Ronaldo and Messi

Children of Modern Football

By Carlo Garganese

Never in the history of football have two players dominated like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have over the past decade. They’ve shared the last nine Ballons d’Or, scored well over 1000 career goals between them and smashed record after record for club and country. They’ve quite simply transformed the game forever.

However, while Messi and Ronaldo’s exploits deserve to be celebrated and cherished, it must also be recognised that they have capitalised on a number of changes in the modern game.

Alterations to the laws of the sport have massively benefited attackers, particularly the evolution of the offside rule. Until 27 years ago, any player level with or ahead of the penultimate opponent was offside regardless of whether they were active or inactive.

But after witnessing a World Cup deprived of goals and exciting football in 1990, FIFA changed the laws to “protect attacking play intended to result in a goal”.

Firstly, the offside rule was tweaked so that players level with the penultimate opponent were deemed onside.

Then, in 1995, it was judged not an offence to be in an offside position if the player was inactive. An offside player would only be penalized if he was “gaining an advantage by being in that position”. Further revisions were made by The International Football Association Board (IFAB) in 2003, 2005 and 2013 that have only served to make it virtually impossible for a team to use the offside trap as a successful defensive tactic.

As well as creating utter confusion when interpreting whether an attacker’s offside position is active or inactive, these changes have made it much easier for attackers to score goals. Arguably the greatest backline in history – Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan defence of the late 1980s and early 90s – used an aggressive offside trap which saw captain Franco Baresi lead a full press charge towards the halfway line.

This condensed the space for opponents to play in and made Milan almost impossible to break down at times. Other great defences from the past also effectively used the offside trap, including George Graham’s Arsenal back four who would raise their arms in unison as they pushed up.

Tony Adams forming part of George Graham's back four at Arsenal

Tony Adams forming part of George Graham's back four at Arsenal

Such a tactic is now suicidal as a player can stand in an inactive offside position during the first phase of an attack or set piece and then, often decisively, join the move in the second or third phase in an onside position. Ruud van Nistelrooy was one of the first players to exploit the current offside rule in this way, and Ronaldo has been a prolific exponent during his career also.

“The offside law was changed because the powers that be reached an opinion that too many goals were being ruled out. The change has resulted in more goals being allowed than were chalked off in the past.”

Keith Hackett of, and one of Europe’s top referees in the 1980s

The new offside rule has been key in causing what is referred to by many as the death to the art of defending. The most effective tactical weapon in stopping the opposition is no longer available to defences and, naturally, superstars such as Messi and Ronaldo have taken advantage.

If you compare the great defenders and defences that were active 20 to 30 to 40 years ago with those today, it is no surprise that goal records are being obliterated on an almost weekly basis. A quick glance at the defenders present at Euro 2000 – Maldini, Nesta, Cannavaro, Ferrara, Thuram, Blanc, Desailly, Lizarazu, De Boer, Stam, Hierro, Salgado, Adams, Campbell, Mihajlovic – illustrates just how much defending has declined over the past two decades.

“The minimum standards [of defenders] have dropped sharply,” Gary Neville complained in The Telegraph in 2014. “They struggle with crosses, they don't deal with set-pieces, they don't know how to work one on one. They have a weak understanding of the game.

“When I was brought through from 1991-94, if a full-back allowed a cross it was a crime. Nowadays it barely seems to register. We're comparing apples and pears.”

The use of synthetic footballs has also been to the detriment of defenders. Until 1986, footballs were made at least partly of leather. That year’s World Cup saw the introduction of the first ever fully synthetic football – the Adidas Azteca. Ever since, footballs have become more and more plastic.

The effect this has had on football has been monumental – as explained in detail here and in this video documentary – but it has particularly harmed defenders and helped attackers by ensuring that the game is quicker and more chaotic.

Synthetic footballs move faster in the air and on the ground than their leather predecessors. Long range shooting used to be a special skill that only the cream of the crop could master. Today’s footballs are so light and swerve in so many directions that almost anyone can try their luck, and it has become a nightmare for goalkeepers in the process. Aiming at the valve of the plastic ball so that it moves wildly in the air is a technique utilised on free kicks by the likes of Ronaldo.

Indeed, in many ways, football has become a science. Today’s players have benefited from huge advancements in sports science, training methods, diet and medicine. They’re fitter than ever before, while injury prevention and recovery techniques improve year on year. Messi, having received life-changing growth hormone treatment at Barcelona as a child that probably wouldn’t have been available in a previous decade, was considered very injury-prone early in his career. But with a special bespoke programme, he has been able to play 50-60 games a season on average for the past decade, just as Ronaldo has for most of his own career.

The quality of today’s pitches, partly thanks to improved technology, has also helped in this regard. Pitches have gone from muddy, waterlogged, divot-strewn battlegrounds to silky smooth green surfaces that you could play snooker on. Not only does this protect players from injury, it also helps attackers, particularly skilful players like Messi, to express themselves better.

George Best of Manchester United playing on a pitch covered with sand

George Best of Manchester United playing on a pitch covered with sand

Frontmen like Messi and Ronaldo are also more protected by referees than they were in the past. The average number of yellow cards per game during the past four World Cup finals has been around 3 to 5.5. During the 1982 World Cup there were only 1.9 yellow cards per match. Back at the 1966 finals, when yellow cards still didn’t even physically exist, there were just 0.7 bookings a game.

During that World Cup in England, Pele was notoriously kicked out of the tournament after some brutal Hungarian tackling – leading him to temporarily retire from international football in protest. In the 1982 edition, Italy hardman Claudio Gentile committed foul after foul on Diego Maradona and even tore Zico’s shirt in half without punishment. "If you went to the toilet, Gentile would follow you there," Mario Kempes famously opined of Gentile’s dark arts.

Claudio Gentile staying 'shirt tight' to Zico

Claudio Gentile staying 'shirt tight' to Zico

Today’s laws ensure that attackers can’t be subjected to such harsh treatment. The tackle from behind was outlawed in 1998 while referees were instructed in 1991 to punish those who committed a professional foul with a red card. Video assistant referees (VAR) will further ensure that defenders can’t get away with being crafty.

Another change in the game today that has aided the world’s best footballers has been the advent of the so-called ‘super club’. In January of this year, UEFA’s annual benchmarking report identified nine super clubs who are so strong financially, commercially and thus sportingly that they can never be caught by the rest of the pack.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are the ultimate embodiment of this development. They have won 12 of the last 13 Spanish league titles. They have shared the last four Champions League crowns (and six of the last nine). The two super clubs monopolise all of the world’s best players with eight of the 12 most expensive players of all time being signed by Madrid or Barca. It makes perfect sense that they’re so much stronger than 95 per cent of their opponents.

This means that Messi and Ronaldo are gifted the ideal conditions to rack up goal after goal, win after win and trophy after trophy. Until the arrival of the super club around 15 years ago, the top talent was spread all over Europe, rather than a small number of clubs, and it was thus much harder for teams and individuals to dominate the game.

If we take the example of Maradona, the world’s best player of the 1980s, he was up against superstars every week in Serie A – Michel Platini at Juventus, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit at AC Milan, Lothar Matthaus at Inter, Falcao at Roma, Preben Elkjaer at Verona, Zico at Udinese. As a result, the strongest league in Europe had a different champion for seven straight seasons. Every game was a challenge for Maradona. That is not the case today for Messi and Ronaldo.

None of this is to devalue the greatness of the Clasico couple. Both would have been superstars in any era from the past and what they have achieved both individually and collectively with their teams over the past decade is truly remarkable.

There is no doubt, though, that various changes in the game – from the offside rule to the birth of the super club – have allowed Messi and Ronaldo to dominate football in a way that just wasn’t possible in the past.