Joy not jealousy
Lionel Messi may have been awarded the Ballon d'Or for a fourth year in a row, but the debate over who is the best - the Argentine or Ronaldo - rages on in Spain. Tim Stannard calls for an end to Messi versus Ronaldo discourse and instead embraces both players
By Tim Stannard
Last Updated: 10/01/13 10:26am
It was an opinion poll to make the heart sink: who should be the next winner of the Ballon d'Or? Not an unusual question for Marca to ponder, if it weren't for the fact that it was appearing on the paper's website just hours after the latest trophy had been handed out to the polka dot-sporting Leo Messi for the fourth time in row.
It's an award with which the Spanish football world has become utterly obsessed. However, it's only been this way over the past two years, since the beginning of the Leo Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo rivalry and the extraordinary goalscoring feats of both players. Nevertheless, the real narrative behind these two titans - the eternal battle between Barcelona against Real Madrid - has been rumbling on considerably longer.
If the two main candidates for the Ballon d'Or were Robin Van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, then it's unlikely that Spain would give two hoots over prize that until recently was the domain of a French football paper and that Fabio Cannavaro had managed to win. The fact that FIFA have since been involved would make matters worse, with suspicions of an anti-Spanish stitch-up.
But because the two highest profile players of the country's highest profile clubs are involved the Ballon d'Or is the biggest topic on the Spanish footballing planet. The past 12 months have seen public figures, players and managers trying to dodge the question in nearly every interview concerning who should win the prize. The the real motive behind the probe was always which of the two camps they were in and giving an honest answer was never worth the hassle. If you were pro-Ronaldo, you were anti-Messi and vice versa. The approach preferred by this column was to suggest Michu for his work for Rayo Vallecano and Swansea and run off.
Awards are supposed to be celebratory affairs, taking pride and joy in the work of an industry's best participants. But the Ballon d'Or in Spain has been a divisive political prize that had little to do with picking the best player during a particular year. By choosing one, it meant that you had to hate or disrespect the other. By loving Messi more, you were rejecting Ronaldo.
Having seen an awful lot of both players in their pomp over the past year, there was a case for having the two players side-by-side on the podium in Zurich. Although statistics are used to compare the two as some kind of barometer of success, Messi and Ronaldo are fundamentally different beasts with skills and characteristics that the other does not possess.
Ronaldo's 2011-12 season was a truly outstanding one. It was a campaign that produced 46 league goals and ten in the Champions League as the Portuguese almost single-handedly carried Real Madrid to the Spanish League title and the Champions League semi-finals. The previous notion of the forward being a big-game bottler was proven to be nonsense at last with two goals in the home clash against Bayern Munich, a hat-trick in the Vicente Calderón against Atletico Madrid and the winner in the Camp Nou which all but saw Real Madrid wrenching the Primera crown off Barcelona's head.
These are the best places to appreciate the majesty of Ronaldo. These are the great football stages to truly admire his drive, speed, strength, stamina, enthusiasm, will to win and understanding of the big gesture, the idea that football is just as much about the showbiz as the sport.
Leo Messi inhabits a different world. If Ronaldo is the David Copperfield making entire cities disappear to the gasps of wonder of the watching millions, the Argentinean is the street magician who performs tricks right in front of your eyes without anyone having a clue how it's done. It's in the smallest of stadiums, the most modest of grounds where Messi truly looks his best.
In October, the Barça player scored a brace at Rayo Vallecano in a 5-0 win, not an unusual haul in an incredible calendar year for the 25-year-old. But it was the reaction to the goals from the fans just a few feet from the pitch and the defenders just inches from the player that made you realise what an incredible talent Messi was. Incomprehension for the former and helplessness from the latter.
After watching a certain amount of football, you have an inkling of when a shot looks too ambitious or a dribble is too impossible. With Messi those rules are broken. Your instinct is still thinking that he won't score from there, as the ball hits the back of the net. Messi makes very good defenders look very ordinary. It feels like the same situation of what would happen if a Premier League squad member played five-a-side against you and some friends.
"I just think that it's impossible to do the things he does," said Beñat Etxebarria, the Real Betis midfielder, Spain international and more than a decent player himself who spoke about what he thinks when watching Messi play football.
It's a real shame that the debate in Spain has become so toxic, so impossible that if a Madrid-based paper like AS applauds the award of the trophy to Messi then it's seen as an anti-Real Madrid dig. The same would surely occur in Catalunya had Ronaldo won the 2012 prize.
The best hope for 2013 is that rather than everyone concerning themselves with who deserves the prize the most, who won the most with their team, who has the best help out on the pitch, we all just sit back and enjoy the work of both players. They will not be at the top of their games for much longer. In fact, an injury could see everything end in seconds. This golden period for football should become a time for joy and not jealousy.
This article first appeared on Football365