When the past decade of European football is reviewed, complete with a sepia tinge, two names will stand out as defining figures of their time. In fact, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo might stand out as the defining figures of anyone’s time, such is their unparalleled brilliance. Nonetheless, this has undoubtedly been their era.
But something happened last week that hinted at the end of their era. For the first time since the creation of the Spanish Liga awards, the Best Player gong wasn’t handed to one of either Messi or Ronaldo. Instead, Antoine Griezmann picked up the trophy, with Luis Suarez also honored for finishing the year as Spain’s top goal scorer. That too hadn’t happened since 2009.
So, is this the first sign that Messi and Ronaldo’s glittering era of unprecedented success might finally be coming to an end? Are they still the footballing superheroes they were just a few years ago? Both players are still among the very best, expected to be among the frontrunners for this year’s Ballon d’Or, but are they still untouchable?
That’s just the thing, though. For the past eight years, the Ballon d’Or has been a duopoly between Messi and Ronaldo, with the former lifting it five times and the latter three. Every year, the release of the shortlist of nominees for the award would be perused, but it was nothing more than a formality. Only two names mattered. Only two players could possibly win, such was the gap between them and the rest.
That gap has been bridged, though. Having already beaten Messi and Ronaldo to the award for La Liga’s best player, now Griezmann is seen as a genuine contender for the Ballon d’Or, with Suarez also among the favorites. The voting will illustrate whether Messi and Ronaldo are seen as mortal once again.
Maybe it’s just that we as observers have been numbed by the achievements of both Messi and Ronaldo over the past decade. They have warped what is expected of football players, even the very best. So while Messi has performed below his usual standards so far this season, his tally of 14 goals in just 12 appearances is still enough to underline his status as one of the true greats. Ronaldo is said to have endured something of a personal crisis in recent weeks, but has scored 12 goals in 12 games. Some crisis.
Perhaps football as a whole has reached saturation point in its acclaim of its two finest players. How many more superlatives can be gushed over Messi and Ronaldo before someone is raised to their level simply for the novelty of having someone to compete with them? We all harbor an underlying desire to see the best taken down, after all.
Football has come close to doing this before, with Wesley Sneijder put forward as the individual emblem of Inter Milan and Netherland’s success in 2010, but now there is someone in Griezmann and Suarez who might be good enough to meet in the middle between what is implausible and what is feasible.
This year’s Ballon d’Or will provide a yardstick on the credentials of the award itself. It can often be difficult to separate the success of a team from the players who helped them achieve it, but as an individual award this is what the Ballon d’Or must do. So should Ronaldo be recognized as the individual responsible for Real Madrid’s Champions League and Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph? Equally, should Griezmann be marked down for losing in the final of both those events?
Fundamentally, the comparison of individual players in the context of a team sport is flawed, but it preys on a guilty pleasure of all football fans. For the past decade, the question has been one of Messi or Ronaldo. It’s a rivalry that has defined the game just as much as the players themselves have. Now, however, for the first time in a long time, the question is open-endedSHOW MORE