Let me start off by acknowledging the impossibility of comparing players from different eras. There aren’t enough absolutes. In any sport the game is constantly changing – often most noticeably in the increased physical fitness of the participants – and the suspicion is that many great players of yesteryear would struggle physically were they playing now.
Can you then judge players from different eras based on their importance to their team, or, if in an individual sport, based on their success and talent relative to their opponents? This method doesn’t take into account eras where a player was strong within weak competition. For example, Michael Atherton was an excellent batsman whose importance to England’s batting line-up in the 1990s (particularly 1993-97) was almost immeasurable, so does that make him a better batsman that Jonathan Trott, whose batting statistics are (having played admittedly far fewer Tests) significantly more impressive? It is, I think, an interesting comparison – I chose Trott rather than Ian Bell, because many of Trott’s runs have come in situations of high pressure. Atherton was England captain for over half his Tests, and, despite the presence of many talented batsmen around him (Stewart, Thorpe, Hick, Hussain), the man who both the public and the team expected to provide runs every innings. Trott is fortunate in that if he fails he can (unless the Test is played in Abu Dhabi) rely on another member of the top 7 to score big runs.
That rather lengthy paragraph, initially intended to be a simple rhetorical question, shows how involved it is possible to become when assessing the relative merits of players from any era in any sport. It might mean that the question ‘where should Ronaldo and Messi stand in a list of all-time great footballers’ is unanswerable, since such a list cannot exist. It doesn’t mean it cannot, or should not be asked.
When discussing the greatest footballers of all time, it is generally accepted that Pele and Maradona (not necessarily in that order) are the best two. The next group of greats often include (again in no particular order) Cruyff, di Stefano, Best, Beckenbauer, Zidane and Puskas. I would argue that both Ronaldo and Messi belong in this group and above the next rung, containing the likes of Baresi, Yashin, Charlton (B), Laudrup (M), the original Ronaldo and van Basten.
Let us look at the statistics, as they are truly astounding. Since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid in 2009 he has scored 180 goals in 183 games in all competitions. Over the same period, Messi has scored 221 goals in 203 games. The level of consistency required to produce such stats is staggering. This season in the league, Messi has scored 37 goals and provided 9 assists in 24 games. That means he directly contributed nearly 2 goals a game, and has scored more than all but 4 other teams in the league. Such stats belong to a bygone age; since 1960 I can only think of Jimmy Greaves and Gerd Muller who scored with such regularity over such a period.
Yet the reason why Pele and Maradona are regarded as the two greatest players of all time comes from their performances in the World Cup. Nowadays the Champions League is of a higher quality than the World Cup, and both Ronaldo and Messi have lit up the tournament, so why should they need to prove themselves at a World Cup? The answer is, I think, because it is so infrequent, and therefore the pressure to succeed is huge. A poor showing in the Champions League? No problem, there’s always next year. A poor World Cup? Have to wait another 4 years.
Messi seemed a little unsure of his role at the last World Cup, asked by Maradona (great player does NOT equal great coach) to play deeper than he does at Barcelona, in the hope that he would find more space in which to sparkle. It just meant, however, that he was getting on the ball too far away from goal to create anything, either for himself or for his teammates. Without the high-tempo super-accurate passing, and imaginative running off the ball of Xavi, Iniesta et al, perhaps he struggles to find space nearer the opposition goal.
Ronaldo on the other hand suffers from what is technically known as try-to-do-everything-by-yourself-cos-you-don’t-trust-your-teammates-itis when playing for Portugal, which can be spectacular if it pays off (such as v Czech Republic in the Euro 2012 quarter-final), but means the opposition defence can afford to pay less attention to the other players, the other players get frustrated when they don’t receive the ball, and everyone gets angry – Portugal’s recent record in qualifying games is rather poor for a team of their talent.
However, if both players continue to be as consistently outstanding for their clubs for the next 3 seasons, would it matter if they failed to reach a similar level at the next World Cup? They are both scoring so relentlessly and playing so brilliantly, both in a league which is probably the world’s most skilful, and in the world’s premier club competition, that not dragging their country to victory should not prevent them from joining Pele and Maradona in that special temple within football’s pantheon. They are both truly incredible players, a complete pleasure to watch, so let’s enjoy doing so while we can.