Season after season for the past decade and more, a football debate has raged, or at least simmered. Who is better: Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Messi is 35, Ronaldo 37. One could bandy stats around all night long: Ronaldo has won the Champions League fives times to Messi’s four; the Argentinian has been winner of the Ballon d’Or on seven occasions, the Portuguese five times.
Messi was on the home page for the last football blog, so it’s Ronaldo this time, but what happened in Qatar last month may have shifted the dial decisively in Messi’s favour when it comes to determining who is the GOAT – Greatest of all Time – between the two of them. (We’ll leave those two late greats, Pele and Diego Maradona, out of this.) Last year Messi led Argentina to victory over Brazil in the Copa America final. In 2016, Ronaldo’s country had won the European Championships, albeit their talisman had spent most of the match urging on his team from the sidelines, injury having forced him from the pitch. So that evens itself up. But now Messi has won the World Cup, scoring two goals in a thrilling final as Argentina overcame France on penalties after the teams were level on 3-3 after 120 minutes. It is surely safe to say Ronaldo will never win the World Cup.
What has happened in the intervening month has only served to underline this. Last evening Messi was playing for Paris St Germain when they lost 0-1 away at Rennes, albeit even so they are probably heading towards winning the French league title for the ninth time in the past 11 seasons. Twelve days previously, Ronaldo had signed a contract worth a reported £177 million per year (yes, you did read that correctly) to play for Al Nassr in the Saudi Arabian league. He dressed this move up in historic terms – “In Europe my work is done. I won everything and played for the most important clubs. This is a new challenge” – but the truth is that he can no longer hack it in the way that Messi can, at the level that Messi can. Which was part of why Manchester United were content to see him leave. Messi will be hoping he can inspire his French club to win the Champions League for the first time in its history (at the same time, tying him with Ronaldo’s tally) later this year. Only serious football nerds will have any idea as to how Ronaldo’s club career is faring.
Whichever side of the debate you are on, I think we can all agree that football is a big deal. It is often remarked that professional sport matters because it doesn’t really; it’s war played out by proxy. It’s a magnificent triviality. In the case of the recent World Cup, however, it was more than that. We do not yet know the ramifications of China ending its draconian covid lockdown policy and, in theory at least, opening up international travel to its citizens. But we do know the major catalyst for it. The World Cup. Chinese people had essentially been sequestered in their homes, masked and isolated. Then they turned on their TVs and saw crowds in the stadiums in Qatar shouting and singing together and not wearing masks. Even in a country where information is so zealously policed by the government, it had become impossible to pretend the Chinese were somehow different from the rest of us, effectively aliens.
“Football, bloody hell,” as one famous former manager put it.