The Ballon d’Or is perhaps the most prestigious individual award in the sports realm. Every player in the world is eligible to be nominated, and any of these players can win so long as he fulfills one requirement: be the best player in the world the previous year.
All players have that mindset. They want to be the best at what they do, but some are just destined to shine. And their hard work, raw talent and dedication puts them above the rest. This is a competition designed for heroes of the game, but where there is a hero, there is always a villain.
Over the last four years the players, coaches and journalists have voted Lionel Messi the world’s greatest player four years in a row; a feat that had never been achieved. During those 4 years the last person to win the award before Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, came in second 3 times and has been cast as somewhat of a villain. There has been a tireless debate amongst soccer analysts, fans, players, legends, and pundits regarding the little genius and the sultan of the step-over. This argument concerning which player is better transcends the rivalry of their respective clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid and overshadows the blatant fact that we are witnessing two phenomena in action the likes of which haven’t been seen since Pele and Maradona.
Many would describe Ronaldo, the mercurial Portuguese forward, as arrogant, selfish, a diver and a pretty boy. While there is a certain air of arrogance to him, this is something that comes with the territory of being a living legend and he has surely earned the right to stick his nose in the air a little.
Nobody in the modern game works as hard as Ronaldo. The skill was always there, but when the slim 18-year-old joined Manchester United from Sporting CP in 2003, he began to undergo a series of developments that would bring out the player we have come to know today. Ronaldo honed his skills while playing alongside the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane, who helped the young star to find composure. He slowly filled out his 186cm frame without sacrificing his speed or quick feet, and a physical specimen was born within just a few years of his Red Devils career.
In 2006 he broke onto the top-scoring scene as the league’s third highest scorer with 17 goals. And in the subsequent year, he exploded with 31 goals, which led the league. In 2008, he scored 18 goals, which was second in the league and he hoisted his 3rd consecutive league trophy as well as winning the Ballon d’Or before leaving on a record setting transfer to Real Madrid.
Since 2009, Ronaldo has scored 30+ goals every season and has scored 50+ goals three years in a row. He was the first player to reach 40 goals in two consecutive years. He’s the fastest Real Madrid player to reach 100 goals and he has taken the 7 shirt from legends such as Beckham and Raúl. He has won the league once with Madrid and has amassed a mind-boggling amount of personal accolades. Simply put, he is an astounding player and one of the most complete players to ever play the game. He, like Lionel Messi, is light years ahead of his fellow footballers, but he has been unfairly judged by fans, pundits and even the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, whose comments about Messi being a “good boy” and Ronaldo being a “general” and spending more time on his hair weren’t received well by Portugal and Real Madrid’s president Florentino Perez.
On the other side of the debate, we have Lionel Messi. Rarely do the press or players scrutinize the little Argentine with the exception of a couple of alleged outbursts and the whole tax evasion issue. But the focus should be solely on the player and the magnificent things he has achieved since Barcelona began paying for his medical bills to treat his growth hormone deficiency. At the tender age of 11, the scouts of La Masia noticed something special in the young Messi and he relocated to Barcelona where a legend would be born. He began tearing up the competition in Barcelona’s youth academy. And in 2004 then manager Frank Rijkaard handed Messi his first professional start at the tender age of 17 years and 114 days, which, at the time, made him the third youngest player to start a game for Barça. The Dutch manager, who was one of the best defensive midfielders to play the game, noticed Messi’s gift early on and is credited for helping to launch Messi’s career, as he showed so much faith in the young star. Messi became a regular in 2006 and was fortunate to play alongside legends such as Ronaldinho, Iniesta, Xavi, Deco, Van Bronckhorst, and Thierry Henry over the next few years.
Unlike Ronaldo, Messi doesn’t have the physique that poses multiple threats, but the little genius is so aptly named because he sees things on the pitch that no one else does. His vision is almost frightening and there’s no doubt that playing with pass masters Xavi, Iniesta and Ronaldinho have helped to groom that vision. His excellent understanding of the game is complimented by a technique that cannot be taught. There have been many skilled dribblers to grace the beautiful game, but few have ever been able to run with the ball like Messi. His low centre of gravity allows him to make quick cuts and the ball seems so stick to his feet. He’s extremely agile, has great acceleration, can beat you with his speed and seems to show up everywhere on the field. While he’s a centre forward by trade, he can play in any attacking position and some of his goals and style of play bear an uncanny resemblance to fellow Argentine legend Diego Maradona. As far as numbers go he has been putting on a clinic since 2008. He has scored 38+ goals each of the past five seasons and has assisted 24+ goals in two of those seasons as well as scoring over 50 goals a season over the last 3 years. He broke Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year with 91 goals in 2012. He has won the league six times and, like Ronaldo, has won an insane amount of personal awards.
The argument over who is the best player in the world seems to boil down to goals, assists and public image when decided by the Ballon d’Or voters. Barcelona fans believe Messi to be the best, and Real Madrid fans believe Ronaldo to be the best. A good deal of these fans unfortunately take away from the brilliance of the two players by spewing ignorant remarks about the opposition and the amount of Messi vs Ronaldo debates is truly tiring.
What’s certain is that both of these players are truly spectacular and we are privy to two of the greatest players to step foot on the pitch. There are a host of brilliant footballers in the world, and even past Ballon d’Or winners are still playing with absolute class. There is much to talk about in soccer, but the two superstars Messi and Ronaldo are on another planet, and until someone catches up there will be little opposition for the two of them. Neymar has demonstrated that he will be the next big thing, but he is still very far from those two giants. And with Messi sidelined, this will be his chance to strut his stuff prior to the World Cup, which takes place on his home soil.
Over the last few years there hasn’t been anyone else outside of Messi and Ronaldo who could realistically pose a threat to those two superstars in terms of Ballon d’Or voting. While Franck Ribéry was hotly tipped to win the award earlier this year because of his instrumental play in Bayern Munich’s treble, it seems that his efforts will fall by the wayside, which is extremely unfortunate since he quietly has been one of the best players in the world for the past few years. FIFA controversially extended the Ballon d’Or voting to go through the end of November as opposed to mid November and this allowed voters the chance to take in Ronaldo’s latest performances in La Liga and against Sweden in the World Cup Qualifying Playoff where he scored all four of their goals and booked Portugal’s ticket to the World Cup while shoving Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic aside.
With Messi out injured, it seems almost certain that Ronaldo will win his second Ballon d’Or, but will this impending victory for Ronaldo shake up the debate over who is the best remains to be seen?
Whether you prefer Messi or Ronaldo, you have to appreciate what they’ve done for the game and disregard what they do outside of football because we are truly lucky to have both of these players competing at the same time and allowing us to make these comparisons that are more hotly debated than a host of political, religious and economic issues. The beautiful game has brought us many great rivalries in the past, and Messi vs Ronaldo is only the latest in a long line of legendary feuds that will be talked about as long as the game exists.
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