Now obviously East Fife 4, Forfar 5 is the most famous scoreline in all football. Until Thursday night the competition for the best player on the planet was aping it because that’s what inferior contests do. They cannot hope to get close to the brilliance of the solid gold original so they copy. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that.
It was Cristiano Ronaldo 4, Lionel Messi 5 in the Ballon d’Or and the Portuguese was devoutly hoping he was going to draw level, while another triumph for the Argentine would very probably have left Messi out in front as the all-time greatest god-like genius the sport has ever known. Six-to-four would mean Ronaldo needing to redouble his efforts, cancel all leave, shave his body on a higher razor setting and ditch the earrings (or get bigger ones) to have a chance of equalling Messi – any prospect of overhauling his infuriatingly brilliant rival having almost certainly gone because at the earliest a 7-6 victory for the Real Madrid man would be arriving two months shy of his 36th birthday.
To be pretty much perfect for the next three years would be beyond even the bold Cristiano. And all of that was assuming Neymar, the coming man, wasn’t going to walk off with the prize which sometime over the next three instalments of the competition must be a distinct possibility – for the novelty value if nothing else.
But Neymar didn’t win on Thursday and neither did Messi. It was Ronaldo again and once more we, the gawping fitba masses, were left to reflect on some moments of silliness in his life, and how far he’d left them behind.
There was the 2008-09 Champions League final when at Manchester United which he tried to win all by himself, the pressure of being on the same pitch with Messi proving too much. He thought the world, and the other 20 players, were watching a duel between them and he seemed to allow himself to imagine these combatants were dressed in velvets and ruffs, their epees sharpened by handsome slave boys. But it was Messi who delivered the coup de grace – with a leaping header of all things.
Then there was that duel in a Madrid car park with Gareth Bale who’d had the big build-up as Real’s new superstar – no matter that they squared up to each other with toilet bags because the Welshman seemed like a serious threat to Ronaldo’s throne at the Bernabeu. Bale, James Rodriguez, whoever – Ronaldo has lined up these would-be usurpers like little plastic bottles of body lotion on the rim of the cludgie and knocked them right in.
Rodriguez has now moved on to Bayern Munich while at Barcelona Neymar has admitted defeat in trying to outshine Messi, pictured, and has gone to Paris Saint-Germain. Thus the big two, the guys who’ve not let anyone else win the Ballon d’Or for a decade, can focus on each other for an almighty 2018.
What’s going to happen? Will Barca wrest La Liga back from Real? Will Messi finally lead Argentina to World Cup glory? Will Ronaldo, having got a taste for national team success with Portugal, eclipse him in Russia? I’ll tell you what should happen: Real should contest the Champions League final with Barca so the main protagonists can settle their differences once and for all in a titanic showdown because here’s a competition which urgently needs such a match.
I tuned into Wednesday’s highlights programme on BT Sport in time to hear Gary Lineker announce: “At last the qualifying groups are at an end after 96 thrilling matches… ” Who was he kidding? The reason I was waiting for the highlights rather than watching the live action earlier in the evening was that too many games have been some way short of mildly diverting and this has been the story of the group stage for a while.
Lineker immediately tried to back up his fatuous assertion with the stat that there had been more goals scored between September and December than ever before.
Well, ties might have qualified as thrilling if they’d been of the order of East Fife 4, Forfar 5 but I don’t remember too many like that. Mostly the goals have been racked up in mis-matches between elite teams and sides who shouldn’t be involved in the “greatest club competition in the world”. Such victories might be impressive but they’ve been some way short of thrilling.
Some of these thumpings came Celtic’s way. Listen, they had a tough group and we all want to see Scotland’s representatives do well, or we should – but can this really be the greatest club competition in the world when a team are able to progress to knockout on the basis of a single victory? This isn’t Celtic’s fault, it’s the way the competition, in the loosest meaning of the word, has been set up. What have veterans of Lisbon, fans and players, still revering the victories of that campaign, round after round, and especially during this anniversary year, made of the awkward wait for the Anderlecht games to decide their club’s fate in the bloated tournament?
Celtic have made it through to next February as a going European concern on the basis of beating the Belgian club when they were chaotic and narrowly avoiding a similar reverse when they’d re-organised. Good for the Scottish champs and good for their bank balance. Borussia Dortmund meanwhile will resume in the Europa League having not even managed a single win. I’m not sure that a star of the old European Cup like Alfredo Di Stefano, so ingenious in pursuit of victories, would understand that – neither him nor Bobby Murdoch.
Messi and Ronaldo may seem to have formed themselves into a highly exclusive club retaining ownership of the Ballon d’Or – but no more of a club than that surrounding the Euro tournaments where, once you’re in, you simply move around the continent flashing your black laminate membership card, confident in the knowledge you’ll find a game somewhere.
Everton gained entry this season and then proceeded to make a hash of things. But broadcaster Danny Baker, football fan and cynic, was still moved to tweet: “So if they finish bottom of their Europa group do they automatically qualify for the Scottish Cup quarter-finals?”