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.
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.