The Future

What happens when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo retire?

By Paul Macdonald

In 2007, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi finished in second and third place, respectively, in the Ballon d’Or, behind deserving winner Kaka. It is the last time that someone other than the Portuguese or the Argentine has held the trophy aloft.

In modern football, we are in the After Kaka (AK) era, where conversations about the best in the world evolved from a list of many to a shortlist of two. The game that Messi and Ronaldo have played in the last 10 years is not the same one in which Kaka excelled. The duo moved the sport onwards and demanded everyone else come with them.

There’s been a redefinition of ‘great’ and ‘greatest’. But what happens to football when the duo who have helped shape what it has become are no longer around? For a sportsperson to exact superiority over all others over a period of months or even a year is a mammoth task. But for two players to obliterate any opposition to their dominance over a decade isn’t just extraordinary; it distorts the understanding of what is generally possible.

There’s been a redefinition of ‘great’ and ‘greatest’. But what happens to football when the duo who have helped shape what it has become are no longer around?

We can look to other sports for clues. In January of this year, TV companies were enthralled by the box office nature of tennis’ Australian Open finalists; Roger Federer (35 years old) took on Rafael Nadal (then 30), while the women’s final featured Venus versus Serena Williams, 14 years after the veterans had last faced one another in Melbourne.

But this said as much about the emerging contenders at the pinnacle of tennis as it did about the longevity of these legitimate legends. Federer, Nadal and, latterly, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have waltzed through tournaments, only losing on the rare occasion or when they faced each other. All four of these men are now into their thirties and the new generation has experienced many false starts. The situation is eerily similar in golf; the talent pool is deeper than it has ever been, but in terms of another level of brilliance, the viewing audience there was simply spoiled by Tiger Woods.

Woods’ 84 PGA tour victories and 14 major titles cast a gigantic shadow over the emerging superstars that came after him. Rory McIlroy is a four-time major winner but is regularly accused of inconsistency and lack of focus. Jordan Spieth, the most promising American prodigy since Woods, won back-to-back major titles in 2015 but, because he has failed to follow suit since, is reckoned to not be fulfilling his potential. Spieth won’t be 24 until his next birthday and if he stays healthy will have 20 years of top-level tournaments ahead of him, but because it isn’t happening for him here, now, like it did for Tiger, it means he is off track.

When Usain Bolt walks away completely from athletics, he will take his world records at 100m and 200m with him, and for how long? How will the next ‘best sprinter in the world’ ever measure up?

The answer is that he shouldn’t have to. This is the conundrum that football will face in the years to come. Both Ronaldo and Messi can play for as long as they like at whatever level they choose; Ronaldo’s reinvention as a centre-forward in Real Madrid’s successful Champions League campaign produced one of the most satisfying periods of his career, while Messi, though two-and-a-half-years younger, is already drifting deeper in matches, alluding to a more withdrawn role in future.

But when this duo chooses to extricate themselves from the game, the players that come afterwards must be assessed independently. There is nothing to be gained, for example, from like-for-like scoring stats with Messi, Ronaldo, and anyone else. It’s why the ‘versus’ debate has dragged on monotonously. They can only be placed in comparison to one another, any other matchup is meaningless. Therefore, a Barcelona forward enjoying a 25-goal season must be evaluated in isolation, not with the caveat, ‘well, Messi scored 50’. Likewise, Madrid’s next record transfer – be it Kylian Mbappe or another heir – shouldn’t be targeting Ronaldo’s all-time goalscoring record. Instead, the focus should be on being the best player he can be.

Real Madrid transfer target Kylian Mbappe

Real Madrid transfer target Kylian Mbappe

This isn’t designed to demotivate or discourage young sportsmen from maximising their potential, but quite the opposite. The spectre of overbearing greatness extrapolates a player’s career into a future which is uncertain and, in all probability, unattainable. ‘The Next Messi’ or ‘Ronaldo’ is an indelible brand that is impossible to escape and can be career destroying. Such a tag expresses the expectation that you become part of a two-way conversation over the greatest player in history. How, psychologically, is any footballer expected to benefit from that? Modest targets don’t lead to modest talent, they merely calibrate the expectancy over time.

Graeme McDowell, the Northern Irish golfer who edged out Tiger to win the US Open in 2010, is watching his sport deal with the chasm that Woods left behind, and he can see a trend developing; snapshots of supremacy followed by increased expectation, ultimately defined by frustration from fans and pundits that the next Woods hasn’t materialised or landed from space.

“As the level keeps getting better and better and better, I’m a believer that we’re not going to see a player who will dominate the game for 10 years like Tiger Woods did,” he said.

“I think we’re going to see guys dominate in spells. When these guys get to the top of Mount Everest, it’s hard to know what to do from there … unless you’re wired like Tiger Woods was wired.”

Spieth, who experienced one of those spells in the first half of 2015, adds: “I think there are unrealistic expectations that are put on enduring those kinds of runs.” In short, this is a different era, and the potential for what can be accomplished should exist on its own terms.

Eden Hazard, a pertinent example of a footballer who has switched from sublime to subdued over the last few years, is already fielding questions akin to what Spieth has experienced.

"I'm happy with my season at Chelsea. People expect me to score 30 to 40 goals per season but I'm not like that,” he stated. He feels the pressure of comparison, usually from young, enthusiastic fans who believe that what Messi and Ronaldo do is replicable.

We need to consider both Messi and Ronaldo as statistical outliers. They exist on a level above mere mortals, meta-humans in comic-book language. They are a once-in-a-generation occurrence made even more remarkable by the fact that we have two of them at once.

It should never have been Messi versus Ronaldo. It was always Messi and Ronaldo, existing on a different plain from anyone who has come before. Edgar Davids perhaps put it best when he called Messi ‘an anomaly’, while when former Real Madrid coach Carlos Quieroz compares Ronaldo to Michael Jordan, the most transcendent American sportsman of them all, you know you might never be able to discuss a footballer in these terms again.