Is there anything more ridiculous than comparing the singularity of two footballers? Yet it would be even more ridiculous not to compare these two. One is short while the other is a model athlete, and they're both finishers, have lucrative advertising contracts and are multimillionaires. One is admired and lionized, while the other is feared and ridiculed. Both played the season of their lives -- until those two days in April.
When it was all over, the one player tried to disappear into the turf at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. When that didn't work, he buried his face in his jersey and waited for someone to comfort him. No one did. The other squatted sadly on the turf at the Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid, stood up abruptly, walked briskly toward the locker room, and yet was unable to prevent his pale, empty face from disintegrating into the weeping grimace of a child before he had disappeared from the fans' vision.
Cristiano Ronaldo had missed a penalty kick in the Champions League semifinal, and Real Madrid was eliminated after losing to Bayern Munich. The day before, Lionel Messi had botched a penalty kick in the other semifinal, and FC Barcelona was eliminated after losing to FC Chelsea. As a result, the two superstars of world football had to endure malicious derision as potent as the glory that normally comes their way.
This year, neither of them was able to raise the Champions League trophy. Still, Ronaldo and his team came out on top of the league standings, while Messi's Barcelona won the Spanish cup. But the trophy that actually interests them more is the Ballon d'Or, the golden ball awarded each year to the world's best player. Messi has had the honor of embracing the Ballon d'Or the last three years. And this year, he might again -- or it could be Ronaldo. Only those two are in the hunt to be named the world's best footballer -- because of the number of goals each of them has scored: Messi an unbelievable 73 in 60 games and Ronaldo 60 in 54 games.
Claim to Be the Best
Ronaldo would have clinched the Ballon d'Or if he had won the final with Real Madrid. Instead, the Portuguese player was overcome by a deep, despairing and horrible sadness after shooting the penalty kick. His thoughts, to the extent that they are expressed in his words, have been dominated by the Golden Ball for as long as he has been playing football. Being the best in the world, "becoming a legend," as he says, is what keeps him going, encourages him to put in more time at the gym, during training and practicing penalties. It affects his game and every goal celebration, staged as if to confirm his claim to be the best.
Yes, he is better than Messi at the moment, he said in a recent CNN interview. And, he added, he believes that Portugal -- Germany's first opponent next Saturday -- stands a chance of winning the title in the European Football Championship tournament which begins on Friday. Should that happen, he will almost certainly have clinched the Ballon d'Or. The coaches and captains of the national teams, as well as 100 sports journalists, who choose the winner of the Ballon d'Or, have only chosen him once, four years ago.
Messi versus Ronaldo. It's Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi, the kind of duel that really shouldn't happen in team sports. It excites millions of fans, fills the pages of dozens of websites, forums and blogs every day, fueling a battle of the idiots, nerds, groupies and aficionados. Real Madrid's Alfredo Di Stéfano shaped the 1950s, the Brazilian player Pelé the 60s, Holland's Johan Cruyff the 70s, Maradona the 80s, Zinédine Zidane the 90s and Ronaldinho the first years of the 21st century. Since then, a duel has been underway between two footballers, one of whom could lend his name to an era.
They inspire a battle of the believers, and they outdo each other from season to season with record numbers of goals and trophies. Messi has captured 19 titles with FC Barcelona, including five Spanish championships and three Champions League wins. Ronaldo has brought in 11 titles with Manchester United and Real Madrid, including four national championships and one Champions League victory.
A Passing Machine
Messi is a finisher, a creator on offense, a maverick and a team player. His dribbling is wild and detached, and he is faster with the ball than without. When he swoops down on four or five opponents at four-and-a-half steps per second, he makes half a team look ridiculous. The changes in direction during his attacks are intuitive, unstudied. There are no stepovers, no backheels, just a boy running excitedly, a boy who knows that he is about to do it again, about to slip through a thick chain of defenders to lift, push, lob or curl the ball into the goal.
He shot 26 of his 73 season goals for FC Barcelona in this fashion. His all-out attack can erupt from anywhere in the offensive half. Against Real Madrid and again playing FC Getafe, he began dribbling at midfield, through four, five and six tackling, kicking and falling defenders.
That's the one side of Messi. The other Messi is the team player, a passing machine who sometimes drives the ball to the feet of his teammates "at 100 kilometers per hour," precisely at the right time, precisely in the flow of the game, played in such a way that the balls find their way back to his foot, past wide-eyed, confused and helpless opponents, who are left to retrieve the ball from the back of the net. Twenty-three of his goals this season were such co-productions, 10 of them in a double pass, a double-double pass or a double-double-double pass.
To describe how Cristiano Ronaldo shoots the goals that only he can shoot, one has to envision a man, 1.86 meters (6'1") tall, with plucked eyebrows and gelled hair, who first fixes his gaze on the goalkeeper and then on the ball, who enjoys the fear that overcomes his opponents at this moment, who takes five steps back from the ball, who stands with his legs wide apart, his hands seemingly ready to draw his gun, like Wyatt Earp in the movies, who licks his lips in anticipation, who starts running with energetic steps and strikes the ball, with the inside of his foot in such a way that it flies high over the wall of opponents, seemingly aimed at the fans behind the goal, only to suddenly drop and fly into the net.
Meticulousness and Perseverance
If there were a patent for surefire free kicks, Ronaldo would be the legitimate owner. He celebrates his free kicks like no other player, and he practices these ballistic miracle curves more than any other player, when his teammates are already in the showers.
This meticulousness and perseverance, but also the showmanship and bravado that are part of each of his free kicks, are characteristic of his style of play. Ronaldo has turned the lanky, tall body of a pubescent boy into the perfect, athletic body of a complete player, one who is fast, adept at using both feet, skilled at headers and full of tricks -- and who produces more than 40 goals a season.
Sit-ups are his favorite pastime, says Ronaldo. His entire life is focused on becoming the god of the ball. When the motor oil company Castrol, one of his sponsors, had him tested in a high-performance laboratory as if he were a new sports car, the scientists came up with astonishing numbers. During his free kicks, he accelerates the ball three times as fast as an Apollo rocket during takeoff and, while dribbling, he manages to complete 13 side-steps, fakes and stepovers in 13 seconds.
Ronaldo jumps higher than average basketball player in the NBA. He has the long legs of a sprinter, the physique of a medium-distance runner and less body fat than a supermodel. When he was tested at the Castrol lab, the scientists were amazed to see that he could kick and head balls in total darkness once he had seen them kicked in his direction in the light of a spotlight. If scientists ever developed the ability to create the ideal footballer out of genetic material, the result would be someone like Ronaldo. Messi would be rejected -- too short, too weak, too wild, a boy who only managed to grow to a height of 1.69 meters (5'7") with the help of growth hormones.
Messi's Reinvention of Football
The playing systems in which they became stars are as different as their bodies and their playing styles. Barcelona's confusing maze of passes gives a street footballer like Messi the space to move across the entire length of the pitch, between midfield and the goal.
Ronaldo has perfected his sprints, crosses and shots from distance in the counter-attacking football preferred by Manchester United and Real Madrid. Just how dependent the two "extraterrestrials" -- as sports journalists like to call them -- are on their teams' terrestrial games becomes especially evident when they fail because of their team's game.
In the two Champions League semifinals, the threads binding Messi to his midfielders broke too often. FC Chelsea was frequently able to isolate Messi, tempting him into imprecise passes or shots. During the game in Barcelona, only 74 percent of his passes found their target, well below his usual 90 percent. He had the ball 108 times and lost it 27 times, while dribbling or as a result of a missed pass, a catastrophic number for him. He lost the ball 12 times in the last 15 minutes alone, when Barcelona had to force the decision.
When Ronaldo shot two quick goals in second leg of the semifinal against Bayern Munich, he behaved as if he had already won the Champions League and the Ballon d'Or, and then spent the rest of the game strutting, bickering and sulking on the left wing.
He only managed to take the ball from Munich players six times, but he lost it 17 times, and he only had possession 65 times. No Madrid player was as uninvolved in the game as he was. He ventured only 22 challenges in 120 minutes. Against Chelsea, Messi became involved in 29 challenges in 90 minutes. Ronaldo played only 37 passes, while Messi played more than twice as many.
Because Ronaldo wants a long approach for his dribbles, he prefers to play on the wing, instead of using his technique, his command of the ball and his speed in the entire space between the midfield line and the goal. Because Messi lays claim to the entire space in front of and in the penalty box to develop his attacks on goal -- and has thus driven classic center-forwards like David Villa, Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovi either out of the center of the attack or out of the team -- a finisher in the penalty box is missing against defense-oriented teams like Chelsea.
An Insidious Game
But football is an insidious game. Though Messi and Ronaldo have led their teams to victory time and again, in these two games, they plunged Madrid and Barcelona into defeat, because their opponents turned the two players' strengths into their teams' weaknesses.
Barcelona is more dependent on Messi than Madrid is on Ronaldo. In Spanish League games, Messi utilized 34 percent of his goal-scoring opportunities (Ronaldo utilized 22 percent), he had an average of 90 ball contacts per game (Ronaldo had 61), and he risked 329 dribbling runs (Ronaldo: 205), of which he won more than half (Ronaldo won a little more than a third).
More numbers? Ronaldo's sponsor Castrol maintains an online ranking of Europe's best players, gathers the data on their performance in each game and has the data evaluated by experts, who then determine what effect a player's actions had on the success or failure of his team. At the end of this season, Messi was at the top of the rankings, with 1,195 points, while Ronaldo, with 932 points, was only in fourth place.
For some, numbers are the most important thing in football. They corroborate what one has seen, but not always. Companies like Opta and Amisco using elaborate technology to gather hundreds of thousands of pieces of data per match, to examine the players and the game in detail for the coaches and the media. The numbers speak in favor of Messi. Those who prefer to believe their eyes see a little guy who causes fans to shake their heads in amazement and laugh in disbelief, and a model footballer who does stepovers like no other player, who shoots goals with his heel from 11 meters out -- with even the fans of the opposing team sometimes shouting "Messi."
Ronaldo is adored by girls like Paris Hilton and Irina Shayk, the Russian lingerie model, by marketing managers and by gay men, who like to vote him the "sexiest man alive." Messi will never have a tattoo, and when he wears his red velvet suit by Dolce & Gabbana, he looks as if his mother had bought him the wrong confirmation suit.
'Handsome and Rich'
Ronaldo published an illustrated book about his life at 22. He has launched his own fashion collection, CR7, he sometimes wears a €25,000 Meccaniche Veloci Quattro Valvole Podium Nite Lite watch on his wrist, he drives every luxury car in the world, from Bugatti to Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes and Porsche, and he says: "People are jealous of me, because I'm handsome and rich."
Messi would rather talk to the ball than to journalists, is a UNICEF ambassador and the founder of the Leo Messi Foundation to help disadvantaged children, and he says: "After paying a visit to a hospital, my special role as a public individual became clear to me."
Ronaldo's image is all about his body, his wealth and his advancement, while Messi's is about his heart, his modesty and his advancement. Ronaldo is bad to the point of honesty, while Messi is good to the point of ridicule. The devil is motivated by hate and the angel by affection. Both images rake in similarly large sums of money. Nike, Armani, Coca-Cola, Konami, Clear Shampoo and other companies pay Ronaldo about €25 million a year, plus the €13 million Real Madrid pays him. Adidas, Dolce & Gabbana, Pepsi, Herbalife, EA Sports and others pay Messi €20 million, plus his €11 million annual salary at Barcelona.
They are as different as football types as they are as advertising vehicles, but their lives have been more similar than one would assume. They are both proof positive of the fact that extraterrestrials, given the right genetic material, can be cultivated like rare flowers in a botanical garden. They were outsiders as children and adolescents. Messi was too small, while Ronaldo had heart problems. They had little interest in school, were fixated on the ball and discovered early on as exceptional talents, transplanted from Rosario in Argentina to Barcelona in the case of Messi, and from Madeira to Lisbon in the case of Ronaldo, trained and encouraged at football boarding schools, separated from their families, and worked hard for years, often fighting back tears, until their debuts as professional players. Messi played in his first game on Barcelona's professional team in November 2003, when he was 16, while Ronaldo made his professional debut with Sporting Lisbon in July 2002, at 17. Both players amazed fans and opponents alike.
Messi didn't need to be taught much, say his youth coaches. He already controlled the ball as tightly at seven as he does today, and his rush to the goal was also developed early on. Both players shared a reckless determination to win, and both wept when defeated. Ronaldo worked tirelessly at being equally effective with both feet, and practiced his headers and his first gestures of arrogance.
A Number of Different Styles
After Ronaldo, at 18, had been traded to Manchester United in 2003 for €17 million, he added 10 kilograms of muscle to his body and merged his balls skills with the speed and toughness a la Alex Ferguson that English football is known for. The result is the style he is perfecting today at Real Madrid, under José Mourinho: the fastest route to the goal is a straight line; if it is blocked, try to get to the goal in three plays. Play the ball vertically and horizontally, but mostly vertically! In Spain, as Ronaldo would learn, the path from your own goalkeeper to the opposing team's goal is surmounted with more style than in England.
At La Masia, the FC Barcelona boarding school, Messi learned to combine his street football with Barça's storm of passing. The most attractive route to the goal consists of as many curves as possible; the second-most attractive path consists of as many short passes as possible; if you lose the ball get it back, immediately.
In the 4-3-3 system he played, as a left footer, on the left side, and then his coach Frank Rijkaard pushed him to the right side -- despite Messi's protests -- to position him better for dribbling and shooting. His successor Pep Guardiola promoted Messi into the center of the offensive spectacle, thereby turning him into the ultimate goal machine. This season, Messi broke Gerd Müller's legendary 1973 goal record (67 goals).
More goals than a classic striker! Messi plays a number of different styles, combining roles that are generally assigned to individual positions. Thanks to Guardiola, Messi has fashioned an entirely new position -- a striker, a winger and a facilitator all at once, something unprecedented in football. Messi gives football the beauty of anarchy, while Ronaldo gives it the prototype of a human machine, one that, when his team wins 5:1, vomits because he himself hasn't shot a single goal. One plays football with the energy of a Terminator, and the other with the defiance of a Forrest Gump. The certainty of being special propels them to success, again and again, and each goal is proof and each Ballon d'Or a halo.
Messi at Real Madrid, Ronaldo at Barcelona -- who would benefit the team more? Messi and Ronaldo, the best footballers of all time? There it is, the most ridiculous of all questions, the question that has to be answered with such seriousness, like all ridiculous football questions, and more cautiously than any other. Just a minute, says Pelé, let them shoot my 1,000 goals and be three-time world champions first. Pelé was half Messi, half Ronaldo. He had the innate instinct to overcome the opposing player with body fakes, and he had the shooting technique of an athletic goal-scoring machine.
Never Be Forgotten
Zinédine Zidane was able to control his team's game more effectively than Messi. He was half Messi and half Xavi, Barça's ball distributor. Zidane moved smoothly across the pitch, as if he were listening to arias. Messi's movements follow a nervous beat. Nowadays, however, Messi and Ronaldo have to struggle through defensive lines that are much tighter than in the days of their legendary role models.
Maradona, who says that he feels his spirit in Messi's body, was slower and more predictable than Messi, and not as much of a scoring threat (although more on drugs), but he became world champion with Argentina. Messi and Ronaldo are unique club players, but as national players they are tainted with failure. The materialist can say that victories in the national jersey are more difficult to market, worldwide. The idealist will say that after 60 games in the club jersey, there is too little of Messi and too little of Ronaldo left at the end of the season to be triumphant on the national team.
After the defeat in the 2004 European Championship final, and after the fourth-place finish in the 2006 World Cup, this year's European Championship could now produce two successes for Ronaldo: to finally be recognized as a good national player, and to win the Ballon d'Or.
But Ronaldo can't get the missed penalty from the lost semifinal against Bayern Munich out of his head, and he missed another penalty after that. After his own semifinal trauma, Messi scored four goals on penalties in league matches to go with five additional goals, one of those coming in the Spanish cup final. The win in that match was Barcelona's fourth title of the season, following the World Club Championship, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Super Cup. But for Messi, too, failing to advance to the Champions League final in Munich is the greatest disappointment of his career.
In the 71st minute of that Spanish cup final a week and a half ago, the fans got a glimpse of him again, the irresistibly dancing Messi, the little guy in shorts, who says that his specialty is to rush into the penalty box and inspiring fear. That, he says, is football for him -- inspiring fear like a shark that has smelled blood.
Messi takes control of the ball in his own half, pursued by a Bilbao player who tries but fails to take him down from behind. A second opposing player crosses his path from the side. Messi shakes them off like toothless fighting dogs, fakes his way past the next man, runs past two others and, after destroying half the team, shoots at the goal from a sharp angle.
It's a slalom dance like his solo of the century against FC Getafe. This time, though, the goalkeeper catches the ball with the tip of his foot and prevents the sphere from becoming a golden ball, and yet it is this moment that the fans will talk about after the game, the moment that will get more than 100,000 views on YouTube, even though there is no goal to admire, the moment in which football becomes more than a ball sport, the moment in which a foot does something with a ball that will never be forgotten.