If you search hard enough, you can find footage on YouTube of Rio Ferdinand, Anderson and Cristiano Ronaldo - still a Manchester United player at the time - being interviewed at a film premiere. When asked who the greatest player of all time is, Ferdinand and Anderson both say Diego Maradona. Then the microphone is turned towards Ronaldo. “Me,” he deadpans, before stumbling away giggling.
A trivial incident, from long ago, but one that helps to explain the uniformity of opinion when it comes to the great debate of our times - Ronaldo or Messi?
Whereas Lionel Messi is always at pains to credit teammates for his individual accomplishments, Ronaldo worships at his own altar. He probably spends the same amount of time on his hair before a game, as Messi does in an entire year. Whereas the Barcelona man has a quiet and stable home life with his wife Antonella and new son Thiago, his Real Madrid rival prefers a rotation of supermodel girlfriends plus a son born in mysterious circumstances - let’s not rule out the possibility of cloning - and named after himself.
None of this should come into the equation when evaluating the pair’s merits as footballers, but it does, and will do again in the build-up to the latest battle in their never ending war, at Zurich Kongresshaus on January 7, where the winner of the 2012 FIFA Ballon d’Or will be announced.
I should stress at this point that this is not an attempt to construct an elaborate smokescreen. Ronaldo’s vanity and ostentatious persona are not the only reasons Messi has walked away with the last three Golden Balls. The fact that the Argentine is quite possibly the greatest player to have ever kicked a ball also has something to do with it.
But there is a sense that the gap between their actual abilities is considerably slimmer than the gap between their levels of public popularity. Within the context of this year’s Ballon d’Or, a good argument can be made for either man, and I won’t embark on any laborious statistical analysis. That’s been done elsewhere, ad nauseam.
My argument is simple – we don’t want to see a player as gifted as Ronaldo to become the Jimmy White to Messi’s Stephen Hendry. A perennial runner up, forced to watch glum faced as his nemesis hoists trophy after trophy into the air. Yes the Portuguese forward has won the Ballon d’Or before, back in 2008, but that was before his rivalry with Messi became what it is now.
It would be tragic if ‘CR7’ was to emerge from this storied period in football history, defined by two such supreme specimens bewitching us muggles with their wizardry, without anything to show for it. But that may well happen, because if he doesn’t win it this year, when will he?
He played an integral role in Madrid ending Messi and Barcelona’s stranglehold on the La Liga title. He almost single handedly took Portugal to the semi-finals of Euro 2012. He became the first player to score in six consecutive Clasicos. Even in the current campaign, a fairly wretched one by his club’s very high standards, he has managed to score 22 goals in all competitions.
Yes, Ronaldo is an egomaniac who’s spent the season telling us how ‘sad’ he is whilst living the sort of absurdly privileged lifestyle most of us would kill for. But if you can look at his facial expression during last year’s ceremony in Zurich, and not find your own face bathed in warm tears, then it’s my duty to tell you that you sir, are an android.