions hops up and down more than Joe Hart in a pre-match tunnel.

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Lionel Messi (LEFT) and Cristiano Ronaldo (RIGHT) goals since 2009 (‘messivsronaldo.net‘)

It seems ridiculous to directly compare the two. One is 5’7 in stature, the other 6’1. One is slim and diminutive, the other is well-built and powerful. One favours finesse and interplay, the other is more predatory. For two attacking players with such a quantity of goals to their names, their playing styles are far from similar. The end result is the ball in the net, but their preferred manners of getting it there is specific to the individual.

Messi enjoys being part of the journey, Ronaldo just wants to get to Arrivals.

Either way, both players play very different roles within their respective teams, and possess different strengths and weaknesses that can’t be compared. Ronaldo is probably the best headerer of a ball in the world, Messi barely uses his head. Messi can pick the ball up deeper, and play a playmaking pass better than anyone, Ronaldo is rarely involved in Real Madrid’s midfield play. Ronaldo uses flashy skills to beat a man, Messi uses agility and close ball control.

The profiles are so different, and yet we insist on saying one is better and one is worse. Why don’t we just appreciate them for what they are?

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Messi is the greatest genius that the game has seen. He scores beautiful individual goals and can poetically craft an attacking move from any part of the pitch. Watching him play is a beautiful experience. Ronaldo is the most clinical goalscorer that the game has seen. He can play awfully and yet finish the game with the match ball – it doesn’t have to be pretty. His ruthlessness on the pitch is something to be admired.

Their personalities shouldn’t come into the picture. In what way is it relevant that Messi wears tracksuits and keeps himself to himself whilst Ronaldo poses in some Calvin Kleins and chats up super-models? It’s gotten so bad that Ronaldo donates money to charity and his fans immediately use it to belittle Messi. Yes, Ronaldo is the epitome of a football primadonna, but hasn’t he earned the right to be? Footballing debate should be kept to the pitch and what happens outside is merely Daily Mail showbiz talk.

The nature of football discussion means that readers of this will still expect me to declare my allegiance to one of the two before the end of this article. It’s like an addictive substance. However my answer to the question is very much in line with the tone of this article:

I have always preferred watching Messi than Ronaldo; aesthetically his style of playing is more to my taste. The way he can make defenders look like ghosts with his ball control and dribbling gets me out of my seat. His footballing brain, vision and awareness on the pitch leaves me speechless and tweeting his name in capital letters. He consistently makes the impossible look possible and seeing him play the game is as close to art as football gets. He’s who I will tell my grandkids about (and show them this picture that I took below in 2012).

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One the other hand, I’m in complete awe of Ronaldo. The ego, the relentlessness and the manner in which he pushed himself to get to such an elite level. He’s football’s equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster protagonist. Messi was obviously born with a special talent, but his route to the top was more straight-forward than Ronaldo’s once he joined Barcelona’s academy at 13 years old. Ronaldo’s was more of a battle. The fact that this battle led to Ronaldo doing it on our holy English shores also earns him some brownie points.

The point of this article is not to criticise all comparisons of Messi and Ronaldo – that would be anarchical to football fandom – but moreso of the constant use of the word ‘better’. To call one better than the other is an unnecessary degrading of their exponential talent.

Why can’t we just enjoy them whilst we have them?

Soon we’ll be debating whether the likes of Neymar, Paul Pogba or Eden Hazard are the World’s best. They’re all great players but, at the moment, don’t come close to achieving what Messi and Ronaldo have. We can only hope that they maintain their careers for as long as possible – yet as capability to rack up goalscoring numbers wanes, it’s unfortunately inevitable that people will try and use it to attack their overall legacies.

The social media revolution has turned every Tom, Dick and Harry into Fergusons, Guardiolas and Cruyffs, and we’re in danger of over-saturating football debate for the sake of people gaining a few RTs with outlandish opinions. The Messi vs. Ronaldo debate has been the flagship for this, and, if we’re not careful, they’re illustrious careers will vanish behind a cloud of tweets, memes and trolls.

So enjoy every moment of genius that they conjure up, and appreciate how they  both improve the sport we love. Thanks for reading.

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Image Credit: Huffpost, The Guardian, Shanghai Daily

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