Messi still the masterful one

No surprise to learn this week that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi declined to vote for each other in the Ballon d’Or.

The Madrid man opted for Monaco striker Radamel Falcao while Messi – who kept all of his three nominations in the Barcelona family – gave his first preference to Andres Iniesta.

The planet’s two greatest players have never been on friendly terms but if the worst they can manage is to blank each other in the ballot box then theirs is a rivalry which clearly falls a long way short of being even a half-decent feud, let alone the long-running, full-blooded and hugely entertaining war of words still being waged by their great predecessors in the world game, Pele and Maradona.

With Pele at pains to present himself as being on the side of the angels, such puffery only makes him an even more inviting target for the devil in Maradona whose attacks on the Brazilian have run the gamut from criticism of his football skills to unflattering comment on the size of his manhood.

A couple of years back, Pele made one of his typically self-reverential claims when he suggested he had been born to play football “just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint”.

Needless to say, Diego was never going to let that one pass by without comment. “If Pele thinks he’s the Beethoven of football then I’m Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and the Bono of football, because I have so much passion,” he declared. “As I’ve told you before, anytime he takes the wrong pill he comes up with a crazy statement. Pele may have taken the morning pills at night time, so he should make sure he takes the right pills. In fact it would be better if he changed his doctor.”

Only last month, Maradona was back on the offensive, scratching an old itch about the time in 2000 when, after the Argentine had unexpectedly topped a FIFA-sponsored public poll, the panicked world governing body decided to honour Pele at the same ceremony with a ‘Football Family’ award. Maradona’s most recent verdict? “The award that FIFA gave Pele isn’t worth a shit.”

If it’s bad enough that Messi and Ronaldo can’t rise to such superior mud-slinging even worse was the confirmation this week that, on the back of old Ron winning the Ballon d’Or, one of football’s great one-sided feuds has also bitten the dust. I refer, of course, to the screech of brakes which accompanied another classic Eamon Dunphy u-turn.

Where once the Dunph was happy to dismiss Ronaldo as “a disgrace to the game” and “a cod”, this week he was ready to elevate him to the pantheon.

“Pele presented the award,” he observed, “and he is up there with Pele now, I think.”

Any chance at all, I wonder, that we could get Eamon and Diego in the same studio?

Meantime, I have to say that, even allowing for Ronaldo’s scintillating form in the year just ended, I’d still have Messi above him in the pecking order – with, incidentally, Luis Suarez now very definitely in the mix on the back of his phenomenal performances for Liverpool this season.

The stats, staggering though they may be in the case of both Ronaldo and Messi, can never tell the full story. In the end, what you might call aesthetic considerations must also come into play, and there’s something about Messi’s darting close control which I simply find more thrilling to the football soul than Ronaldo’s thoroughbred gallop. Both men obviously have the transcendent skills to be game-changers but Messi’s keen eye for a pass combined with an utterly selfless work rate when the opposition have the ball, still makes him the perfect mix of individual and team player for me. The beauty of this debate, of course, is that, unlike Pele and Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo are in their prime at the same time. And that happy fact is set to make their rivalry one of the great sub-plots of the World Cup finals in Brazil.

Ronaldo has already put down a marker at international level, with his hat-trick in Portugal’s play-off win over Sweden not only sending his country through to the finals but also ensuring that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be around in the summer to stake his own claim on football’s highest stage.

Fitness permitting, however, Ronaldo and Messi will be there, and eyes of the world will be watching to see who comes out on top. Obviously, the stakes are high for both men but arguably higher for the Argentine.

When an emotional Ronaldo paid tribute to the late Eusebio this week, he was remembering a player who, for all his undoubted greatness, had never been able to deliver the ultimate glittering prize for his country. But, in common with all Argentinian footballers over the last 25 years or so, Messi is still seen to toil in the shadow of Maradona, the man who almost single-handedly won the World Cup with an incomparably stellar performance across the whole tournament in Mexico in 1986.

If Messi can follow suit this summer his immortality will be ensured — and even Maradona and Pele might finally have something they can agree on.

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