If all good things must come to an end, then so too must achingly tedious things. Like the dreary, infantile ‘rivalry’ between Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and their respective bands of basement-dwelling zealots. The media and social media war of words pursued by both tribes has been hard to escape.
But now, it’s over. Messi-Ronaldo is no more, at least in its current guise. Sure, the debates will still rage as to Who Is Better but the fatiguing, inveterate Barca-Real element has been removed from the discussion at a stroke with Ronaldo’s move to Juventus.
Still, what a ride it has been. One that is quite unique in football history. We have seen arguably the two greatest ever players – roughly the same age – playing not just in the same league but for two of the biggest clubs in the world, who also just happen to be mortal, irreconcilable enemies. A producer would scoff if a scriptwriter pitched such an unlikely idea.
We watched initially with awe, then with increasing acceptance, as these behemoths launched their very own scorched-earth policies on world football, laying waste to opponents with a hat-trick here, a 50-yard dribble there. Observers grew immune to the quite astonishing feats the pair carried out on a weekly basis. They were – still are – so good that it became almost dull to read of yet another Messi or Ronaldo masterclass.
But for the past decade or so, nobody did it better.
Or rather, the only person who did it better than Messi was Ronaldo, and the only person who did it better than Ronaldo was Messi. There have been pretenders who never amounted to more than that – one of whom, Neymar, clown prince of the Ballon d’Or, got so frustrated at living in the pair’s shadow that he left Spain.
Sadly, the feeling is that Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid is another signal that their dual hegemony is in its end-game. The Portuguese will be 34 by the time his first season in Serie A is over, and despite his stated aim to play at the top level until 40, he’s beginning to look his age. His game has been pared-back accordingly, a one-time flying winger evolving into a powerful centre-forward. Sooner or later, the legs will go, and so will Ronaldo.
Messi, 31, probably has a few seasons left in the tank at Barcelona. His skill-set is more conducive to playing into his late 30s. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him playing deep in midfield when he reaches Cristiano’s age. But he is not the Messi of 2012.
Inevitably, people start to look beyond the duopoly. The attention focuses on younger men like Kylian Mbappé and, despite all his hateful antics, Neymar. With Portugal and Argentina’s early exits from the World Cup and the emergence of Mbappé as a truly global star, there’s now a very clear sense of a baton being passed. The heirs-apparent are there, albeit ones that are unlikely to ever reach the same level.
As it is, we enter a new age.
A Clasico without Messi-Ronaldo will feel very strange. Not seeing them bust a lung trying to outdo one another in La Liga each week will feel very strange. Not seeing them go head-to-head on the pitch three or four times per season will feel very strange. Everything about this feels very strange. It’s quite possible they will never again share the same pitch in a competitive fixture.
Now the two men are operating in different countries, perhaps all the squabbling and fanboy one-upmanship can end and we can get on with appreciating these players for what they are: two exceptionally gifted footballers whose talents have enriched the game almost beyond anyone that came before them. We may not see anything like this for quite some time.
By the end, discussions about Messi and Ronaldo may have become something to endure, but watching them play never was.