IT HAS only been 43 weeks. You might think that’s a lot but maybe this could be football’s equivalent of a single week in politics, when so much can change. Just 43 weeks ago, Jerome Boateng was on top of the world and Lionel Messi, by his incredibly high standards, was right at the bottom.
Did Messi stand in the centre-circle of the Maracana, hands on hips, hunched and unsmiling? Can’t remember for sure, but it must be a pretty safe bet. That’s a standard Messi pose and – so reluctant is he to grin like a maniac or pout like a Cristiano Ronaldo – almost a standard Messi goal celebration. Meanwhile Boateng had been, in the eyes of many, the man of the match in the World Cup final.
One had won football’s greatest prize and the other hadn’t just failed to do this, but in his inability to inspire Argentina to glory against Germany, Messi had ruled himself out of consideration as one of the all-time greats alongside Pele and Diego Maradona.
But look at the pair of them now. Boateng, in being dumped on his backside by Messi in one of football’s truly golden moments, resembled a pub player, possibly still drunk.
No he didn’t, he was Fall-Down Dad, a You’ve Been Framed! staple, making a fool of himself on the wedding dancefloor, the bouncy castle, the swimming-pool slide. There have been, already, a thousand attempts to describe Boateng’s desperate backwards stumble, as if in that instant he’d been robbed of all his important bones by cheap sci-fi special effects (that’s the 1,001st right there). There will be many more and he’ll have to talk about the moment for the rest of his days, just like Terry Butcher (kippered twice by Maradona in 1986) and Colin Hendry (done by Paul Gascoigne ten years later). There could yet be the ultimate indignity of an entry in the dictionaries. Bad luck, you’ve just been “Boatenged”.
And look at Messi now. Acclaim ringing in his little pointy ears. Endless replays, drooling paeans. A frantic re-ordering of his 100 best goals. And, in the week’s other election campaign, he has edged ahead of his great rival.
I’m not surprised Fergie favours Ronaldo
On Tuesday night, Ronaldo netted his 76th Champions League goal, but he was only the all-time top scorer for 24 hours. Messi’s double against Bayern Munich took him to 77, reigniting the debate over who is the greatest although, really, has it ever gone quiet?
In this leadership battle, who is David Cameron and who is Ed Miliband? Who comes across as the least sincere, the most smug? Who is smoothly accomplished in front of the cameras and who is slightly awkward? Ah, but these are the criteria for a contest between politicians; the best footballers demand a proper, serious, rigorous examination.
“You don’t want him to go on his left,” said Jamie Redknapp during the punditry, meaning Messi of course, and not Miliband, who some reckoned leaning too much that way had been the Labour leader’s undoing. “So what does he do? Only goes on his right!” Redknapp was, for the umpteenth time, trying to find the right words to go with Messi’s stupendous second goal. But for me Messi beats Ronaldo and I’m not just saying that because of what he did in the 80th minute.
Messi is a brilliant individual talent and a brilliant team player; Ronaldo is a brilliant individual talent. Both are always striving to score wonder goals, but for the Real Madrid man the striving can continue beyond the moment when he should have passed to a team-mate.
Maybe I’m voting Messi the best because of what he did in the 90th minute, springing Neymar for the third goal. Would Ronaldo in the same position and on a hat-trick have done the same? Possibly not.
Sir Alex Ferguson recently got involved in the great debate. You couldn’t dispute that Messi was the best, he said, before doing exactly that. “Ronaldo could play for Millwall, QPR, Doncaster Rovers, anyone, and score a hat-trick. I’m not sure Messi could do that,” Fergie said. “Ronaldo’s got two feet, he’s quick, great in the air and brave.” Then he added, almost by way of excluding the other man: “I think Messi is a Barcelona player.”
This is the same Barcelona, filled with its Barca-style players, which left Sir Alex’s Manchester United dizzy from the “carousel” of their relentless passing in two Champions League finals, Messi scoring in both victories including one with his head when he soared above the much taller United defenders. That was the 2009 final which was one of our first glimpses of Messi and Ronaldo in direct opposition, where the former took his turn with the most mundane of fairground levers while the latter attempted ridiculous shots as he tried to win the game by himself.
I’m not surprised Fergie favours Ronaldo, given their history, but am baffled by his reasoning. Ronaldo turning out for Doncaster Rovers suggests a generosity of spirit and absence of ego that I just don’t see in a player to be admired rather than loved.
I can’t see Messi at the Keepmoat Stadium either but remember the speculation earlier in the season about him possibly coming to England’s Premier League? Wishful thinking and complete bilge. He was, so the story went, in a bit of a grump. A hangover from the World Cup, perhaps, when he couldn’t quite lead Argentina to glory and so stand comparison with his crazy countryman tainted by drugs and the scorer of 1,000 goals in a balmier era. Some people even thought this was the beginning of his decline, a prediction which now seems as wide of the mark as many of the general election’s opinion polls.
You’ll remember, at the turn of the year, Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or and his weird scream on the podium. Messi, pinch-faced in his velvet suit, looked to be seething inside. “That’s my trophy, you over-exfoliated, sparkle-eared buffoon,” he could have been saying to himself, “and you’ve just made an erse of it.” This seemed to fire Messi up. Suddenly he was much more like his old, spellbinding self. Suddenly Barcelona’s trident was working.
This is the triple-pronged attack, with Neymar and Luis Suarez, which the sceptics initially derided as “Barca go gallactico” – and what was manager Luis Enrique thinking about, sending Messi out to the right wing? It doesn’t seem so daft now.
Of course, it needed the wee man to adapt, accommodate, put the team first. At Real, domain of the great Ronaldo, there doesn’t seem to be room for Gareth Bale. But then Messi isn’t just greater, he’s the best of them all.