A personal standard, aka “Messi is better than Ronaldo is better than Messi”

jordan-shrug

The Shrug. The last time that I saw a truly transcendent performance by an athlete was by Michael Jordan, in Game One of the 1992 NBA Finals. One of the benefits of being an old man is that you had the opportunity to see stuff like that, an athlete beyond compare, on the biggest stage in his sport, against the man many suggested is as good as he is, for a championship.

And Jordan, simply put, lost his mind: 39 points, 11 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals. Jordan dropped in 6 3-pointers and after yet one more, shrugged as if to say, “I don’t believe it, either.” Football has no analog for that kind of performance. Ronaldinho’s standing ovation game against RM wasn’t one, neither are any of the 4+goal hauls of Messi or Ronaldo.

What was most interesting about Jordan’s performance in that game was that it illustrated that reality of an athlete becoming his own standard, someone who can only be compared to himself. Such things are worth noting the next time anyone thinks of choosing a side in the eternal Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate.

Think of all the things that are diametric opposites: chocolate and vanilla, iPhone and Android, Messi and Ronaldo. Both are ice cream flavors, both are mobile phones, both are football players and all arouse debate on the part of people who believe, and want others to believe. iPhone people say to Android people their phones are superior, and here’s why. And you would sooner get an iPhone user to forsake Apple than you would get a devotee of Messi or Ronaldo to acknowledge that the other might be as good. You get lists, reasons, notions and suggestions, lists of desired attributes skewed in the direction of a debater’s favorite, all leading to the simple reality of a confirmation bias: you want to believe it, so it is. Unassailable and immutable.

“Of course Messi is better, because …”
“Are you kidding? Absolutely Ronaldo is better, because …”

None of it matters.

When an athlete reaches a certain level of ability and execution, people start to mutter things such as “greatest ever,” or the acronym GOAT. That is usually also the time when an athlete has become his own personal standard. That it happens twice in a sport at the same time is rare, but that’s the state that football is in right now, with two men for whom the presence of the other is immaterial, as both have reached That level of performance.

Different vessels

What makes the debates even more pointless is that Messi and Ronaldo are such different athletes. Messi is squat and strong, Ronaldo taller and powerful. Messi is quick, Ronaldo is fast. Ronaldo does moves and stepovers, Messi doesn’t bother. The only things that both players have in common is that they score absurd amounts of goals, and are the only names that anyone is really considering when voting for the Ballon d’Or.

It is that difference that makes the proponents of each doomed to wage a futile battle in an effort to convince the other side. It isn’t that either way is better. Each player has scored goals of beauty, grace, absurd power and physical ability, and those goals should be enough even as they aren’t and never will be as each player, with each record, makes it more difficult for anyone to live up to his standard, even himself.

Each player has also begun to adapt his game, Ronaldo becoming more of a team player, using his skill to set up and assist other players. Messi is using his passing abilities to begin a morphing into the best 10 in the history of the game. And again, there are Jordan parallels, as in each off season Jordan would add another element to his game: jump shots, rebounding, defending, assists, steals, fadeaway jumper.

Nothing obsesses an athlete like his own excellence. I would even suggest that an athlete gets so good that even in the rare situations where you get multiple players working at such a level — Jordan had Magic Johnson, just as Messi has Ronaldo — the player gets so good that his Other doesn’t matter. Ronaldo doesn’t score a hat trick and say “Take THAT, Messi.” He probably used to, when he wasn’t as good as he has become. But why bother now?

Messi doesn’t care about Ronaldo when he is running at a defense. Why? He scored 91 goals in a calendar year. Come on. And when an athlete reaches that level, it isn’t even that he believes he is the best. It’s that he’s the only one in the picture so whatever happens, doesn’t matter.

Why should you care?

You shouldn’t. Culers nickname Ronaldo “Penaldo,” suggesting that he pads his goalscoring totals with a very high number of penalty shots. Merengues deride Messi for his appearance, claiming that HE gets favorable calls. But it doesn’t matter to you, except for the odd, vicarious world in which football supporters live. In that world, your Way has to be superior. Your team has to be superior. The player you are a fan of has to be superior. Well, because it’s better, that’s why. Separating the self from the games that we watch is one of the most difficult parts of being a fan. It is when we fail to extract ourselves that we become blinded by association, so to speak.

In this space, ciaran talked about Ronaldo’s strengths as a footballer and people took issue, for reasons related to that identification with that wonderful thing. We all want to be associated with the wonderful thing. Even now, the dominant team regalia at Formula One races is that of Ferrari. Because it isn’t just a car, but history, luxury, a Gucci loafered, supermodel arm candy aura that we all want a piece of. Even when Ferrari is on hard times, as the team is right now, that aura, that need for elevation by association, is intact.

When somebody is a fan of a player, it’s because they generally like that player a lot. The better the player, the deeper the association usually, to the point where as I often quip, if you say Messi craps rainbows, a supporter would say “What?! He’s not crap! You just hate him!”

It’s okay to love your players, it’s okay to support them. Where the problem arises is when that support begins to obscure logic or reality, a tack that is erroneous in the case of two great players, each of whom is his own standard. It’s what makes the arguments go on so long, because you can’t compare, so how can you parse? Compare a Ferrari to a Bugatti all you like, but they are two very different, each exquisite vehicles.

So it is with Messi and Ronaldo. And the next time you get the urge to run to battle with someone, or post a comment about how one can’t be as good as the other, because … stop. Then ask yourself, “Why does it matter?” Just as we don’t question the beauty of a sunrise, and suggest that yesterday’s was more spectacular than today’s, why try to parse excellence? It isn’t Messi OR Ronaldo, but rather Messi AND Ronaldo. Both are to be enjoyed, by neutrals as well as their supporters. Both are phenoms that the game is lucky to have crushing record books at the same time and each one is, in his own way, incomparable.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

27 Comments

  1. ciaran
    October 12, 2014

    Well written Kxevin.
    It all came from me simply commenting on how impressive Ronaldo’s form has been at the start of this season. People instantly gave reasons why Ronaldo isn’t this and that; that his goals weren’t as impressive or better yet, they weren’t as important as his overall play.

    You said that it was like comparing yesterday’s sunrise to today’s but I would say that it is more like comparing a sunrise to a sunset. Ronaldo and Messi have plenty in common but nothing in common. They are world’s apart but are the only players comparable to each other so they get compared.

    I have no qualms in stating my preference for style of play nor in stating my opinion on who is the better footballer but the achievements of one do not diminish the achievements of the other.

    • October 12, 2014

      Yep. You and a few others were the inspiration here. Someone on Twitter sighed, after the Brazil/Argentina friendly, something to the effect of “Oh, great. Now my TL is filling with Ronaldo people.”

      It seems that we can never fully enjoy two wonderful things. One has to take from the other, or be somehow better than the other. So, in thinking about my comment earlier in the week during some Ballon d’Or nattering that each player has become his own standard, bang.

      And thanks for inspiring writer’s remorse. Sunrise to sunset is much better.

  2. lala10
    October 12, 2014

    to be honest i did not want to wade into this debate. Ronaldo does not compare favourably to many footballers. Footballers i say. He is in a class of two when it comes to goalscoring. He is in a class of a few when it comes to athleticism with him the prime man. Apart from that he is decent to above decent in many respects.

    Goals win games but they did not start winning games yesterday. It speaks of the evolution of our society that not tooo long ago the Kaiser won footballer of the year when he played with the Bomber in the national team and Bayern. Its not Ronaldo’s fault that the society we live in has thus mutated.
    To compare him with Messi is a traversty. To me he is a far far inferior footballer. He doesnt cut it with the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and a host of others. He is nowhere near the greats in my opinion. As a goalscorer though he has few peers

    • Gekko64
      October 12, 2014

      you can’t consider only technique and downplay goalscoring and athleticism though, they all contribute to the player’s effectiveness in a match 🙂

  3. Tata2
    October 12, 2014

    Sad thing goals have become the standard these days… I wonder whether the greats like Zidane, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo would have won the balon d’or in this age. Though there’s no need to actually go into the debate of who is better, Messi has a higher football I.Q than Ronaldo and for me that’s just the difference.

    • October 13, 2014

      Ah, but did anyone object to goals being the standard when Messi banged in 90 of them?

      The only argument anyone needs against the full validity of the Ballon d’Or is that Xavi hasn’t won one.

    • hereiam
      October 15, 2014

      People only appreciate footballers like Xavi only when they don’t have him. And that is usually too late.

  4. hereiam
    October 12, 2014

    I am not a Ronaldo fan. I am not a Messi fan. I am not anyone’s fan – because I like to enjoy everyone, every team, every match equally. As such I have little understanding of this fandom culture, where apparently the only job is to praise and/or defend the hero at every single occasion.

    Somehow in their zeal it is not enough to praise their hero (they must got bored since the number of praising words, however large, is quite finite), they have to do everything to discredit his greatest rival(s) too. As if that would somehow make their hero more heroic. Praising incorrectly, and you could incur the collective wrath of thousands of online keyboard heroes and heroines who immediately jump to the defend.

    Heck – I hated Ronaldo at first. I thought the guy was a selfish, arrogant SOB who rip off his club with his exorbitant salary and extravagant lifestyle. But after reading the billions ridiculous insults that Messi fans threw at him whenever the name Ronaldo appeared in every single article (Penaldo? Divenaldo? Please.), it piqued my interest enough to do some research about him – and boy was I wrong. Now I still don’t think of me as a fan, but I have to say Ronaldo earned my respect. With great help from Messi’s fan.

    I would say that there are plenty others who were practically forced by Messi’s fan to come to hate Messi instead.

    • October 13, 2014

      Interesting perspective, the vehemence of the other side making you explore more deeply. The reality is that we don’t know anything about these people that so many idolize. Their public personas are controlled, and their private lives are known only to family and very close friends.

      So all we have to go by is what happens on the pitch, really, and the glimpses that various PR critters want us to see.

  5. lala10
    October 13, 2014

    For me the funny part is that when comparing Ronaldo and Messi the thing that people discuss first are the goals and how many of them. We forget everything and any other relevant thing is thrown out of the window. Don’t underestimate Ronaldo’s time in the EPL where many journalists have Man U tinted eyes. So everything is thrown out and the focus is only on his goals. Its so absurd that at times that his superiority over Messi is assumed because he scores long rangers, headers, right foot, left foot and all kinds of goals.

    Now that he is ahead (at present) on the only criterion he is an equal of Messi he becomes shoe in for Ballon D’Or. Its ridiculous to me but at least consistent with the narrative that has been used to judge the two of them.

    Messi and some other greats dominate the play. They sometimes strangle the match, they have an utter hold on proceedings that Ronaldo does not have. He dominates the scoreboard thats what he does. Until he scores he is a peripheral figure at most who then suddenly pops up to score. Fair play to him because he has mastered to perfection his art. But to elevate him onto such a pedestal? I dont know. Tastes and appreciation differ but by the criterion we use now where would Zidane be? Ronaldinho? Rivaldo? Seedorf? And so many greats. I don’t know if he is their better.

    • October 13, 2014

      But Ronaldo’s place, wherever it is, isn’t really the point, as much as the level that he has reached.

      I would also suggest that Ronaldo’s presence on the pitch affects the match in the way teams have to mark him, and constantly account for his presence in a way that they don’t with any other player on RM. And that changes the match in a significant way, just as it does when teams put 4-5 defenders on Messi every time he gets near the box.

      It speaks again to why any parsing of the players is innately partisan. It is impossible, even for a die-hard culer such as I, to dismiss or in any way attempt to minimize the player that Ronaldo is. I’ll say again that we are lucky to be living in a time when, week after week, two men who will go down in history as among the greatest to ever play the game, do their thing for us.

    • barca96
      October 13, 2014

      What does Ronaldo do that makes him a great? He scores a lot. What has he done what no other player can do?

      I’ll give you my take tomorrow. I’ve been dying to give my opinion since last week but too busy. More on this tomorrow.

    • October 13, 2014

      But that’s the thing. If you are asking the question, there’s no point in answering it. Further, would Ronaldo fans ask what is it Messi does that no other player can do? As I state above, everyone stakes out their side in the debate, rooted in what they believe.

      Further, I well and truly don’t care what anyone thinks about Ronaldo, because that isn’t the point. For me, he is a brilliant player, and the debates about him and his place in the game and whether he is or isn’t better than Messi don’t matter. At all.

      And if this comments section turns into yet another Ronaldo vs Messi debate, or Ronaldo isn’t really all THAT good, the point of the piece will have been missed.

  6. ciaran
    October 13, 2014

    One of the biggest problems for me in this debate is that this is one of the only times in history that two players are at their peak at the same time. The only other time that comes close is when Beckenbauer and Cruyff were at their peak in the early seventies.
    If you are talking about the true great players then longevity, titles and so many other things have to be taken into consideration.

    As a somewhat neutral observer, considering that I dislike both equally, you have to consider Ronaldo a better footballer than Zidane with their records at the same club. Zidane won a single Balon d’Or, along with a world cup in 98 and the following year Rivaldo deservedly beat him to the Balon d’Or, as did Figo the following year. A couple of goals in a world cup final and a terrific volley in a CL final doesn’t make you worth remembering amongst the truly greats.

    Even if I look at Ronaldinho, for two years he was an incredible talent and no one before or since has made me smile like he did but if you compare that to Messi and Ronaldo, they’ve been at this level for more than half a decade.

    Van Basten was incredible for a couple of seasons and but for injury would be at a higher level in people’s minds. Brazilian Ronaldo did it for one season for us and then sporadically for another few seasons but not at the same level.

    Xavi controlled games like no one in history and did it again for now than half a decade. I’d rate him far above the likes of Zidane.

    My point really is that we look back at the achievements of some of the best players in history and what they achieved in one or two tournaments or particular matches and at that or those points they were the greatest of the time but what they achieved in comparison to what Messi and Ronaldo have over such a longer period is not as impressive.

    Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano and Platini all did it for a long period and Messi has definitely done that.

  7. Tata2
    October 13, 2014

    @ Kxevin , when I said sadly goals have become the standard these days, it wasn’t by no means in defence of Messi. You and I both agree that in recent times, the winner of the balon d’or is usually the highest goal scorer in the champs league. Such a player is heralded with many superlatives be it Messi or *Thong boy( there I go again, crucify me! crucify me!!) and that’s the reason players like iniesta and Xavi will never win it. One more thing, the fact that am a barca and I think Messi is better than Thong boy, doesn’t mean that I hate Thong boy. No barca fan can deny that he or she doesn’t get nervous when Ronaldo is standing over a free kick in an el classico even if they think Messi is better than him.

  8. October 13, 2014

    I know it is heresy round these here parts, but I struggle to think of any year where Xavi or Iniesta would have been worthy of a Balon d’Or. Career achievement awards, anyone?

    Goals should never be the one and only parameter, but the unprecedented amount of goals scored by Messi and Ronaldo blow anyone else’s achievements out of the water.

    The next award will be interesting though, since CR7 had a horrible WC but might still get the nod over no outstanding German (WC-winning) player and a Messi who had no team success.

    • ciaran
      October 13, 2014

      The world cup is by no means a good indicator anymore. Germany won it because of their team game, Spain did the same four years ago. I can’t remember the last time when it was won because of an individual, maybe Brazil with Ronaldo in 2002.

      I believe that Xavi deserves to have won a Balon d’Or but like you I can’t say when exactly. Messi individually deserved it even in the year that Xavi won the world cup so there was never going to be another chance for Xavi. Iniesta even less so, I can’t say at any stage that he has been the best player in the world.

      For the next one it will have to be Ronaldo, individually he has been the best player and his champions league performances were worthy of it. Messi would have won had the world cup final went differently.

    • October 13, 2014

      I agree that it shouldn’t be THE main reason for winning it, but for somebody to be awarded a Balon d’Or after such a horrible world cup strikes me as wrong.

      I think the award’s biggest flaw is that it’s based on a calendar year while football follows seasons. It was mostly during the CL group stages in 2013 that CR shone (same goes for his Liga performances).

      I will say in his favor that, I was impressed by his keeping things simple and modest and playing for the team during a CL final in which he was not able to do much right, ridiculous antics after scoring the extra time penalty aside of course.

    • ciaran
      October 13, 2014

      I agree that he didn’t have a good world cup by any stretch of the imagination but that Portugal squad is terrible, and I mean terrible.
      Likewise I don’t judge Messi buy the fact that he didn’t win the world cup because he and Masch were the only real shining lights from their team. Aguero and Higuain were huge disappointments throughout and they were lacking in midfield too. All the burden was on Messi in one direction and Masch in the other.

    • October 13, 2014

      For me there was a period during that Spain/Barça run where Xavi was the most dominant player in world football. If he didn’t win it then, was never going to.

    • ciaran
      October 13, 2014

      I agree with you Kxevin, but Messi became stupidly good at the same time and was finishing every move with a goal and so got all the plaudits. Xavi dominated the matches and Messi reaped the benefits. Who was more important? That’s a question for a smarter man than I but without either of them history would be very different.

    • Jim
      October 13, 2014

      Agreed, Kxevin. In all my football watching life I’ve never seen a player who single handedly set the tempo of a game so completely and squeezed the life out of the opposition as they couldn’t get the ball. The number of touches on the ball and his refusal to give it up cheaply were astonishing and as high a level of skill as any R10, Messi or anyone else has shown over the years.

      I will never forget his performances – a real footballers’ footballer.

  9. PrinceYuvi
    October 13, 2014

    Was saying the same thing about Xavi few days ago, somewhere else.

    Take the Wembley Finale for example,
    Xavi carries the game in his pocket and decides who does what…Friends or Foes alike.

    Total Control !
    I’ve seen nothing like it.

    In other news, What is up with Mass Hypnosis ?
    There are hardly any journos or articles who question the Ronaldo way.
    He’s projected as the Perfect specimen,
    his mistakes, flaws hardly questioned,
    His decline hardly predicted after every bad game.

    Not because he’s the best player on planet or because of the zillion goals,
    I like Messi because he plays football like it should be played.

    I can’t fathom why for a player of his stature, his head is not full of air.
    https://mobile.twitter.com/BarcaIsMyDrug/status/521302066010931200/photo/1

    Forget Ronaldo, I don’t have any qualms about missing out Peles, Maradonas, Zidanes or Cruyffs.
    Seen this guy, Seen it all.

    Yes, I’m a fanboy. It’s a privilege.

  10. lala10
    October 14, 2014

    It’s an intriguing thing this debate. From my perspective it has been about processes and the end product. Is the end product superior to the process itself? Are the means inferior to the end? Probably that is why Xavi and Iniesta have yet (and are unlikely) to win this prestigious in this current state of things. They have too been unlucky to play with Messi in the same team. Had they played for another club other than ours maybe they could have been considered for their massive contributions. It could not have helped that after such fine showings they would bestride the same pitch as Messi.

  11. October 14, 2014

    I just think that how we view football is invertly proportionate to our general relationships in all endeavours, 90% of culers are clearly creative and incredibly cultured in such a way that class becomes relatively irrelevant, because there is not a better majesty than adorning the cloak of a supreme identity. Many a times we are cornered by our own very qualities that while others battle for class, we lull into our own soothing songs of praise, and ours cannot be measured by theirs and vis-a-vis.

    If you remember correctly we passed on the chance to sign ronaldo from united due to his ”not so cule” skillset.
    Alexis sanchez was sold for same reason, fabregas too.

    Not to sway sometimes our transfer window misdemeanors, the term cultured cuts across the barca way. Ivan rakitic for his part is sub-cultured which can only help solve immediate problems.

    Ethnocentrism, the term used to define one’s utmost belief that his culture is superior to others, hence the ronaldo messi debate is unlikely to yield anything more sincere than the standard for greatness is not perfection but to play a certain way.

    Theres a reason a lot of cult heroes are not considered as GOATS which is in all honesty trimmed to its default trio of:
    messi, maradona and pele. In that order.

  12. barca96
    October 15, 2014

    Poor Thiago just can’t catch a break. I hope his career isn’t ended though I doubt he will ever reach his true potential.

  13. idk
    October 23, 2014

    Ronaldo? Who’s that?
    No matter what, Messi will always be the best football player in the world.
    Messi doesn’t just scores goals. Messi has the hole pack!!

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