The case for recognizing Ronaldo and Messi as soccer’s greatest players starts with the general scope of the pair’s excellence. Since 2008, they’ve been the only people to win the World Player of the Year Award—a level of supremacy previously unseen in the sport. Many critics argue the award is flawed—citing its inherent bias toward attacking players (goals and assists are easier tracked than contributions from defenders). Even fellow footballers, like the ever-annoyed Franck Ribery, have been outspoken in their dissatisfaction, calling the whole shebang a farce.
Pundits like The Telegraph’s Paul Hayward have identified the Spanish League, where Messi and Ronaldo ply their trade (for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively), as a kind of goal free-for-all, where anyone with a smidgen of talent would be able to score almost at will. It’s a belief that comes from a bias in favor of the English Premier league (the most popular league in the world), and an argument lobbied by its most ardent supporters. Yet a look at the numbers quickly dispels this notion: The average number of goals scored in both leagues sits at around 2.77 a game. Messi and Ronaldo’s impact on Spanish football becomes clear in an analysis of the number of goals scored by the league’s top scorers over the past decade.
La Liga’s Top Scorers by Season, 2004-2014 There’s been a considerable rise in the highest single-season totals since the duo started dominating the sport. Each season has become an arms race of sorts between Messi and Ronaldo, where week in and week out each attempts to one-up the other. The two are inextricably linked; even Ronaldo has acknowledged the role they’ve played in each other’s success.
Some critics point to Barcelona and Real Madrid’s domination over the rest of La Liga (though Atlético Madrid’s recent rise has threatened the duopoly). The two are undoubtedly the best teams in the country, but this supremacy isn’t a new phenomenon. Both clubs have always had a slew of world-class players at their disposal. A look at the difference in goals-per-season shows the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on the two historic clubs.
Total Goals Scored by Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga Since 2001
Note the stark change around 2009-2010 in terms of both team’s goal-scoring numbers. Despite the fact that they’ve always had top-level players, it wasn’t until Messi and Ronaldo began their meteoric rises (represented in the highlighted area of the chart) that the numbers became so high. Since 2010, both Messi and Ronaldo have broken the single-season scoring record in Spain three different times.
All-Time European Cup and UEFA Champions League Top Scorers
Perhaps both players’ most impressive achievement is how they’ve completely shifted the paradigm of what makes for a good season. In the pre-Messi/Ronaldo era, 30 goals was seen as the pinnacle of success. Yet the pair have made a habit of achieving this before mid-season. In fact, neither Messi nor Ronaldo has scored below that number since 2009. For the last five seasons they’ve bothaveraged more than 50 goals a season.
Much of Pelé’s mystique evaporates under scrutiny: Last year, The Telegraph’sJonathan Liew debunked many of the myths surrounding the superstar. Thus, Maradona likely remains the only true challenger; he ticks all the boxes. He dragged a Napoli team to their most successful period, and of course his heroic World Cup performances for Argentina made him a cultural icon.
That said, Messi and Ronaldo surely aren’t perfect. No player is. Truthfully, Messi has already been pegged as a legend. His 2011-2012 season, in which he broke a 40-year-old record for the most goals scored in a calendar year, may have been the best 12 months of soccer ever played. Ronaldo has always been seen as playing in Messi’s shadows, a mere mortal doing well to compete with a true genius. But in the past two years, Messi’s injury issues have resurfaced while Ronaldo has steadily improved both his performances and his trophy haul. Off the pitch, Messi has become larger than life at Barcelona to the point where his influence over the club has been deemed detrimental at times. And Ronaldo’s attitude, or lack thereof, has come under scrutiny, most recently with a bizarre outburst that has him currently suspended for two games.
But the biggest strike against the two has been on the pitch: their failure to bring home the biggest prize of all, the FIFA World Cup. It’s an argument routinely used to detract from their achievements—the fact remains that historically the world’s best players have almost always managed to win the trophy. Messi did come close last year, and he’ll surely have at least one more chance in three years’ time. Ronaldo’s chances, however, are much slimmer. He’ll be 33 in 2018, and since Portugal isn’t the strongest team, barring a massive influx of talent over the next few years it’s hard to see them truly competing.
It’s this persistent success that’s contributed to the jaded reaction fans have every time Ronaldo or Messi wins another FIFA Ballon d’Or. Much of the recent campaigning against the pair, mostly in favor of Manuel Neuer—who finished third in the voting—was a consequence of voter fatigue. This isn’t to detract from what was a fantastic year for the German goalkeeper, highlighted by his excellent performance—and victory—in the FIFA World Cup. But had any other player in the world achieved the heights of Messi and Ronaldo in 2014, there wouldn’t have been an argument as to who should have been recognized. Messi and Ronaldo aren’t merely being rewarded because they’re scoring a lot of goals, they’re being rightfully lauded because they’re literally making history week in and week out.
It’s this, the banality of their excellence, that has in some ways belittled it. Regular players receive acknowledgement for their good moments and praise for their fantastic ones. Messi and Ronaldo, however, have to meet sky-high expectations. Their good moments are acknowledged with slight apathy; their more amazing moments are expected. But their historic greatness deserves far more than a collective shrug.