Ron­aldo rises as Messi flops

It used to be too tough to pick be­tween them. It isn’t any longer

Sunday Times - - Sport | Russia 2018 -

● As Por­tu­gal take on Iran tomorrow, the de­bate over who is the greater be­tween Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Lionel Messi has never been more in­tense af­ter the per­for­mances of the two greats.

Ron­aldo is selfish, ar­ro­gant, at­ten­tion hun­gry and in love with him­self. Messi is self­less, hum­ble, team-driven and gen­uine. That is how the nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing the undis­puted pair of in­di­vid­ual kings in modern soc­cer goes, the per­fect plot­line with a down-to-earth hero and a bom­bas­tic vil­lain.

Yet if what we think we know about this pair of present-day foot­ball su­per­heroes is true, how is it that it’s Ron­aldo who is cur­rently ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a medi­ocre team while Messi is floun­der­ing amid a col­lec­tion of stand­outs?

A decade-long fight

Ar­gentina’s de­feat to Croa­tia on Thurs­day pushed the South Amer­i­can side to the precipice of un­think­able early elim­i­na­tion in what might be Messi’s fi­nal World Cup.

And fi­nally, af­ter years of du­el­ing, it pro­vided the sep­a­ra­tion needed to give one of them a de­ci­sive edge over the other in the big­gest de­bate in 21st cen­tury foot­ball.

It is Ron­aldo. His ef­forts at this World Cup, com­bined with Messi’s un­char­ac­ter­is­tic strug­gles, have added a cru­cial el­e­ment to the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing which man de­serves to go down as the great­est of his era.

The fight has been played out since 2008, when Ron­aldo won his first Bal­lon d’Or, given to the world’s best player. In the years since, he and Messi have lifted it five times each, and no one else has got­ten a sniff.

With Ron­aldo at Manch­ester United and then Real Madrid, and Messi’s ca­reer-long al­le­giance be­ing tied to Barcelona, there was an in­ces­sant trickle of sil­ver­ware find­ing its way into both of their tro­phy cabi­nets.

Ron­aldo has won five league ti­tles (three in the English Premier League and two in La Liga) plus five Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles. Messi has won La Liga nine times and the Cham­pi­ons League on four oc­ca­sions.

They both score, cre­ate and cul­ti­vate in­sanely high scor­ing tal­lies. They both have the dex­ter­ity to make an op­po­nent look fool­ish. They are highlight reels wait­ing to hap­pen, al­beit in dif­fer­ent ways, with Ron­aldo’s speed, force and easy power, and Messi’s im­pos­si­ble bal­ance and fleet-footed trick­ery.

It used to be too tough to pick be­tween them. It isn’t any longer.

In­ter­na­tional foot­ball is a snapshot these days, with most of a player’s ac­tiv­ity be­ing in club colours. But the global game is a thor­oughly ap­pro­pri­ate tiebreaker, and Ron­aldo is mov­ing ahead in that re­gard.

Messi has never lacked for tal­ented sup­port with Ar­gentina but he has never won a tro­phy with his home­land. No Copa Amer­i­cas and no World Cups. Four years ago he had to col­lect the tro­phy as the tour­na­ment’s best player af­ter the fi­nal, then watch as Ger­many col­lected its win­ners medals. He has come close, but coming close isn’t the yard­stick by which the eter­nal greats are mea­sured.

Ron­aldo won the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship in 2016 with an un­der­whelm­ing Por­tu­gal team. He came off in the fi­nal with an in­jury, but it is what he is con­jur­ing at this tour­na­ment that will set him apart.

The group he is with is not one of the best. Por­tu­gal would be mid­dle of the road (at best) if he was re­moved from the lineup. How­ever, he turns that im­ped­i­ment into a de­struc­tive force, driv­ing his na­tion to a 3-3 tie with Spain in the first game thanks to an in­cred­i­ble hat-trick, then added another in a 1-0 win over Morocco.

When the time comes he ac­cepts the bur­den of tak­ing on the kind of re­spon­si­bil­ity that would be too much for a nor­mal player or a typ­i­cal char­ac­ter. Some kind of sim­i­lar­ity to LeBron James in the NBA play­offs can be drawn here, as Ron­aldo time and again thrusts him­self into the mid­dle of the story and makes things hap­pen.

Frus­trated and sulky

This World Cup may not end in an over­all tri­umph for Ron­aldo as there are prob­a­bly too many strong ri­vals for that, but he is giv­ing him­self the best pos­si­ble chance.

Messi is not. He is frus­trated and there­fore sulky, and at times he has looked like he doesn’t want to be here. He is wait­ing for the game to un­furl as usual, in­stead of grab­bing it by the col­lar and de­mand­ing that it bends to his will.

He gets de­jected when things don’t go his way, with those shoul­ders slump­ing af­ter a missed penalty against Iceland and much more so when the sec­ond Croa­tia goal went in on Thurs­day.

There have been times be­fore when Messi has out­per­formed Ron­aldo at the World Cup, so many will sug­gest this is un­fair. Por­tu­gal was knocked out in the group stage in 2014 and in the round of 16 four years prior to that, while Messi came within a whisker of win­ning it all last time.

Messi’s swan­song?

But he didn’t. And he may now never.

At 30 it re­mains to be seen whether Messi will be back. There are plenty of in­cen­tives to do so. Ar­gentina hasn’t had a win­ner since 1986 and is wait­ing for a re­turn to glory — not par­tic­u­larly pa­tiently, it should be noted. But Ron­aldo, at 33, knows this is def­i­nitely his last re­al­is­tic shot, both to send his coun­try into rap­ture and to an­swer foot­ball’s burn­ing ques­tion of who is per­son­ally bet­ter.

Ron­aldo is on his way to com­plet­ing at least one of those tasks. — usato­

Ron­aldo is ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a medi­ocre team while Messi is floun­der­ing amid a col­lec­tion of stand­outs

Pic­ture: Getty Images

Cris­tiano Ron­aldo is the joint lead­ing scorer in the World Cup with Bel­gian Romelu Lukaku.

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