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The Golden Yell

Ronaldo and Messi Battle to Define a Football Era

Ronaldo and Messi are without doubt the two greatest footballers of their era. But which one is better? If Portugal does well in the European Football Championship, Ronaldo has a chance to once again be named player of the year. Messi's style, though, is incomparable.

By Cordt Schnibben
Wednesday, 6/6/2012   11:59 AM

Is there anything more ridiculous than comparing the singularity of two footballers? Yet it would be even more ridiculous not to compare these two. One is short while the other is a model athlete, and they're both finishers, have lucrative advertising contracts and are multimillionaires. One is admired and lionized, while the other is feared and ridiculed. Both played the season of their lives -- until those two days in April.

When it was all over, the one player tried to disappear into the turf at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. When that didn't work, he buried his face in his jersey and waited for someone to comfort him. No one did. The other squatted sadly on the turf at the Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid, stood up abruptly, walked briskly toward the locker room, and yet was unable to prevent his pale, empty face from disintegrating into the weeping grimace of a child before he had disappeared from the fans' vision.

Cristiano Ronaldo had missed a penalty kick in the Champions League semifinal, and Real Madrid was eliminated after losing to Bayern Munich. The day before, Lionel Messi had botched a penalty kick in the other semifinal, and FC Barcelona was eliminated after losing to FC Chelsea. As a result, the two superstars of world football had to endure malicious derision as potent as the glory that normally comes their way.

This year, neither of them was able to raise the Champions League trophy. Still, Ronaldo and his team came out on top of the league standings, while Messi's Barcelona won the Spanish cup. But the trophy that actually interests them more is the Ballon d'Or, the golden ball awarded each year to the world's best player. Messi has had the honor of embracing the Ballon d'Or the last three years. And this year, he might again -- or it could be Ronaldo. Only those two are in the hunt to be named the world's best footballer -- because of the number of goals each of them has scored: Messi an unbelievable 73 in 60 games and Ronaldo 60 in 54 games.

Claim to Be the Best

Ronaldo would have clinched the Ballon d'Or if he had won the final with Real Madrid. Instead, the Portuguese player was overcome by a deep, despairing and horrible sadness after shooting the penalty kick. His thoughts, to the extent that they are expressed in his words, have been dominated by the Golden Ball for as long as he has been playing football. Being the best in the world, "becoming a legend," as he says, is what keeps him going, encourages him to put in more time at the gym, during training and practicing penalties. It affects his game and every goal celebration, staged as if to confirm his claim to be the best.

Yes, he is better than Messi at the moment, he said in a recent CNN interview. And, he added, he believes that Portugal -- Germany's first opponent next Saturday -- stands a chance of winning the title in the European Football Championship tournament which begins on Friday. Should that happen, he will almost certainly have clinched the Ballon d'Or. The coaches and captains of the national teams, as well as 100 sports journalists, who choose the winner of the Ballon d'Or, have only chosen him once, four years ago.

Messi versus Ronaldo. It's Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi, the kind of duel that really shouldn't happen in team sports. It excites millions of fans, fills the pages of dozens of websites, forums and blogs every day, fueling a battle of the idiots, nerds, groupies and aficionados. Real Madrid's Alfredo Di Stéfano shaped the 1950s, the Brazilian player Pelé the 60s, Holland's Johan Cruyff the 70s, Maradona the 80s, Zinédine Zidane the 90s and Ronaldinho the first years of the 21st century. Since then, a duel has been underway between two footballers, one of whom could lend his name to an era.

They inspire a battle of the believers, and they outdo each other from season to season with record numbers of goals and trophies. Messi has captured 19 titles with FC Barcelona, including five Spanish championships and three Champions League wins. Ronaldo has brought in 11 titles with Manchester United and Real Madrid, including four national championships and one Champions League victory.

A Passing Machine

Messi is a finisher, a creator on offense, a maverick and a team player. His dribbling is wild and detached, and he is faster with the ball than without. When he swoops down on four or five opponents at four-and-a-half steps per second, he makes half a team look ridiculous. The changes in direction during his attacks are intuitive, unstudied. There are no stepovers, no backheels, just a boy running excitedly, a boy who knows that he is about to do it again, about to slip through a thick chain of defenders to lift, push, lob or curl the ball into the goal.

He shot 26 of his 73 season goals for FC Barcelona in this fashion. His all-out attack can erupt from anywhere in the offensive half. Against Real Madrid and again playing FC Getafe, he began dribbling at midfield, through four, five and six tackling, kicking and falling defenders.

That's the one side of Messi. The other Messi is the team player, a passing machine who sometimes drives the ball to the feet of his teammates "at 100 kilometers per hour," precisely at the right time, precisely in the flow of the game, played in such a way that the balls find their way back to his foot, past wide-eyed, confused and helpless opponents, who are left to retrieve the ball from the back of the net. Twenty-three of his goals this season were such co-productions, 10 of them in a double pass, a double-double pass or a double-double-double pass.

To describe how Cristiano Ronaldo shoots the goals that only he can shoot, one has to envision a man, 1.86 meters (6'1") tall, with plucked eyebrows and gelled hair, who first fixes his gaze on the goalkeeper and then on the ball, who enjoys the fear that overcomes his opponents at this moment, who takes five steps back from the ball, who stands with his legs wide apart, his hands seemingly ready to draw his gun, like Wyatt Earp in the movies, who licks his lips in anticipation, who starts running with energetic steps and strikes the ball, with the inside of his foot in such a way that it flies high over the wall of opponents, seemingly aimed at the fans behind the goal, only to suddenly drop and fly into the net.

Meticulousness and Perseverance

If there were a patent for surefire free kicks, Ronaldo would be the legitimate owner. He celebrates his free kicks like no other player, and he practices these ballistic miracle curves more than any other player, when his teammates are already in the showers.

This meticulousness and perseverance, but also the showmanship and bravado that are part of each of his free kicks, are characteristic of his style of play. Ronaldo has turned the lanky, tall body of a pubescent boy into the perfect, athletic body of a complete player, one who is fast, adept at using both feet, skilled at headers and full of tricks -- and who produces more than 40 goals a season.

Sit-ups are his favorite pastime, says Ronaldo. His entire life is focused on becoming the god of the ball. When the motor oil company Castrol, one of his sponsors, had him tested in a high-performance laboratory as if he were a new sports car, the scientists came up with astonishing numbers. During his free kicks, he accelerates the ball three times as fast as an Apollo rocket during takeoff and, while dribbling, he manages to complete 13 side-steps, fakes and stepovers in 13 seconds.

Ronaldo jumps higher than average basketball player in the NBA. He has the long legs of a sprinter, the physique of a medium-distance runner and less body fat than a supermodel. When he was tested at the Castrol lab, the scientists were amazed to see that he could kick and head balls in total darkness once he had seen them kicked in his direction in the light of a spotlight. If scientists ever developed the ability to create the ideal footballer out of genetic material, the result would be someone like Ronaldo. Messi would be rejected -- too short, too weak, too wild, a boy who only managed to grow to a height of 1.69 meters (5'7") with the help of growth hormones.

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