Remember the 2009 Champions League final? Manchester United vs Barcelona, Man U going for a fourth title, aiming to become the first team since AC Milan 19 years before to retain it – and a little guy with indie-band hair stuck to his forehead standing in their way. If you knew nothing of these players as the cameras panned along the line before kick-off, you might have thought this fellow was a mascot, or maybe the Barça junior who carried the much taller and more statuesque Thierry Henry’s toilet-bag, football’s modern equivalent of the boot-cleaning and fagbutt-sweeping apprentice.
The last man to be captured by the lenses was much less self-conscious and much more ready for his close-up: Cristiano Ronaldo, then a Red Devil, flicked his tongue across his teeth and pouted lusciously, like a Eurotrash sleazeball about to get oiled up for some ghastly cabaret. To be fair to the bold Ronaldo, for the final’s opening phase he moved in a much more artistic way. He glided like Nureyev across the turf and prancing, pointy-toed strides brought him within range of the Barça goal, at least as he viewed it. Others would have got closer, others would have passed, but not Cristiano. He was trying to beat Barça by himself.
Meanwhile the other guy – Lionel Messi, who else? – was never going to win deportment prizes with that funny scuttle, like a boy running from the scene of low-impact tomfoolery, but he would win the Champions League.
This was the start of Barça’s tiki-taka, the start of everyone saying that Messi played for the team and Ronaldo played for himself. As Ronaldo took on more and more ambitious shots, sending them further and further wide, little Leo climbed between the Man U totem poles, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, to confirm the triumph with a clever header. Then he nicked the Ballon d’Or off Ronaldo, going on to claim the title of the world’s best four years in a row.
But in 2013 Ronaldo won it back. Indeed since then his diamond earrings have twinkled brightest on the podium. The Ballon d’Or score stands at 5-5. The Champions League score is 4-3 to Ronaldo with the Portuguese having the chance to stretch his advantage on Saturday. Ronaldo is one-up on Messi at international level, Portugal being the current European champs, but surely Argentina winning this summer’s World Cup would put Ronaldo’s super-shiny complexion in the shade, settling the argument once and for all about who’s the best footballer in the world, maybe the best of all time. No pressure, wee yin.
Who do you prefer? Is it heaven-sent talent pitted against a Herculean work ethic to better oneself, much like Kenny Dalglish/Kevin Keegan? A bit, but as eternal struggles go, this is a Beatles vs Stones conundrum, the greatest of them all.
There’s a new book on the rivalry, Cristiano & Leo (Pan Macmillan) by Jimmy Burns. “For some football fans, the question of who is better seems to tip over into an almost moral issue of what football is and how it should be played,” he writes. “Power vs guile, chest-thumping bravado vs head-bowed modesty, the arching leap vs the shuffling weave.
“It just feels right that they hate each other.” But do they? Ruud Gullit, observing the interaction between them at the the 2013 Ballon d’Or, called their relationship “strange”. A biography of Messi reported that Ronaldo’s nickname for the Argentine was “Mother*****r”. Ronaldo reacted be saying he had “the utmost respect for all my professional colleagues” and that comparisons with Messi were pointless. “We’re as different as Ferrari and Porsche,” he added.
It would be strange if the relationship wasn’t strange. Strange if Messi didn’t get mightily hacked off having to answer questions about Ronaldo all the time, and vice versa. But that is what happens when you’re this brilliant.
Ultimately it would be strange if each one’s every waking move wasn’t going to be picked apart by amateur psychologists and compared in tedious detail to every waking move of the rival. That is what happens in such a celebrity-obsessed age when everything is filmed and everyone’s a critic.
In Messi’s golden period of those fab-four No 1 rankings – it’s hardly a tin period now – Ronaldo would sulk for Portugal. He’d flounce and fall out with Jose Mourinho as Real Madrid were forced to watch Barça’s coronation as the best club side the world had ever seen.
There was nothing a jab in the coach’s eye could do to stop that. Messi was the goodie, Ronaldo the back, sack ̓n’ crack baddie. But it was hard not to feel sorry for him. And impossible not to be impressed when he rallied, regenerated and repelled the ageing process affecting his limbs as successfully as he’d stopped it harming his looks. At the same time – shock, horror – Messi wasn’t perfect. There were the tax evasion claims and there were the tattoos, not strictly a crime, but Messi-World had been such a sanctified place.
We need them to be opposites, argues Burns. “The shy, shuffling introvert vs the brash egotist, the bronzed Adonis vs the pale Hobbit. But the depiction of Ronaldo as simply a sculpted, athletic Robocop in contrast to the scruffy genius Messi has, as the years have passed, become an over-simplification.”
You cannot talk about Messi v Ronaldo without remembering Pele v Diego Maradona,pictured. How one of the latter two – Pele – reached 1,000 goals with most of the world missing most of them, while everyone’s smartphone contains every delirious dribble, every dressage strut of Messi and Ronaldo achieving that tally.
How both Pele and Maradona inspired their countries to World Cup triumph and yet the greatest prize seems certain to elude Ronaldo. Tragically, the best Portugal team of the modern era – that of Luis Figo and Rui Costa – predated him, though I bet he thinks he could have provided the crucial missing glam.
But in just under two months’ time if little Leo were to drag Argentina to glory – drag their shot-shy strikers by their daft, wispy ponytails – then surely the contest would be over, maybe for ever.