The soccer world has an awards problem.
We accept that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are better than other players. The problem is Ronaldo and Messi continually push each other to increasingly higher heights, which no other player has the capacity and good fortune to reach.
Either Ronaldo or Messi has been recognized as the world’s best player for the last seven years. Ronaldo started it in 2008. Messi responded four consecutive years between 2009 and 2012. Ronaldo reclaimed the title in 2013 and successfully defended it last year.
Ronaldo won the 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or award Monday, earning the title as the sport’s leading player at this moment in time. The loudest dissenting voices emanated either from Messi bastions in Argentina or Barcelona, or in Germany, home of fellow finalist Manuel Neuer.
Neuer deserved consideration, having established himself as the best goalkeeper in the game and backstopped Germany to glory at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. No goalkeeper has won the Ballon d’Or since Lev Yashin in 1963, but it would have been an injustice if Neuer won it this year over Messi or Ronaldo, who continue to astonish on a weekly basis.
Messi and Ronaldo smash records for Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, each year, and both are iconic captains for their national teams. Only Ronaldo can match Messi’s goal tallies, performance level and consistency, and only Messi can rival Ronaldo in those regards. Players such as Messi and Ronaldo emerge only a few times each century, and both are firmly in the primes of their careers (Messi is 27; Ronaldo is 29). Aside from Ronaldo and Messi, there was no reasonable choice to win the 2014 Ballon d’Or.
Given the two options, I choose Ronaldo.
Ronaldo edges past Messi because of his impressive trophy haul in 2014 and incredible first half of 2015-16. Ronaldo helped fire Real Madrid to glory in the Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) and UEFA Champions League in 2013-14 and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2014-15, among other major trophies.
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Messi failed to win any competition with Barcelona in 2014. He started the year by slowly working his way back from a serious hamstring injury. However, the Argentinian superstar enjoyed a better World Cup than Ronaldo, who played with a series of leg injuries. Messi took Argentina to the final and won the Golden Ball. Ronaldo’s Portugal crashed out in the group stage.
The inevitable 2014 Ballon d’Or race between Messi and Ronaldo was too close to call when the 2014-15 season started in August, but Ronaldo amassed the slimmest of leads by New Year’s Day. Messi’s impressive goal-scoring rate in the first half of the La Liga (Spain’s first division) season pales in comparison to Ronaldo’s (15 to a record-breaking 25). Real Madrid also ended the year with an unprecedented 22-game winning streak (in all competitions). Barcelona edged toward January chaos.
Ronaldo was doing things nobody had ever seen before and helping Real Madrid achieve success that even its previous dynasties could never taste. Messi was with Ronaldo every step of the way, breaking all-time scoring records in La Liga and the Champions League before his rival could do so. It’s a fact of life that Ronaldo and Messi must share the limelight. The “who’s better?” debate will rage into eternity.
But if you ask me whether Ronaldo shined brighter than Messi for longer, I’d say “he did … by a single flicker of light.”
Thumbnail photo via Walter Bieri/The Associated Press/KEYSTONE