What’s the most tiresome debate that you can have about football in 2018?
‘VAR, Yes or No’ will be up there, certainly. ‘Was football better in the old days’ is a classic of the genre still capable of holding its own. But, even now, the last conversational resort of that enthusiastic horde of people with team badges as their social media avatars is, of course, this old cherry: ‘Who is better – Messi or Ronaldo?’
In fairness to these people, there has never been any real reason to question the validity of this discourse, passé or not. The Messi-Ronaldo duopoly has been exactly that. At times, they were so far ahead of the next-best it seemed like they were playing a different sport.
But time passes. Legs get heavy. Lungs get tighter. Now, there’s no longer such a chasm between these dual monarchs and the rest. Arguably, for the first time in years, there are other names worth including in the conversation.
It’s quite possible that Messi and Ronaldo remain the two best players in the world. There are plenty of things to be said in favour of such a theory – Messi leading Barcelona to (potentially) an invincible season in La Liga; Ronaldo spurring lazy-horse Madrid to (potentially) a 13th Champions League title.
But they have not been the stars of European competition this year. That honour probably goes to the likes of Roberto Firmino or Mohamed Salah, the latter of whom is surely the most obvious candidate to break the hegemony. The Egyptian has been a revelation in the Champions League, serving up sleepless nights to big-name continental defenders on an almost weekly basis.
And then there’s his Premier League form, about which little is left to be written. He is superlative, and subjectively the best footballer currently playing the game. But when the time comes for voters to cast their ballot for The Best™, will they go for the Liverpool man or simply revert to type and make their pick from the default duo?
A problem for Salah in that regard is his lack of the powerful ‘lobbies’ that back Messi and Ronaldo (the latter especially) in their ‘campaigns’ for the award. It’s slightly nauseating to think of an army of lackeys furiously texting and tweeting away in the backrooms of the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu, intent on convincing voters to give their man the gong. But such is the reality of football in 2018.
That’s not to say Salah or Liverpool should resort to similar tactics, merely to say that the picture is skewed. For Real and Barca, having the Best Player in the World in their team is a status symbol they feel they can’t do without.
Still, it would be nice to see Mohamed Salah – or Kevin De Bruyne, or basically anyone who isn’t Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – smiling away onstage alongside Gianni Infantino in the knowledge that he has broken the sequence. For FIFA’s part, it might be something of a sweet relief to see someone new appear at the top of a vote that has looked like this (thanks Wikipedia) for the past two years: