Every generation has its football star.
In the 1950s, the indefatigable Alfredo di Stéfano led Real Madrid to five European Cups. During the sixties, Pelé saw off a host of pretenders, including Eusébio, Georgie Best and, towards the end of the decade, Johan Cruyff. Diego Maradona was peerless in his day while Zinedine Zidane vied, occasionally, with the sporadic genius of Ronaldo, the Brazilian.
Ronaldo’s namesake, or Cristiano as he’s known in Spain, and Lionel Messi are unique in that they jointly dominate their age, and, barring injury and ennui, look set to continue doing so for the next five years.
Ronaldo is 27 years old; his Argentine rival is only 25, although he has already won three Ballon d’Or awards and looks odds-on to win a fourth in January, once again nudging out Ronaldo who won in 2008.
"It is a sustained rivalry, a subplot in football's most historic feud between Barcelona and Real Madrid. It captures the imagination like Ali v Frazier or Borg v McEnroe, among other great face-offs in sport. "
It is a sustained rivalry, a subplot in football’s most historic feud between Barcelona and Real Madrid. It captures the imagination like Ali v Frazier or Borg v McEnroe, among other great face-offs in sport.
They share similar upbringings, products of the assembly line system that churns out the modern-day footballer. Both were whisked hundreds of miles from their homelands on the cusp of their teenage years for life on the football academy’s fields.
The survival of such a wrenching experience forged a steeliness that explains, in part, the focus and determination that continues to drive them unlike, say, the joie de vivre philosophy of Ronaldinho, whose mesmeric, preeminent days in the middle of the last decade were fleeting.
Ronaldo is one of the great narcissists of modern sport, seen as often in celebrity magazines as he is on the back pages. He once bragged that he does a thousand press-ups a day to maintain his rippled abs. Off the pitch, he owns a couple of clothes boutiques; on it, he likes to pop his collar, wear a pink strap for thigh strains and unveil experiments in hairstyle every other week.
People wonder at his self-love. "I think that being rich, handsome, being a great player, people are jealous of me," he said in a televised interview in September, trying to account for why opposition players like to hack him down in matches. It was as if he were listing some of the chemical elements from the periodic table.
This kind of arrogance might offend some; others are grateful for his spikiness, for having the personality to provoke while most of his peers in football, like Messi, for example, excel at saying nothing.
There is no dirt, it seems, about Messi.
His pals at Barcelona are adamant that he is an even better person than he is a footballer. His lone rebellious period at the club, when he sauntered off to a couple of parties with Ronaldinho during the Brazilian’s last years at the club was nipped in the bud by Pep Guardiola. The Barça chief was manager of Barcelona’s B team at the time.
"You’ve two options," he threatened.
"Either you keep on partying, and you’ll be out of here in days or you start eating properly, quit the alcohol, go to bed early and come to practice on time. Only then might you become the best in the world."
The writer Brian Phillips reckons the majority of people prefer Messi to Ronaldo because of his small stature, that his feats on the pitch "bring us closer to the miraculous". What is, perhaps, the most arresting thing about Messi is not his size (for Diego Maradona is an inch-and-a-half shorter) but his speed.
Frank Rijkaard, who gave Messi his league debut for Barcelona in 2004 at 17 years of age, says that Messi has better acceleration than Maradona, who, of course, he played against many times.
In fact, Messi’s running speed is 4.5 strides per second, which is faster than the 4.4 of Asafa Powell, who has broken the 10-second barrier in 100-metre races more times than anyone else.
When it comes to goal-scoring in top flight football only Ronaldo can match him. They have both averaged a goal a game for the last few seasons, although Messi creates more goals, and has a habit of scoring when it counts. He has led the Champions League scoring charts for the last four years.
And who would bet against him winning a fourth Ballon d’Or award in a row in January with Ronaldo trailing in second again?
Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry, which is published by Bloomsbury.