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In Goal’s new series on the future of football, we ponder whether anyone will be capable of filling the void left behind by two all-time greats
Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? It’s the question that has defined a decade of football; the cause of innumerable arguments across the globe.

In the age of social media, you are not allowed to appreciate both. You have to pick one or the other. And whom you chose apparently tells you a lot about how you view the game. As Luis Figo famously argued, it really is a question of taste: “It’s like choosing between white truffle or caviar.”

Indeed, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that both are incredible; both belong in the conversation on the best player of all time. They are, after all, responsible for an unprecedented rivalry in the history of the game: two all-time greats on opposite sides of the Clasico divide for nine years, pushing one another to scale even greater heights.

As Messi himself told DAZN: “It was a duel that will last forever because it went on for many years, and it isn’t easy to keep at your highest level for so long – especially at those two clubs we were at, which were so demanding, in Real Madrid and Barcelona, the best clubs in the world.

“Competing head to head for so many years will be remembered forever. The sporting rivalry between us was very nice on a personal level. I think that the fans also enjoyed it, be they Madrid or Barca supporters, or just those who like football.”

It is not over yet, of course. Ronaldo and Messi may be 35 and 32, respectively, but they have yet to show any real signs of letting up. The Portuguese may have changed teams, leaving Real for Juventus in 2018, but the rivalry with Messi endures; the debate rages on – at least among their most ardent supporters.

When Ronaldo transferred to Turin, his fans followed. Juventus’ social media numbers skyrocketed, highlighting this new phenomenon of some supporters prioritising players over clubs. These very modern consumers of football have a favourite player – not a favourite team, which begs a far more pressing question than Messi or Ronaldo: What happens after the pair retire?

Will football lose followers? The two greatest protagonists in the most absorbing drama of the past decade will have left the stage – will some of the audience leave before the next act? After all, how could anything top what has gone before?

Ronaldo and Messi have distorted our perceptions of what is possible on a football field, making the extraordinary, ordinary. They have altered our idea of what constitutes an excellent goal-scoring season. Anything less than 50 goals a season could, in future, be construed as underwhelming.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic,” former Barcelona and Real Madrid forward Javier Saviola told Goal, “but it will be hard for anyone to reach the level of Ronaldo and Messi after they’re gone. I think that Leo, in particular, has done something ‘inhuman’. It’s very difficult to win the titles he won, score the goals that he scored, and play the way that he plays.

“But Leo and Cristiano, we will speak about them as the best for many years because of what they did for a decade, winning 11 Ballons d’Or.”

And that is the key here: consistency.

“They’ve done it for so long,” Spanish football writer Andy West told Goal. “They’ve barely taken a week off. They’ve both had the physical fitness to play 40 or 50 games a year. Neither of them have really had serious injuries problems, which is amazing in itself. If you go back over the history of the game, there are very, very few players who are able to sustain that excellence for so long.

“Even if you look at players just from my lifetime, such as the Brazilian Ronaldo, he was the best player in the world at his peak, but he had so many injury problems that meant he was only at his greatest for a short period of time.

“Before Messi at Barcelona, there was Ronaldinho, another worldly talent. He could do things with the football that nobody else could even imagine But he had a short peak because he lost his focus. He enjoyed the good life. He had maybe four or five years at his best before he quickly declined.

“So, it’s a difficult to thing to stay at the top. Yet Ronaldo and Messi have been delivering for a decade or more, relentlessly. And the fact that they also did it concurrently for so long, while playing in the best league in football, for the two biggest teams in the world, that’s what it makes their era so unprecedented.

“They’ve not given anybody else has had a look in. There have been lots and lots of great players over the past decade who would have previously had a claim on being the best player in the world but they’ve not even been close. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Nobody has been close to the level of Messi and Ronaldo.”

Not even someone like Eden Hazard. The Belgium international was one of the best players in the world for years, lighting up the Premier League with his wing wizardry at Chelsea. However, even Hazard has admitted that he is simply incapable of matching Ronaldo and Messi’s numbers, as so painfully underlined by the 29-year-old’s form and fitness issues in his first year at Real Madrid.

“I often ask myself what I can do to become like Messi and Ronaldo and get 50 or 60 goals in a season,” he confessed to Sport/Foot. I try, of course, but I realise that I will never be a true goalscorer like them. It’s not in me. It is mainly mental: at 2-0, not thinking that is enough for example. Sometimes I still think after a goal, ‘That’s enough.’

“I’m not in search of records like some other players – if I can score between 15 and 20 goals each season, I will be very happy.”

One could never imagine Messi or Ronaldo being content with such a tally.

Of course, for the sake of narrative, they are portrayed as polar opposites: Messi is the quiet, unassuming genius who puts the team first; Ronaldo the self-made goal-scoring machine who takes as much pride in his appearance as his records. Both are crude caricatures, which do both a disservice. Messi can be as ruthless as Ronaldo; Ronaldo can be as magnanimous as Messi.

In addition, they are bound not only by brilliance, but also determination, an inner drive that has seen both make the absolute most of their considerable skills.

“Messi has just as much dedication as Ronaldo but in a different way,” argued West, who penned the book ‘Lionel Messi and The Art of Living’. “We can certainly say that Ronaldo has done everything within his power to be the best player in the world. He’s always been open about that: he wants other people to look at him and say he’s the greatest ever. He’s always had that focus, so he’s done it for external recognition.

“However, I think Messi has the same drive; it’s just that his comes from within. He wants to be the best he can be. He pushes himself to be better, not so other people will say he’s the best, but so that he can be at peace with himself. I don’t think he needs that external gratification in the same way Cristiano does, but he still has that ruthless drive to push himself and get the very best out of himself.

“So, in terms of achieving that level of greatness and consistency, a lot of it comes down to the mentality of the player.”

Which is perhaps why Neymar is no longer the favourite to step into the spotlight when Messi and Ronaldo bow out. There have never been any doubts over the Brazilian’s ability but his level of focus has long been a cause for concern.

It is five years since Johan Cruyff warned: “Neymar’s always in the centre of the storm for things outside of football. He needs to play football to improve and develop in many areas. He will only achieve by playing football. The problem is that he is constantly being linked with negative things.”

Neymar’s situation has hardly improved in the interim. If anything, that storm has only worsened. As has his physical condition.

Since moving to Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record fee in 2017, Neymar has been blighted by injuries and ill-discipline. At 28, his career path now looks more likely to follow that of Ronaldinho than Ronaldo, having, thus far, failed to strike the perfect balance between sporting and commercial growth.

I think if you look at Ronaldo, I think it’s fair to say that he’s very conscience of his image, just like Neymar,” West reasoned. “Cristiano’s been very keen to exploit all of the opportunities that his popularity as a footballer affords him. But he’s maintained that awareness that all of this comes from what he does on the pitch. Football comes first.

“He’s not allowed his commercial life to detract from his professional life. I don’t think you could say the same about Neymar. If you look at Neymar’s tweets, for example, it’s just brand, brand, brand. You wouldn’t know he’s a footballer the way he portrays himself at times. He’s a celebrity first and foremost, whereas Ronaldo never seems to do anything that would jeopardise his ability to deliver on the pitch.

“Messi, too, had physical problems early in his career and Barca’s medical team fairly quickly linked them to a poor diet and poor training regimes. So, they changed his diet, they convinced him to stop eating pizzas and drinking Coca-Cola, and he became fitter and overcome those fitness problems.

“But Neymar enjoys the other things in life too much. He doesn’t have that ruthless commitment to his career, meaning he hasn’t been able to achieve Messi and Ronaldo’s level of consistency.”

But what about the next generation? Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland are considered the frontrunners to fill the void that Messi and Ronaldo will leave behind. Both are extraordinary young talents.

Mbappe is the only man other than Pele to have scored in a World Cup final as a teenager; Haaland is the youngest player in history to score 10 Champions League goals, having reached that mark in just seven matches.

Their potential is as obvious as it is enormous. Questions remain, of course. Can they sustain their fine form? Will they avoid serious injuries? Will they be as dedicated to their profession as Messi and Ronaldo?

Both are considered colourful characters. Haaland’s former Red Bull Salzburg team-mate Maximilian Wober described the Norwegian to Goal as “crazy insane” yet recalled how the striker would spend his time on away trips “reading scientific articles on who he could improve his sleep pattern or diet” while the rest of the team were playing cards.

In a similar vein, Mbappe once skipped a party in honour of Monaco’s shock 2016-17 Ligue 1 title triumph so that he could get enough rest to be in peak physical condition for the following day’s training session. The Frenchman was only a teenager back then, though, and there having been growing concerns about his allegedly egotistical behaviour since being taken under Neymar’s wing in Paris, as underlined by his recent spats with PSG coach Thomas Tuchel.

Mbappe has admitted himself that he is “not a hard worker” but is still regarded by journalists who follow the French league and national team closely as someone who simply loves playing football. As long as he retains that passion for the game, he should – like Haaland – continue to rack up record after record.

However, even Mbappe has conceded that matching Messi may be impossible. He netted 33 goals in 29 Ligue 1 matches last season and it still was not enough to deny the Argentine a third consecutive European Golden Shoe.
“There were days when I scored three goals and then he would score four,” the winger told France Football. “I remember that I spoke to Ousmane Dembele (of Barcelona and France) and said: ‘It’s not possible! Does he do it on purpose?'”

Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to equal Messi or Ronaldo’s remarkable strike-rates. Or carry the game into a new era, for that matter. Besides, it’s not as if the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry has been the only show in town over the past 10 to 15 years.

Messi has never played in the Premier League, while Ronaldo left in 2009 – yet the English top-flight is by some distance the most watched and, consequently, the richest championship in club football. There are, of course, many reasons for its global popularity: the sheer pace of the game separates it from its European rivals; what it loses in quality, it makes up for in frenzied entertainment.

In addition, the almost total absence of running tracks around its pitches only accentuates the raucous atmosphere generated by the massive and passionate crowds found with its modern stadia. England changed its practices and image following the Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies of the 1980s, and reaped the rewards.

With the advent of the Premier League in 1992, English football became a perfectly packaged product expertly sold to audiences across the globe by BSkyB and, in turn, the further riches bestowed upon clubs by the sale of overseas TV rights enabled the acquisition of some of the most talented and charismatic characters in football. All of this, coupled with the sport’s innate capacity for unscripted drama, made the Premier League compelling viewing.

“I think that football has shown that it’s always been good at that but football’s economy is driven by broadcasters and the English game undoubtedly perfected the model,” European Sports Reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of ‘The Club’, Josh Robinson, told Goal. “So, football was a immensely popular game before Ronaldo and Messi, and also before the Premier League.

“Ronaldo and Messi, though, just happened to exist in this unprecedented rivalry at the very same time social media was blowing up. So, they ushered in new ways of consuming football.

“For example, when Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus, we saw a huge shift in the two club’s social media numbers too. However, while there are many unique aspects to Ronaldo, Messi and their rivalry, the way of watching and consuming the show they’ve put on for the past decade has now become ingrained in fans. So, even after they retire, the fans will just apply those same practices and habits to following new players.”

Essentially, football faces a far more pressing concern than the imminent retirement of two living legends, with the Covid-19 pandemic having plunged the game into financial crisis that represents a very real existential threat for clubs and leagues across the world.

By its very nature, though, football is a simple game. Its popularity will not be dimmed by the pandemic; if anything, it may be enhanced by it, as people become even more appreciative of a sport that can be played by anyone with a ball.

So, if football can survive Covid-19, it can survive the loss of Messi and Ronaldo. The show will go on. But so too will the debate over who was better: Messi or Ronaldo?

There will never be an agreement, of course, but that is beside the point. As Messi says, his rivalry with Ronaldo is a duel that will last forever.

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