For other sports it’s quite the norm. In modern tennis it’s nearly more uncommon than common not to have two all-time greats simultaneously vying for world supremacy: Borg and McEnroe, Evert and Navratilova, Graf and Seles, Sampras and Agassi, Federer and Nadal.
Boxing folklore is similarly defined. Robinson and La Motta; Ali and Frazier; the four kings of the 1980s middleweight division and all their epic tussles for that crown; any golden era for boxing has coincided with having at least one rivalry for the ages.
Even in team sport a contest, an era, can sometimes be reduced to just two men facing off.
The lore and the lure of the NBA has been its star system and its star wars. In the ’60s Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, two men over seven feet, figuratively as well as literally towered over the rest of the American sporting landscape. The league then became a global phenomenon with the advent of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Even the peerless Michael Jordan had to first overcome a nemesis and icon like Isiah Thomas. Since he finished playing with the Chicago Bulls, it remains the most common topic in sports bars and water coolers throughout America: who the man? Kobe or LeBron?
Football has no real history of that, as long and as glorious as its history is. You can’t hog the ball in soccer like you can in hoops. It’s one thing — though still quite a feat — to condense a game of five-on-five to effectively a game of one-on-one; another to effectively render 20 men to the role of extras.
Yet that’s nearly what Messi and Ronaldo did last Sunday, scoring all four goals between them in the latest El Clasico.
Football has long had global stars but never before its two best players being its best two scorers meeting so often in the same league in the same era.
Europeans only saw Pele every four years at the World Cup. The only time he, Best, Cruyff and Beckenbauer all played in the same league was in America in the time of the Cosmos when time was running out for them all.
At various times in the ’80s, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Zico and Platini were touted as genuine contenders to Maradona’s status as world’s best player before Mexico terminated that debate. Again though, there could be no genuine rivalry because there wasn’t even a prospect of one between their clubs.
Maradona’s Napoli and Gullit’s AC Milan was about the closest that decade would get to one but even then you could dispute whether Gullit was the best Dutchman on his team, let alone the best player on the planet.
Even with the arrival of the Champions League and the explosion of televised football, there was no real standalone player or rivalry in world football over the next decade. Brazil’s Ronaldo, for a time, was exceptional.
But his lifestyle habits and those of Ronaldinho affected both their immortality status and their peak didn’t coincide with Zidane’s for a sufficient period of time.
You can’t say that about Ronaldo and Messi’s. This will be the sixth consecutive year that Messi will finish in the top-three voting for World Player of the Year. Ronaldo has only finished outside the top three once in that time; in 2010, when he still finished in the top six.
Growing up, we’d read references to Dixie Dean and marvel how there was a time when someone could average more than a goal a game. Messi and Ronaldo’s strike rates are a throwback to the days of old Dixie.
Ronaldo has scored 160 goals in his 155 games with Real Madrid. Messi has scored 169 in his last 155 games with Barcelona. No matter how poor you might argue the mid-cut and low-tiered teams of La Liga are, that is phenomenal.
You might also argue that Messi is the better of the two. We’d agree. But it is also indisputable that Ronaldo is making him better.
In the last few years the Magic-Bird rivalry has spawned a Broadway musical, an HBO documentary, a best-selling book and a genuine friendship. They didn’t always get along. “We didn’t like each other that much,” Bird would say. “It was too hard. We were trying to beat each other year after year and people kept comparing us.”
Often Bird would get to practice early and stay late because somewhere on the other side of America Johnson probably was as well. But in time he’d come to like Johnson and the fact that they’ll forever be “stuck with each other”.
Ronaldo and Messi don’t get along. Truth is, they probably never will; Cristiano is hardly as charming as Magic. But what they already do is respect and drive each other and in time will be flattered to be stuck with each other in the public memory and consciousness too.