I’ve been watching football for most of my life. I still remember the moment I was converted. World Cup ’98, and the Dutch National team. I’ll never forget those bright orange jerseys and that distinctly multicultural team. It really resonated with the 8 year old kid living in suburban London. From first sight came first love. I’ll always remember that Bergkamp goal in the quarter final. A long raking pass from Frank de Boer. Bergkamp caressing the ball with the top of his foot, plucking it out of the air, and then in the swiftest of movements stabbing the ball past the defender, and swooping into the net with the outside of his foot. It was a magical moment, borne of sheer skill, imagination, brilliance, and above all else, timing. It was the 89th minute of a World Cup quarter final, and the game was tied.
Fast forward 17 years, and I’m in my living room in Toronto watching Barcelona play Bayern Munich. Champions League semi-final. The footballing world has been captivated by the incredible rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo over the last 6 or so years. The debate has gone back and forth, each player distinctly aware of the debate, and each doing their utmost to put an end to it. In their own way. The last player outside those two to win the Ballon D’or – the prize for the best player in the world in a calender year – was Kaka, way back in 2008.
In one corner is the machine, the ultimate construction. The ultimate footballer, manufactured to perfection. Cristiano Ronaldo was a skinny kid with a bag of tricks when he left Portugal. He left Manchester United for Real Madrid 6 years later the hulking image of footballing perfection. His work-out regimen was well-known. The efficiency of his game, perfected. Gone were all the tricks and frills, and replaced by a ruthless, skilful, powerful footballing machine. The tricks were still there, but ultimately they had a purpose. Since joining Real Madrid, for a then-world record fee, Ronaldo has hit new heights. He left England, at 24, having finally added world-class goalscoring to his game. In Spain, with Real Madrid, he’s taken it to a whole new level. His goals record at United is 84 goals in 196 games (league only) while in Madrid it’s an astonishing 219 goals in 197 games (league only). Upon his move to the mecca of world football, a diminutive little Argentinian, in so many ways his antithesis, had just started his unparalleled and magical journey, conveniently playing for Madrid’s biggest rival: Barcelona.
Lionel Messi was a runt as a kid. He had a growth hormone deficiency, but was an incredibly gifted footballer. At the age of 11 he moved with his family to Barcelona in Spain, from little provincial Rosario in Argentina. Barcelona offered him a spot in their prestigious academy La Masia and a healthy treatment of human growth hormone. Lionel Messi was also a child prodigy. He tore up every youth league he played in, every youth international tournament. He was hailed as the next Maradona. This squat little left-footed Argentinian, with a magical dribbling ability. Unlike so many child prodigies hailed as the next greatest thing, Lionel Messi delivered. And how. Since his debut for Barcelona in 2004 (at the age of 16), Messi has played 312 games, scoring 283 goals (league only). He became a full-time starter in 2006, and since 2009 has averaged around or better than a goal a game. He recently scored his 400th goal in all competitions in his career. Which is already one of the greatest strike rates of all time, and he’s only 27.
Statistically, it’s hard to separate Messi and Ronaldo over the last five years. Stylistically, however, its fascinating. Where Ronaldo is all power, Messi is all finesse. Where Ronaldo trained prodigiously, turning himself into a goliath, Messi can just dribble and dribble and dribble. This is not to say Messi doesn’t train as hard, or work as hard, it’s more of an aesthetic argument. It’s the moment you see either player dribble the ball. Messi just looks more natural. Like he was literally put on this earth for the sole purpose of dribbling a football.
As you can see with the two videos (you just need to watch a minute or so) Messi glides, while Ronaldo powers. Ronaldo uses his speed and strength and skill, honed and developed. Messi just glides.
I’ve always shied away from the debate between Messi and Ronaldo, always more interested in analysing players like Andres Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo, the midfield schemers, the ones that pull the strings and set the tempo. When I saw Barcelona play at the Camp Nou, I’d felt vindicated. Messi was walking. And this short, balding Spaniard ran the show. Messi would only make a run when Iniesta had the ball. Iniesta was everywhere, always showing himself, always an option for a pass, and all over the field. Deceptively quick, an incredibly intelligent passer, and fantastic dribbler, I always saw Iniesta as the key. With Ronaldo and Madrid, I would always look at the Ozil’s, the Di Maria’s, the Benzema’s, all the players that pulled the strings. But something changed on Wednesday, watching that game between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
This game featured the two giants of the modern game. One of either Barca or Bayern have made the final in the Champions league in five of the last 6 years. Bayern are coached by Pep Guardiola, the man hailed with transforming world football tactically while at Barcelona. The game was a tactical masterpiece. To the uninitiated, the first 77 minutes would have been boring. I was captivated. Here you had two teams, fully stocked with the best players in the world in terms of technical ability, trying the same tactics against each other. It was a game of few opportunities, and lots of passing. Until a moment. A moment in the 77th minute, and again in the 80th. It shelved my Iniesta argument for good.
The first came from a Bayern mistake, losing possession in their own half, on their left. Dani Alves winning the ball back, deftly slipping it by the onrushing defender and feeding Messi, Messi taking a couple quick dribbles, a couple jukes, and dispatching the ball ruthlesslessy in the bottom corner.
Bayern hadn’t learned. In their desperation to play out of the back quickly they lost the ball again, two quick passes and suddenly Messi has a one on one with Boateng on the edge of the box. Messi shimmies past him, Boateng falls without even making a tackle, like he fainted in an instant of adulation. Then Messi, as he always does, insouciantly chips the ball over the onrushing Neuer. Game over.
In those two moments I realised something fundamental. As much as we like to over analyse, myself included, trying to reason that Iniesta was the difference, and sure, he’s an incredible player and a key component. But he, and nobody else in the world can do what Messi can. Messi can grab a game, in an instant and win it. And he does it with such ease. With Ronaldo, you can see the amount of effort he’s putting in. Straining every sinew to sprint. Messi just glides. He glided towards the box and almost dismissively slotted the ball in the bottom corner. He glided past the best defender in the world, and dismissively, passively lifted the ball over the best goalkeeper in the world. It was all so easy. But all so devastating.
Ronaldo has learned every trick in the book, learned how to finish, how to dribble, how to beat a player. Messi has always just been able to. He hasn’t had to add layers to his game, to transform himself. He’s still the same kid dribbling past everyone because he’s just better.
And the timing. After 77 minutes of tactical Chess, Messi’s magical brilliance punctuated the contest. And again three minutes later. Two moments, perfectly timed. 3 minutes. It wouldn’t have been the same in the first half, it had to be late in the second half.
Such is the importance of timing when we evaluate sports greatness. It’s always a subjective thing, but timing always captivates us more. As sports fans we’ll always take a late winner over a blowout, because of the emotion involved. Timing and moments. The things that define true greatness. Iniesta is constantly present, but never has moments like Messi does. That’s the difference.
All to say, in 17 years of watching football, Lionel Messi is most certainly the best player I’ve ever seen. Cristiano Ronaldo, keep on trying, but you just can’t beat nature.