There is little doubt that both Ronaldo and Messi have been the best two footballers on the planet the last five years. So, why do many followers of the beautiful game, especially those over the age of 30, myself included, bristle at the “he may be the greatest ever player” comments periodically laid, particularly at Messi’s feet?
Yes, both players are coming off of yet another brilliant goal-scoring season with their respective clubs but Real Madrid and Barcelona are laden with 10 other superstars on any given weekend, something Maradona never had at his successful stint at Napoli. As this current Barca side goes down as one the greatest club sides ever, one could argue that would have been possible, even without Messi, and with La Liga increasingly becoming a two team league; it’s not hard to see why both Messi and C. Ronaldo have struggled at times, to impress outside of their Spanish based comfort zone.
Ronaldo and Messi have been underwhelming at football’s ultimate acid tests – The World Cup and The Copa America/Euros respectively. Neither player has yet to individually grasp an international tournament by its neck with moments of sheer brilliance, as Van Basten did at Euro 88, with “that goal”, or by willing his teammates, almost single handedly to glory, as Maradona did in Mexico 86 – a feat he almost repeated in Italia 90, as the Argentinean – a mere shadow of his former self, with pieces of an ankle held together by screws, still managed to get Argentina to the losing side of the final, albeit a dreadful one. There are of course other football gods who’ve solidified their legacies on the international stage: Cryuff, Matthäus, Beckenbauer, Moore, Charlton, Rossi, Baggio, and of course – the great Pele.
Two more recent examples: Brazil’s Ronaldo, a prospect, too young to factor in Brazil’s USA 94′ World Cup win, then as a superstar, only to falter at his coronation at France 98′ – with a ghost-like performance at the final, filled with pre-match, conspiracy tinged rumors of hotel room seizures and sponsor influenced team selection. What a difference four years made, in 2001, Ronaldo, struggling with career threatening knee injuries and an indifferent club form, was considered washed up and surplus requirement to Brazil’s 2002 world cup squad by some. Expected by many to play at best – a peripheral role in Korea/Japan, not only did Ronaldo inspire Brazil to their record 5th world title, he ended up top goal scorer, in spite of that haircut. There is also Zidane, coming out of international retirement, to take France to their 3rd major final in eight years.
There are many great players who, can legitimately use their country’s lack of footballing pedigree as a hindrance to true, all round greatness: Kenny Dalglish, George Best, Ryan Giggs, The Laudrup brothers, Roy Keane, to name a few. With Portugal and Argentina however, neither Ronaldo nor Messi can use history or team quality as excuses. To put it bluntly – in order for either player to truly cement a lasting legacy amongst the footballing gods, they must at some point, repeat their club form to propel their country to a major final. Ronaldo, after yet another quiet start to a major tournament, has steadily imposed himself on Euro 2012 with inspired performances in Portugal’s victories against both The Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Later today, the Portuguese superstar will play one of the most important matches of his career, when his country faces an imposing Spanish side. Will Ronaldo, with another brilliant performance, stay on the path to immortality, or will he and Portugal squander their chance yet again, to make footballing history?