Changing the face of football
How Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi rewrote the rulebook
By Peter Staunton
When Tiger Woods came onto the scene and nobody had ever witnessed his likes before the authorities tried to keep golf competitive by “Tiger-proofing” courses.
Woods was winning so big and so often that many famous courses were lengthened in the vain hope that Woods’ vicious power would be somehow neutralised.
Woods was dominating to such an extent that they altered the very terrain he was playing on just so other competitors might have a shot at anything other than second place.
Tiger-proofing is not available in football.
The laws of the game cannot be altered simply because one player or another is simply too good for the rest. There is no way to handicap the best because the rest aren’t of their standard.
It means that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the only two Tigers in town playing against prey. They have between them been so good for so long that it is almost impossible to keep the achievements of those who have gone before them or come along during their respective careers in perspective.
Ronaldo and Messi have made us reassess the definition of what a great player is and what a great player does.
There is a natural tendency on the part of listeners to rank the music of their youth as the best. The same happens with footballers. A few years ago, if you’d asked anyone who was a teenager in the 60s who the best footballer was the answer would have been George Best or Pele. A child of the 70s would have offered Johan Cruyff. Those who grew up in the 80s might have said Michel Platini. A 90s child was spoilt for choice with Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane chief among the best of that age. A few years later and it was Ronaldinho running the show.
Then something seriously disorientating happened. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi came of age. They were objectively better than any player who’d gone before.
They have over the course of a decade rendered redundant all prior individual footballing achievement. It is as if the records set by players like Alfredo Di Stefano, Paulino Alcantara, Gerd Muller and everybody else were set solely to be destroyed by Ronaldo and Messi.
The rate of improvement that both have given to the art of goalscoring should have taken decades or centuries. Donald Lippincott, an American, ran the first IAAF 100 metre world sprint record in 1912. He did it in a time of 10.6 seconds. The current record was set by Usain Bolt in 9.58. That’s an improvement of around 11 per cent in 97 years.
Raul was Real Madrid’s record goalscorer before Ronaldo came along. He scored 323 goals in 741 games. By all accounts that is astonishing. The consistency, the stamina required to play 741 games for Real Madrid is tough enough but to add a goal roughly once every two games is something else altogether.
Ronaldo knocked off 324 goals in 310 games. That is an improvement of more than 100 per cent – not across centuries or decades – but just a few short seasons after Raul set the record.
Messi shattered Alcantara’s Barcelona goalscoring record in 2014 which had stood for 87 years.
It is pointless to try to list the other records they hold between them. Suffice to say, it’s everything. For club, country, in continental competition, in domestic competition, whatever. The names on the top of every goalscoring list once read like a cornucopia of all-time greats. Now it’s just Ronaldos and Messis everywhere.
Between them they have won the last nine Ballons D’Or – Messi has five and Ronaldo four. They have been runner-up nine times between them too. Once upon a time players dreamed of winning it once – like Ronaldinho, Best or Zidane - or maybe twice like Ronaldo, Di Stefano or Franz Beckenbauer.
The truly great might have got their hands on three like Platini, Cruyff or Marco Van Basten. But four? Five? Impossible.
"When Messi ends his career, there will be Neymar, Eden Hazard and five or 10 players at a similar level, but none with the unquestionable superiority of Messi."
Consistency is the wrong word for Ronaldo and Messi. Consistency puts into the mind an idea of a player who can be merely relied upon to perform for a long time. A diesel wagon. There isn’t a word big enough to describe the extra-terrestrial efforts they have put in over the past decade or so.
What they are doing cannot be seen as the new standard. There is not a man alive who can touch either of them. When all is said and done and Ronaldo’s back in Portugal and Messi in Argentina, we will have to readjust our expectations of what it means to be a great player.
No one will ever thrill us like they can. We will be cheering for players we know are not good enough to lace their boots. That is the saddest thing. One day we’ll wake up and this dream will be over. The records will be forever untouched and so too will our sense of wonder.
It isn’t enough to say Ronaldo and Messi have improved football. They have changed it. This isn’t like Arsene Wenger teaching English players to eat properly and look after themselves. Eventually, everyone can do that and catch up. It’s not like Pep Guardiola and his sweeping tactical changes.
Eventually, too, ideas become redundant and things change. Messi and Ronaldo – they’re so far ahead of anything that’s gone before and impossible to match for anyone coming after.