“Human reason has this peculiar fate in one species of its cognitions that it is burdened with questions it cannot dismiss, since they are given to it as problems by the nature of reason itself, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason.
Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own.”
– Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
“Now Ronaldo have 5 gold ball same Messi , the gold ball 2016 and 2017 are for Ronaldo and for that’s Ronaldo it’s The GOD of football, and in the world cup 2018, Ronaldo put 6 goals in 2 games, he have more records and he are little better in front of messi … “
– YouTube commenter, “Cristiano Ronaldo”
1. We are, in sum, idiots
Football fans have this peculiar fate that they are burdened with questions they cannot dismiss, since they are given to them as problems by the nature of football itself, but that they also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of the fan. They fall into this perplexity through no fault of their own. One (perhaps, at this point, the) such question: Who is better, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
In the 11th year of the Messi-Ronaldo debate, this question lives in the shadow of another, pissier question: Really, this again? What is to be gained from successfully resolving the argument? Or alternatively, why are we so compelled to have it in the first place?
There is a dismissive — though, on the face of it, credible — answer to these questions: We are, in sum, idiots, and we get the stupid nonsense-arguments we deserve.
In response to this answer — or at any rate the sense this answer is lurking somewhere in the background of all the many other answers to the question — it has become de rigueur for a certain kind of self-respecting fan to reject the question altogether, to sigh, a pained little sigh, and to ask, as if into the void, whether we can’t appreciate them both. That we can, and many people do, of course doesn’t change the fact this isn’t an answer to the question.
So perhaps we should take a moment first to ask: Does it matter who is better?
Based on the fact we’ve been arguing about this for a decade, and arguing earnestly enough there have developed not one, not two, but three distinct schools of thought on the subject (Messi, Ronaldo, no comment), and that even now when one of these players does something impressive, the response often focuses, if not entirely, then certainly in some important way, on the other one, and whatever impressive feat he’s recently achieved or, perhaps, such is the speed at which information now travels, is currently achieving — based on all this, the answer is, quite obviously, it matters to a lot of people. Which, well, it’s not as good as a yes, but it’s also a lot more complicated than a no.
Of course the fact a lot of people care about a thing is not by itself enough to make the thing worth debating (in the immortal words of Super Hans, “people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people.”) But if we set aside for a moment the various stupidities that have come to define the debate, and consider only the most basic information at its core — these are the two best players in the world, they have been for a decade, they play in roughly the same position and they do it all for massive, global-powerhouse teams (and until recently, each other’s biggest rivals) — this does at very least seem like the sort thing we should want to talk about. The sort of easy narrative fodder, indeed, that sportswriters dream of.
One of the challenges of writing about Messi and Ronaldo is this gnawing sense you have succumbed to the propaganda. That even despite your childish sense of optimism — the feeling you, of all people, have stumbled upon a new and meaningful way to talk about probably the two most talked about players in the history of the most talked about sport in all of human civilization — that despite all this what you’re really doing is little more than a slightly higher-brow version of a YouTube comments section, “Messi needs to prove himself at another club,” but with similes and now, at the conclusion of this sentence, some self-referential, meta-textual clutching at straws. As long as they know you know you know what you’re doing, you think (with a nod and a wink), it will be fine.
And so why not let’s be blunt. The cure for this gnawing, the rhetorical gambit on which the value of this entire piece rests is as follows: What I want to talk about is not who is better, but what it means that we have devoted so much time to talking about who is better (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the various ways we’ve talked about it). When I refer to “the MRD,” therefore, I don’t refer to any specific argument about which player is better, or even the sum total of every specific argument about which player is better. I refer to the debate — and also the rejection of the value of the debate, and the debate about why we keep having the debate — as an entity unto itself. The MRD is not on this view a thing we have or do, but an object all its own, with a unique memory, history, logic, vocabulary, etc. It is this phenomenon I wish to discuss.
The most basic task of this discussion is to determine what happened, how what was once one of the many, mostly harmless “who’s better” debates that litter all sports turned into the altogether more disturbing thing the MRD has become. The other, more complicated task is to attempt, however feebly, to rehabilitate the MRD, to argue that the worst features of the debate shouldn’t cause us to ignore our basic impulse to compare two such extraordinary, and extraordinarily different, players. That this was all a sort of grand failure of language, our collective inability to process the sublime.
Or, you know, maybe not.
2. This is what Messi and Ronaldo have done
The first rumblings of the MRD can be traced to 2007-08. Ronaldo scored 42 goals for Manchester United that season, and won his first Ballon d’Or in December of 2008, at the age of 23. Messi, who turned 21 that June, scored 16 goals and added 13 assists in Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho’s final year at the Camp Nou. He finished second in the Ballon d’Or voting.
Both players made headlines for their performances in the early part of the season, but arguments about who was better only really took off when Barca drew United in the semifinals of the Champions League in April. The Guardian (“Is Cristiano Ronaldo a better player than Lionel Messi?”) and Telegraph (“Ronaldo v Messi: Gifted duo share a path”) both ran comparison pieces, while the New York Times, in its now defunct Goal blog, used those pieces as a jumping off point for its own preview (“Ronaldo, Messi and 20 other guys”).
United won the tie 1-0 thanks to one of the other guys, Paul Scholes, and went on to win the final against Chelsea on penalties. In hindsight, however, the lasting legacy of the season may have been to inaugurate the most ubiquitous sports debate of the 21st century. As the Ballon d’Or voting would confirm five months later, Messi and Ronaldo were recognized as the two best players in the world.
The following season proved to be transformational for both men, and for the debate itself. Pep Guardiola took over at Barcelona, Messi racked up 38 goals and 17 assists, and won his first Ballon d’Or in December 2009, several months after Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid, and (as we learned many years later) reached an out-of-court settlement with a woman named Kathryn Mayorga, who had accused him of raping her in a Las Vegas hotel room.
The two players also met, once again, in a high-profile Champions League match, this time the final. The media, apparently unsatisfied with whatever answer the previous year’s semifinal had proffered to their question, simply asked the same thing again. The best, or funniest-in-hindsight, of the previews was found in the New York Times: “Champions League Final May Settle Messi-Ronaldo Debate.”
The point here isn’t to criticize these papers, for lazy storytelling or a lack of foresight or for anything else. It’s to underline how sensible the question was, or seemed, at that time. The Times headline is funny (or whatever it is) because it proved to be so thoroughly wrong, but also because it was so thoroughly appropriate. The Times, as the Times is wont to do, isolated the most compelling narrative thread of the biggest game of the season and honed in, building its story out from there. What reasonable editor would nix a match preview because of the vanishingly slim possibility its main protagonists might, years later, render its central premise slightly (what’s even the right word here?) outdated, unsophisticated, dumb?
But this is what Messi and Ronaldo have done; they have transformed the normal, the sensible, the compelling into the cringe-worthy, the hackneyed, the cliched. And they have done it not by being great, although they have been great too, but by refusing to fade from view, to get worse. Their ability to make us look foolish in this way is, above all, a feat of longevity. Our narrative playbook for writing about great players, great rivals, has been exhausted by overuse. And so it’s necessary to ask to what extent our boredom (or frustration or whatever it is) with the MRD is a product of our own lack of imagination. How long, or how often, are we capable of talking about the same thing without running out of things to say?
Whatever the threshold, the Messi-Ronaldo debate seemed to cross it, to become the MRD in its fullest sense, some time between 2010 and 2012. Over those two seasons, Messi’s Barca and Ronaldo’s Real played each other 11 times, twice in the Super Cup, four times in the league, three times in the Copa del Rey and twice in the Champions League. Four of their five games in 2010-11 — a Liga match, the Copa del Rey final and both legs of a Champions League semifinal — took place in an 18-day stretch from April 16 to May 3, a Clasico every 4.5 days, a run that presumably contributed to Guardiola’s decision to leave Barca at the end of the following season, citing, among other things, exhaustion.
(This was, it’s important to emphasize, more or less unprecedented. The all-time greats have been, for whatever reason, relatively evenly spaced out in time, and thus allowed to dominate their respective eras, as it were, undisturbed. In the notable instances where the peaks of two all-time greats have overlapped, they’ve either played much of their careers for the same team (Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano) or played in very different positions (Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer). And besides, even if this wasn’t the case, the structure of the game before, roughly, the mid-‘90s meant even players playing in the same country were unlikely to play each other more than a couple times a season.)
And so it was that during this period it became more or less impossible for anyone tapped into the football world to talk about the two players without being aware of contributing to some extant body of argument. The MRD had become finally and thoroughly a thing. If indifference was ever an option, it became necessary around this time to trade it in for disdain or frustration or bemusement, or else to become a card-carrying member of Twitter’s rapidly-expanding idiocracy. That was 2012.
Seven years later, and the players have yet to give us an opportunity to stop talking about them. The goals keep coming. The trophies keep piling up. New stars burst onto the scene only to be subsumed by the light emanating from the sport’s two most powerful suns. They are irrepressible. To ignore them completely would be like trying to describe a piece of music without talking about the instruments on which it is being played. To talk about them individually is only to invite more comparison. We are trapped.
3. Chicken or egg?
The elephant in the room here, or perhaps the room the elephant is in, is of course the internet. It’s not, we can safely assume, a coincidence the MRD has coincided with the proliferation of social media use in everyday life. Ronaldo made his senior debut for Sporting in 2002. Messi made his for Barca in 2004. Facebook was founded the same year. YouTube and Twitter followed shortly after. These platforms have changed the way we communicate, about football and everything else. And changing the way you communicate is as reliable a way as any to change the way you think.
“Who’s better” debates aren’t new, of course. They are in fact rather old. As football writer and historian Jonathan Wilson told me, El Grafico, the iconic Argentinian football magazine founded in the 1920s, routinely compared players, with the purpose of deciding who should start for the national team. And in Austria in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, coffeehouse debate often centered on the relative merits of Josef Uridil and Matthias Sindelar, two forwards who may have been even more stylistically distinct than Messi and Ronaldo. And so the question is to what extent the size and intensity and stupidity of this particular “who’s better” debate is a product of the new tools we have to have it.
Perhaps the great unresolvable question about social media — the 21st century’s chicken or egg — is to what extent it has changed us, and to what extent is has simply given us a public forum in which to express a certain strain of performative dumbassery that was always within us. The MRD presents a similar knot of cause and effect: While the internet has certainly changed the way we consume football — constantly, and everywhere at once — Messi and Ronaldo have changed it too, by being so far better than everyone else it often feels like the only way to situate their greatness is in relation to that of the other.
In any era, they would demand special attention. Even besides everything else (and there is a lot of everything else), their goalscoring numbers are unprecedented. Messi has over 30 club goals 11 seasons in a row now, and over 40 10 in a row. For Ronaldo, those numbers are nine (and in 10 of his last 11) and eight. Among the game’s greats, only Gerd Muller and Pele, who has spent most of the past 40 years inventing matches in which he scored, can rival that.
Again, this would be remarkable at any time in the sport’s history. That it has happened at the only time in the sport’s history when a significant feature of the marketing strategy of what feels like every football-related media outlet on the internet seems to be, apropos of mostly nothing, to incite unsuspecting children from, like, Tokyo and Cincinnati and Accra into yet another Twitter argument about whether Messi’s superior passing ability offsets Ronaldo’s goalscoring record in the Champions League — this is just confusing. The upshot is that Messi and Ronaldo have come to seem like both cause and effect. The reason we talk about players the way we currently (and increasingly) do, and the most striking example of how the internet has changed the way we talk about players.
The 2018 World Cup — likely to be the last in which Messi and Ronaldo are both close to their best — was a perfect case study in how to generate MRD-related storylines where none seem readily available. After Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against Spain in Portugal’s first match, the pressure on Messi ramped up a notch. When Messi missed a penalty the next day, leaving Argentina with a point instead of three against Iceland in their group opener, you couldn’t swing a digital cat (a mouse?) without knocking over a half-dozen Ronaldo-is-better takes. Nor was this MRD-ing confined to the internet.
During Portugal’s next match, against Morocco (for which auspicious occasion Ronaldo, who was 33 years old at the time, grew an actual, real life goatee on his face), the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow chanted Messi’s name every time Ronaldo lost the ball. Messi followed that up with a miserable performance in Argentina’s 3-0 loss to Croatia, which despite being a near-perfect on-pitch distillation of the extraordinary dysfunction and corruption that has threatened to consume Argentinian football for much of the past decade was met primarily with more “debate” about whether Messi had failed “to show up” for his team.
When Portugal and Argentina did eventually squeeze into the knockout rounds (both somewhat fortuitously), social media was flooded with comments pointing out that Messi and Ronaldo were on course to meet in the quarterfinals, what would have been the first time they’ve ever played each other on the sport’s biggest stage. A dream scenario, apparently, except for the fact they both lost convincingly in the round of 16.
Would anyone really have enjoyed watching Messi glare his way through another match for Jorge Sampaoli’s broken Argentina side, especially if it was against Fernando Santos’s workmanlike Portugal? This, instead of seeing vastly more talented, coherent, interesting (if slightly stodgy) France and Uruguay teams. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, we all spent a significant portion of the first half of the biggest tournament in the sport bickering online over the relative merits of two players playing for two mediocre-at-best teams that had nothing to do with one another.
Is this criticism? If it is, who is it criticism of?
The media certainly deserve a healthy share of the blame — we are, in the end, the ones who choose to produce this content — but it’s also worth acknowledging that media outlets, in all their many forms, try to tell stories, above all, that will appeal to their audiences, and the MRD has proved unfailingly popular, among all sorts of audiences, for over a decade.
Which leaves us, it seems, with another, typically internet-ian feedback loop. Where once people spoke about what newspapers wrote about, increasingly now it seems websites write about what people talk about. Coupled with the fact people love talking about what websites write about, this means that if indeed we do talk about the MRD more than we should, one of the reasons we talk about the MRD more than we should is that we talk about the MRD more than we should. Which, if you’re like me, is the sort of sentence that’s liable to make you want to move into a tent at the bottom of the nearest well (and then write several thousand words about it).
Of course there are other culprits here, too. FIFA, the game’s comic book villain of a governing body, has capitalized on the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry to transform the Ballon d’Or (and now the FIFA Best awards) from a respected but hardly legacy-defining prize into a global super-event. In a post-Bosman world, this emphasis on individual stars has helped give players — or at least elite players — more power than ever before, power which has in turn been wielded by agents to transform the beautiful game (or possibly just to accelerate the beautiful game’s transformation) into the shiny brand-carousel we now know and (increasingly conflictedly) love. The inner workings of FIFA and, in particular, the agent class remain largely mysterious, but it’s hard not to see some connection between their various mischiefs and what’s happening on the pitch.
Neymar left Barcelona two summers ago because he wanted to get out of Messi’s shadow and win the Ballon d’Or. Paul Pogba, upon arriving at Manchester United in 2016, said his aim was to win the prize. After Andres Iniesta, as team-oriented a genius as has donned a pair of boots this century, left Barcelona at the end of last season, many paid tribute by talking about the Ballons d’Or he should have won (instead of, I don’t know, the literal dozens of trophies he actually did win).
Similarly, when Luka Modric won the award last December, breaking Messi and Ronaldo’s decade-long stranglehold on the prize, it was packaged as a win for the little guy, overdue recognition for one of this generation’s greatest, most underappreciated midfielders. Modric is certainly worthy of the praise, but something very strange has happened when the star central midfielder for a history-making Real Madrid (Real Madrid!) team needs to win an individual prize to earn any sort of widespread recognition. He hasn’t exactly been toiling away in obscurity these past five years.
This award-related politicking — none of it matters, really. It’s all so much silliness. But these sorts of things simply didn’t happen before the MRD, and they have helped contribute to a fundamental shift in our analysis of the sport: Away from the collective, toward the individual. We — media, fans, whoever — have always held certain players over and above their teams (every sport needs its stars), but never quite like this.
The Guardian’s yearly ranking of the 100 best male players in the world began in 2012. ESPNFC’s version, which started in 2017, is broken down by position (and includes managers). The worldwide leader also publishes weekly player rankings, as do Sky, while Bleacher Report produces a podcast devoted to ranking players. FS1, when it still had the rights to broadcast the Champions League in the U.S., ran a segment in which its pundits ranked the five best players in Europe at the time.
These are only the most high-profile examples in the English-speaking world; but as go the media giants, so go the media dwarfs. And, to be fair, occasionally vice versa. Which is yet another of the many contradictions of the internet as currently constructed: At the same time it has given rise to a mass stratification of culture, it has also limited the scope — tonally, structurally, creatively — of what’s possible in each individual strata. It’s all width, and no depth.
There is a hint of condescension here, possibly even more than a hint, but I didn’t really answer my own question: Is this criticism? That is: What, exactly, is wrong with the sort of coverage I have been describing?
It is one of the MRD’s many little stupidities that disliking the debate, failing to understand the value of comparing Messi and Ronaldo, never seems to stop anyone from getting involved anyway. “So tired of this argument,” these people say, thereby prolonging the argument.
This sort of faux-intellectual disdain is as much a feature of the MRD as the claim Messi’s greatness is undermined by the fact he’s only ever played for Barcelona, and it might be just as pointless. There’s no question a lot of arguments about Messi and Ronaldo are painfully stupid, but a lot of arguments about everything are painfully stupid. The point, presumably, is that people are welcome to enjoy the game however they choose. And for better or worse, it’s quite clear a lot of people enjoy having this debate.
For want, then, of any substantive criticism of this behavior — “it’s dumb” doesn’t quite cut it for me, Clive, even if it’s true — the temptation is to extrapolate, to say something like that the absurdity, the relentlessness of the MRD is reflective of a larger failure — of the internet, of society, in general: We have allowed thoughtless, partisan argument to replace thoughtful, unbiased discussion.
One doesn’t have to be feeling too adventurous, argumentatively speaking, to point to the similarities here between the way we talk about sports and the way we talk about sports’ uglier, gassier cousin, politics. Public discourse is public discourse, whether we’re talking about Lionel Messi’s goals per game ratio or U.S. immigration policy. Pick a side, any side, and work your way backward from there.
The consequences of this state of affairs have been most disturbingly illustrated in the football world by the reaction to Mayorga’s rape allegation against Ronaldo in September 2018 (the allegation and initial out-of-court settlement were first reported in 2017, but only received widespread attention when Mayorga revealed her identity as Ronaldo’s accuser a year later, and announced she would be contesting the settlement).
The case became, with barely a passing thought given to the gravity of the allegation itself, just another talking point in our analysis of Ronaldo as a footballer. As if his being a sex-offender is simply another item in the Messi column: Ronaldo’s better in the air, Messi isn’t an alleged rapist, Ronaldo has more goals in the Champions League knockout rounds, Messi’s a better passer. How many people, hearing that story for the first time, how many people’s first thought was about football?
It seems even that minimal level of recognition that Ronaldo may have done something wrong didn’t last. When ESPN published a report on the developments in Mayorga’s case against Ronaldo in March, the same day Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid to send Juventus through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, a significant number of Ronaldo fans on Twitter wondered why ESPN was trying to detract from his performance. Some went so far as to question the credibility of the report itself. Not now, seemed to be the general sentiment. Of course none of these people bothered to ask themselves the obvious follow up: When?
It would be wrong to suggest the MRD — that is, the changes in football consumption the MRD has helped facilitate — is responsible for our collective willingness to ignore Ronaldo’s alleged crime, let alone for those people who have openly criticized Mayorga. For one thing, any reading of the #MeToo movement has to acknowledge the role social media has played in helping empower women to speak out against their abusers. Mayorga herself acknowledged that she was inspired to come forward in part by others who had already done so.
But the tangle of minor paradoxes that makes up the MRD is also present here. The internet empowers women like Mayorga to break their silence while simultaneously providing a (equally prominent) platform to those who would silence them. It makes possible an extremely detailed, thoroughly reported story like Der Spiegel’s in the first place, and then places it alongside so much idle speculation about its contents, without establishing any meaningful difference between the two. It distorts the truth at the very same time it lays it bear. Opinion becomes indistinguishable from fact.
The question (again) is to what extent the size and intensity and stupidity of this particular “who’s better” debate is a product of the new tools we have to have it. The simple answer is: To a significant extent. The more complicated answer is that talking about these new tools like this — impersonally, as if they were simply left around for us to play with — let’s far too many people off the hook. The football media, the many, corrupt governing bodies (and governments) that oversee the sport, agents, PR companies, brands of all kinds, a significant number of fans and, perhaps above all, the social media companies themselves, who have, as we now well know, designed their products (and stolen our information) specifically to maximize their own addictiveness. Even more disturbing, they have established their own platforms as the primary venues for us to express our hatred of them. What is this if not a kind of Stockholm syndrome?
I said earlier that people are welcome to enjoy the game however they choose. One might reasonably counter at this point that no one chose this, at least not in any traditional sense. The changes in football consumption I have been describing were instigated, and are still now sustained, by forces well beyond our control, and without our interests in mind. On this view, the entire who’s better industrial complex is, basically, a lie, propaganda dressed up as entertainment (or in other words, propaganda).
Worst of all, its logic feels, somehow, in the moment, unimpeachable. It retains just enough of our basic impulse to argue about great players to avoid slipping into uncanny valley. It is unthinking in the way going into the kitchen and opening the fridge is unthinking. Sometimes you know why you did it, and you get what you need and you eat your dinner, and sometimes it just happens, and you’re left standing in the dark, staring at a half-empty bottle of hot sauce, trying to remember what day it is.
4. Such extraordinary variety
The idea of a good MRD, the sort of MRD that doesn’t make you want to dunk your head into a bucket of piranhas, is an idea whose realization depends on the assumption there are, ultimately, interesting ways to compare Messi and Ronaldo. You would be forgiven for dismissing this assumption out of hand. Why, indeed, would you not, given how arguments about the two players tend to proceed?
Like snowflakes — or, like, particles of thermonuclear fallout — every individual Messi-Ronaldo debate is different, but they all follow the same basic pattern. One of Messi or Ronaldo does something good, at which point a lot of people point out that the other one has done something better, at which point the less enlightened Messistas and Ronaldistas among us list their favorite player’s accolades, at which point the more enlightened Messistas and Ronaldistas among us cite their favorite player’s statistics, at which point the most enlightened Messistas and Ronaldistas among us explain why accolades and statistics aren’t sufficient to capture the genius of their favorite player, who is of course obviously better, at which point a few noble souls nobly step into the breach to remind everyone how lucky they are to be alive at the same time as two of the greatest practitioners of the beautiful game this world has ever known, at which point they are ignored as the lame, non-committal narcs they are while everyone else gets back to the matter at hand. This can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 11 years.
One (and by “one” I mean “me”) — me is invariably tempted to ask here what anyone has to gain from pointing out that Ronaldo is better in the air than Messi, or that Messi is a better dribbler than Ronaldo. Such comparisons seem to exist in the hope that if we somehow found a way to chop the players up into enough specialized attributes — heading, dribbling, shooting, etc. — the answer to our question would magically reveal itself. As if this is a simple math problem.
It isn’t, obviously. So obviously, in fact, it has become something of a cliché to suggest that the Messi-Ronaldo debate is, fundamentally, a matter of personal aesthetic preference. To which the only sensible reply is: No s**t. The problem with this suggestion is not that it’s wrong; it’s that it’s used to imply the debate is not worth having, that because talking about the relative merits of these two players is unlikely to cause anyone to change their mind, there is no point in talking about their relative merits at all. As if every unresolvable debate — about politics, philosophy, science — doesn’t also teeter on the brink of some similar ideological abyss.
This is a prime example of what I’m tempted to call football’s intellectual inferiority complex. There is a feeling somewhere at the margins of this argument that football is just, in the end, a meaningless game. Arguing so vehemently about which of two players is better at it is, therefore, meaninglessness stacked on top of meaninglessness, meaninglessness squared. I don’t really have any interest in defending football against this charge, but I do feel obligated to say that meaninglessness doesn’t deserve nearly so bad a reputation as it seems to have earned.
Anyway, the point is this: It is precisely this ideological abyss that makes the MRD worthwhile. Indeed, what’s most interesting about Messi and Ronaldo is not their immense talent or dedication or even the duration of their supremacy; it’s the fact two players who have spent the majority of their careers playing in essentially the same position (albeit on opposite sides of the pitch) could be so thoroughly different. This is not, I would suggest, merely remarkable. It’s the most remarkable feature of the sport: That something so simple could permit such extraordinary variety.
Ronaldo, the popular thinking goes, is something like what a player would look like if he were built in a laboratory by scientists, the concept of the elite modern athlete taken to its logical conclusion, impossibly fast and strong and obsessively single-minded. His work ethic and intensity are unrivaled even in a profession where success is only possible for the most hard working and intense. To some, his demeanor is simply arrogant, but however annoying you might find it to watch Ronaldo not celebrate one of his teammates’ goals, or throw a tantrum after not being awarded a foul, or ripping off his shirt after scoring a meaningless penalty, this single-minded focus and unshakeable self-confidence makes him the player he is, and has therefore benefited his teams significantly more than it has hurt them over the years.
Messi, in contrast, doesn’t so much shatter the ideal of the elite modern athlete as sheepishly ignore it. He’s 5-foot-6, spends much of his time on the pitch these days walking around and generally looks as if he’d rather be anywhere other than standing under the expectant gaze of 60-to-100 thousand fans. But something happens when Messi gets the ball, something “transformation” doesn’t quite cover, since transformation implies a kind of gradation, some remnant of the original thing. “Comes alive” is one popular phrase, but again this invokes an idea of “waking up.” It feels more appropriate to say Messi without the ball doesn’t exist, is not Messi in any way we understand him. When he gets the ball, the effect is like that of a short-sighted person putting on glasses for the very first time; the game, the world, is seen at last for what it really is.
These are only sketches, and overwrought sketches at that, but the contrasts run as deep as you care to dig. One is big, one is small. One bursts past defenders, one weaves through them. One is an extrovert, one is an introvert. One thrives with the ball, one thrives without it. One prefers to score, one prefers to create. You already know which is which. They are in almost every meaningful way, on the pitch and off it, opposites. (The opposite of attacker is not defender; it is a different kind of attacker).
Even the trophies they win these days seem to deepen this contrast. Ronaldo, ever the showman, wins UEFA’s showpiece tournament, the Champions League, doing almost nothing except scoring extraordinary goals in extremely high-leverage situations, while Messi’s more unassuming greatness, a greatness that extends through every phase of attacking play, has allowed Barca to dominate La Liga, winning seven of the last 10 titles (almost certainly, soon, to become eight of the last 11).
And so what I want to suggest is that some significant part of the reason the MRD has endured for so long, the difficulty so many people seem to have in appreciating them both, is that to admit the greatness of the other is in some way to admit that their vision the game, their understanding of how it should look, is under threat. The Messista, confronted with a stubborn Ronaldista, falls back on exasperation: How could you possibly think Ronaldo is better? As if the problem lies not in their eyes or in their brain but in their soul.
All of which is to say, as unsophisticated and generally icky as the MRD can make you feel when you engage with it, as it were, in the trenches, it is important. Of course it’s important. In fact, I want to say, it’s fundamental. Insofar as what we care about when we watch football is a certain kind of mastery — over both the opposition and the ball itself — our ability to determine the size and shape and texture of the superiority of certain players over others is fundamental to our understanding and appreciation of what we’re watching.
An MRD that focuses on this contrast would, unlike the actual one, have real stakes, or at least stakes we have already agreed are worthy of our time and thought. Namely, our understanding of the game itself, the way it should be played, our standard of beauty. We talk about this at the team-level all the time, and rarely does anyone suggest this is a stupid argument (although it, too, is often argued stupidly). Indeed, it might be the most fundamental argument in the entire sport: To win, or to play beautifully?
5. There are no words, just watch
Strange as it is to say about two players who surprise us so frequently, but the defining features of both Messi’s and Ronaldo’s career are their consistency and longevity. Players have been this good, and players have played for this long, but no players have been this good for this long. Longevity, of course, is not a particularly sexy quality; in fact, it’s probably the least sexy of all the qualities we care about when evaluating a great player.
To make matters even more confusing, it also distorts our evaluation of all those other qualities. Unlike, say, Ronaldinho, who quickly ascended to the top of the game and fizzled out after a few seasons, leaving us with only a neat, tidy highlights package of buck-toothed nostalgia in his wake, Messi and Ronaldo have forced us to talk about them long after we ran out of things to say. We have been forced to dwell on their greatness for too long, to litigate and re-litigate every non-discussion about their talent, their statistics, their trophy cabinets. Their genius has curdled.
“The superlatives ran out ages ago,” Sid Lowe once wrote about Messi. “On these pages, swearing has been tried. Or perhaps a symbol, something to signify that we have gone beyond words now.” If that was a nice thought at the time, seven years ago, what is it now?
Probably, oddly, just as appropriate. Indeed, we never seem to tire of pointing to our own speechlessness. There are no words; just watch. And yet there is a natural human compulsion to try to describe the indescribable, in this case Messi and Ronaldo, to keep talking even as they render our words impotent; to throw language in their general direction until something sticks, until something valuable, something true, about the way they make us feel has been conveyed.
And it really is remarkable that even now, after more than a decade, the reaction to great individual performances by Messi and Ronaldo is as enthusiastic as ever. There is almost a giddiness when one of them does something extraordinary, and soon after a rush to write the, or at least a, definitive piece about the performance.
What is this if not an attempt to hold onto their greatness, to pin it down once and for all, to approach the sublime? Language is an imprecise tool for completing such an intricate task, but of course that’s part of its charm: If we got the words exactly right, there really would be nothing more to say. And that would be a problem.
It’s possible, then, if you really squint, to view the gap between the stupidity of individual arguments about Messi and Ronaldo and the beauty of their individual performances as a sort of homage. That gap is what keeps us going, keeps us coming back for more, keeps us discussing two players about whom we long ago decided there was nothing more to say. It’s the hope that our words might, at last, catch up to their object. Sadly, it’s also a site for our worst impulses to fester.
The commodification of our hero-worship, the edifice on which the entire MRD has been built, is grotesque, but is it made more or less so by the fact that at its core are two players who on a weekly basis produce moments of such sublime quality as to bring the entire footballing world, for the briefest of moments, to a complete standstill? At what point does an intellectual activity (how to describe these moments) become a religious one (how to worship the people responsible for them)?
Many of the pieces written in the wake of the rape allegations against Ronaldo have centered on some version of this puzzle. They have discussed the way he has been valorized over the past decade — by fans, media, everyone — and suggested that this valorization has only made it harder for us to reckon with his actions. Having spent so long helping to transform Ronaldo into the sort of mega-celebrity who thinks he can (a) treat people however he wants and (b) successfully ignore the consequences, it seems we are (or have been) loath to criticize him too forcefully, particularly before he has been charged with a crime. To do so would be, in some small but meaningful way, to admit our complicity.
The more general point is that if we equate sporting greatness with personal virtue — as our gushing tributes tend to do, deliberately or not — Ronaldo at this point may as well be Gandhi. A single moral indiscretion, even one as awful as that of which he stands accused, can’t offset a decade’s worth of footballing genius. Ronaldo has been too good for too long, won too many trophies, scored too many goals. That’s a lot of virtue in the bank.
The simplest solution to this problem would be, presumably, to stop equating sporting greatness with personal virtue. Which might work, but also strikes me as obviously impossible. In the same way a competent English-speaker can’t help but understand a coherent English sentence, a football fan can’t help but marvel at, say, Ronaldo’s overhead kick against Juventus in the Champions League quarterfinals last season.
This is not to absolve anyone of responsibility, but to suggest that there is some value to the uneasiness, the confusion, the guilt we should all now feel watching him play. Sitting with these feelings is a way to untether sporting greatness from personal virtue, to complicate our relationship to our heroes, to realize that even our involuntary sins deserve to be reckoned with. To try to preempt this discomfort, either by refusing to watch Ronaldo play or insisting his achievements on the football pitch aren’t as remarkable as they are, strikes me as a kind of denial, both of what Ronaldo himself has frequently made us feel over the years and what pleasure we derive from watching football in the first place.
People can’t reserve judgment on players until they have a full accounting of their private choices any more than they can watch Messi dribble past five players and curl a shot into the top corner without even a flicker of a reaction. To do so would be to abstain from emotion, to watch football not because it is beautiful, because like all art it produces moments of such transcendence they render the world, for a few indispensable seconds, intelligible, but simply to settle a series of arguments. Like going to the Louvre and ranking the paintings based on the number of different colors they each contain.
Perhaps the real irony, then, is that this is, increasingly, exactly what we want to do with football. To rank it, to order it, to place it in neat little rows and columns and boxes. What is the object of all this analysis if not in some sense to conquer the game, to submit it to our will, to know the most, to predict the best, to be, in the end, proven right?
This is the fundamental tension at the heart of the modern game. The tension between the enduring beauty of the sport itself and the supreme ugliness of almost literally everything that takes place outside the four lines of the pitch, including most of the things we have to say about it. And so what is a great individual performance if not a kind of respite from this whole, heaping mess of contradiction?
When Messi scored his third goal in a Liga match against Betis at the end of March, an outrageous first-time chip over Pau Lopez in the 85th minute of a game Barca had already won, Betis’ fans started chanting his name. Commentators on French TV went viral for their reaction to the finish: They laughed. For a moment it felt like even the internet stood still, struggling for the right words. Then the machine clicked once more into gear, the sound of an argument starting, and the moment was passed.
6. And finally
Oh yes, and finally: Messi’s better, obviously. If you don’t agree, I don’t know what to tell you, except that you’re wrong. And also, I guess, an idiot.