SINGAPORE: When historians look back at football in the first quarter of the 21st century, they will see a time of great change in the world’s most popular sport.
What was already a global game with millions pouring in the 1990s, quickly turned into a sport with billion-dollar broadcasting deals, with sovereign wealth funds investing in clubs and transfer fee amounts for players increasing from a few million pounds to hundreds of million pounds.
What may make them really shake their head in wonder however is how two players were clear at the sport’s pinnacle for so long.
Although the pace of change in football has been exponential since the early 2000s, one thing has remained constant - the game has seen the phenomenal rise of Lionel Messi of Argentina and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to the top, where they have remained for most of this century.
Rarely has there been any other footballer who has mirrored the sustained success of both of these players in individual and team success.
Both players are not shy of individual honours. In 2007, the two stars made the top three of the prestigious FIFA Player of the Year -previously known as the Ballon D’or - in which players, journalists and coaches vote for the best player that year.
Since then, only in 2018 has a player other than Ronaldo or Messi - Croatia’s Luka Modric - been named as the best in the world.
Then there are the trophies. Ronaldo won the UEFA Champions League, regarded as the pinnacle in European club football, in 2008 with Manchester United and then headed to Real Madrid the following year for a world record fee at the time of 80 million pounds to win four more Champions League titles.
Messi, who has stayed at Barcelona throughout his career, has won the Champions League a total of four times and Spain’s La Liga on 10 occasions.
Ronaldo has won seven national leagues: Three in England during his six seasons with Manchester United, two in Spain with Real Madrid and two with his current club, Juventus in Italy.
So consistent have they been that this year is the first since 2006 that neither player has appeared in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
And then there are the amazing statistics.
Ronaldo scored 311 goals in 292 games in nine years for Real Madrid. From the 2009 to 2010 season onwards, Messi has never scored less than 41 goals until this year, including a breathtaking 73 goals in the 2011 to 2012 season.
Together, they have scored over 630 club goals.
Messi has 214 club assists to Ronaldo’s 134. Both have shone for their countries with Ronaldo one goal short of a century for Portugal and Messi having 70 goals for Argentina.
IT’S HOW LONG THEY WERE THE BEST
Such statistics are unprecedented especially when sustained over a number of years.
There have been legendary players in the past but there has never been a pair so dominant at the same time and for such a long time.
In attacking terms, Pele of Brazil, Dutch maestro Johann Cryuff and Argentina’s Diego Maradona are seen as giants but had their peak in separate decades: The sixties, seventies and eighties.
Ronaldo, the Brazilian striker, regarded as the world’s best forward from the mid-nineties shone almost for a decade.
Zinedine Zidane was around at the same time but while the French playmaker helped his country to the 1998 World Cup and the final of the 2006 version, he won just one Champions League medal.
Zidane and Ronaldo were world-class but did not define an era.
It is the duopoly of Messi and Ronaldo that mark them out. For years, fans around the world have been divided - helped by the rise of social media - into two camps, arguing that their man is better than the other and therefore the best in the world.
END OF AN ERA
The debates continue but the end of the era is in sight now.
At club level, Ronaldo’s Juventus lost at the last 16 stage of the Champions League against Lyon, a team that finished seventh in the French league. Messi’s experience was worse.
Barcelona reached the quarter-final but were humiliated last week by Bayern Munich, losing 8-2 to the German giants.
It was not surprising then that there were reports of Messi’s disillusionment with the Spanish giants. There have been reports that Ronaldo could also leave Juventus.
Both players would be welcomed around the world and the transfer would be huge news but, at the final stages of their careers, would not now command the biggest transfer fee.
Ronaldo is 35 and Messi is 33. Both are still world-class but it is no longer automatic that one of the pair is the best player in the world.
Last September, although Messi was crowned FIFA Player of the Year for a record sixth time, many felt that second-placed Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk deserved the award more, with Ronaldo settling for third place.
Clearly, other players are knocking on their doors to knock the duo off their perch. But it is doubtful that any of those contenders can attain the same level of success that Messi and Ronaldo have or even for that long.
SUCCESSORS TO THE CROWN
One of those is Neymar, who holds the current world transfer record of 222 million Euros that Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) paid to Barcelona for the Brazilian forward in 2017.
Neymar, a former team-mate of Messi, was overshadowed by the Argentine at the club but has not yet managed to outshine the Argentine in the French capital. Neymar may be regarded as world-class but has much to do to match the individual and on-field success of Messi and Ronaldo.
Neymar’s PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe was in March ranked by Spanish newspaper Marca as the highest-valued player in the world at 200 million Euros.
At 21, the Frenchman has already won the World Cup and has a bright future but, at club level, playing for PSG in the French Ligue 1 means that he does not compete directly with the best in the world.
For him to prove and establish himself as the world’s best, he needs to be playing against and among the best in the world in the more competitive leagues in England, Spain, Italy or Germany.
There are others who are establishing their credentials too – Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at Liverpool, Raheem Sterling at Manchester City, Eden Hazard at Real Madrid, and Modric – with the latter two also shining at the 2018 World Cup, along with Mbappe.
Despite their potential to be crowned the world’s best in the next few years, they may not be able to stay too long at the top with the average age of the players above to be 28.
At this age, Ronaldo had already scored 300 club goals, became his country’s all-time top scorer and captain, as well as won the FIFA Best Player Award not to mention the numerous titles and cups, while Messi had already been Barcelona’s and La Liga’s highest all-time goalscorer and had won five FIFA Best Player awards.
This shows that by 28, both Messi and Ronaldo were already well established at the top of the sport and not just showing potential. They were clearly in a class of their own.
WORLD CUP ALLUDES THEM
Interestingly, both Messi and Ronaldo have not won the World Cup, something that the previous greats such as Maradona, Pele and Zidane have done and is a common criticism raised by those who question their respective tags as the greatest ever footballer.
READ: Commentary: World Cup 2034 may seem like a long shot but Singapore can surely get behind this dream
That is a fair criticism but one that can be countered by their incredible consistency at club level. Arguably, the club level football today in Europe’s top leagues is more competitive and demanding than the once-in-four years World Cup.
Either way, the World Cup is unlikely now for either Messi or Ronaldo. At 35 and 37 respectively in 2022, they may not be playing at the next World Cup.
But they don’t need the trophy to be remembered as the best players in the world for over a decade. To have two such stars shine at the same time for so long may never happen again.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).