Can We Please Get Over Ronaldo and Messi?


Can We Please Get Over Ronaldo and Messi?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The Oscars of the football world have been announced, and in a vote that surprised no one at all, Cristiano Ronaldo has won his fifth Ballon d’Or. The award has become more predictable than the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have hogged the trophy like they have hogged possession in the last decade, winning it five times each during the period. Of course, they are truly exceptional players. On any given day, in any given team, they can turn the game on its head. They play in attacking positions, score goals and break records for fun, and it’s not hard to see why the whole world loves them.

Everyone wants to watch more goals being scored, it’s why we tune in to football. We watch boxing to see people getting beaten, T20 cricket for the huge sixes. Attacking personas in sport are fascinating, rather desirable. So why shouldn’t the most prestigious award in football be skewed heavily in favour of attacking players? That’s how it was at its inception in 1956, when English winger Stanley Matthews won it. That’s how it is right now, as Messi and Ronaldo continue the trend.

But do attackers make or break the game? What about off-the-line clearances, crunching tackles in the final third, and match-winning saves from the men in goal?

The reason that one goal in the game is toasted is because ten other shots have been blocked. Attacking play can only be appreciated when it is balanced out by defensive players trying to negate it. It is that grit, determination, and positional awareness, that continues to remain under-appreciated. If there was a goal scored on every attack, goal scores would lose their sheen: It’s similar to the classic parenting tactic of getting your kid to stop eating junk food by feeding McDonalds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The law of diminishing marginal utility kicks in eventually.      

In a fairer world, we’d be having a tough argument over why the likes of Manuel Neuer, Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Thiago Silva and Sergio Ramos haven’t won a Ballon d’Or.

Legendary German player Phillip Lahm hit the nail on the head when he said that the Ballon d’Or is just a popularity contest for strikers. If Facebook voted for the best player in the world, the results would be exactly the same. But the Ballon d’Or is actually voted upon by around 500 journalists, captains, and coaches who surely ought to know better.

The moment the shortlist is announced, I prepare for the circle-jerk. Speculation begins about whether Ronaldo or Messi will go home with the trophy that year. Manuel Neuer might find himself as the token third choice if he has had an exceptional year, but in our hearts, we know it’s always going to be between Ronaldo and Messi. Their fanboys on social media gird themselves for battle, and both sides attempt convincing the other that their man is the best football player to set foot on the planet. YouTube compilations titled “Ronaldo destroying Pique” or “Messi humiliating best defenders” fill up my timeline.

It’s convenient to look at one special display of skill and laugh at the stodgy ol’ art of defending, but in the age of trickery and flashy stepovers we rarely see compilations of defenders putting in timely sliding tackles, winning the ball in the air with steely grit or holding their line with precision. In a fairer world, we’d be having a tough argument over why the likes of Manuel Neuer, Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Thiago Silva and Sergio Ramos haven’t won a Ballon d’Or.

Yet, Ronaldo and Messi have entered their 30s, and even though they show no signs of decline, they are closer to the end of their careers. Who might the next contender for the Ballon d’Or be?

My best guess is, we’ll be looking at the next best striker. And all that while, the mercurial goalie David De Gea, or the rock-solid defenders Leonardo Bonucci, Marcelo, and Dani Alves will quietly go about their business protecting their goal. Not for them the glory of football’s top award. Perhaps, the committee that decides the winner of this annual trophy should pay heed to the words of the English Premier League’s most successful manager, Alex Ferguson, who once famously said, “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”

Until that happens, we’ll just have to stick to alternating between toasting Messi and Ronaldo.