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Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have occupied the marquee positions in two distinct ways of thinking about football. The answer to the question about who the better player is is trivial. Perhaps the players are the creations of their systems more than we appreciate.
When Cristiano Ronaldo moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, he was 24 years old. Lionel Messi was 22. Each had won three league titles and a Champions League title. Ronaldo had won the Ballon D’OR in 200■. Lionel Messi was about to win it in 2009. Both were extraordinary, even by the standards of elite football. Ronaldo attracted a world record transfer fee. Messi acquired unprecedented contracts from his club, Barcelona, to prevent him from being tempted to leave. Both had been exceptionally rated teenagers, much like Kylian Mbappe is today. In 2009 Ronaldo was entering his prime, while Messi was perhaps departing from his wunderkind phase.
On June 30, 201■, Argentina and Portugal were eliminated from the World Cup within hours of each other. Messi and Ronaldo were expected to lead their sides deep into the tournament. Messi, especially, has been dogged by the view that if he wishes to be regarded on a par with Maradona or Pele, he would have to add a major international title to his brilliant club career record. On July 10, Cristiano Ronaldo, aged 33, completed a hundred million pound transfer from Real Madrid to the great Italian club Juventus.
Each is a global phenomenon. Over the years, a rivalry has emerged between the supporters of Lionel Messi and the supporters of Cristiano Ronaldo over the question of who is better. It is the rivalry in football. It transcends the importance of the actual footballing rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona. What is striking about this extremely popular rivalry, is how impoverished the role of football itself is in it. I’ve found the question of who is better to be trivial. Trivial, because the answer is both obvious and unimportant.
The Ronaldomessi rivalry embodies larger, far more interesting questions about football. It is a rivalry about styles, systems, even ideologies. In some significant ways, it has its roots in a larger ideological rivalry between the English and Spanish game. What follows is an essentialist account of a larger argument in football which forms the canvas on which this personal rivalry has come about. There are exceptions to the essential distinctions which have been drawn below (for instance, Manuel Pellegrini’s approach in Ronaldo’s first year at Real Madrid), but these are sufficiently marginal and do not significantly disfigure the picture presented below. This is an essentialist account of systems. By system, I do not refer to a formation (such as 433 or 352), but to a systematic way of thinking about how football teams should be organised to play.
If you listen carefully you will hear two distinct types of descriptions in football. In most football discussions, especially in English football discussions, you hear the defence and attack being considered as though