You are under water. Up above, the moonlight ripples through the ever shifting surface. But you’ve no time for distractions. Your lungs burn and your arms churn. You kick, you push, you pull, but to no avail. With your chest on fire, a large and serene entity floats into view. An eyelid recedes. You stare into the unblinking darkness. And see yourself. Then you pass out.
When you come to, you awake in the same pajamas, in the same bed, in the same house, in the same neighborhood. You turn on the tube and the same narrative dominates the sports news: “Messi v. Ronaldo!!!” But you can’t stop thinking about the whale.
Your chest still burns.
I begin with a simple assertion – Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi perfectly exhibit the values of the 21st century soccer-as-quantifiable concept. I refer to the Castrol Index. Neither plays much defense. Neither dispatches a deceptive pass of decent length to unlock a defense. Both run like the wind with the ball at their feet. Messi holds the edge in neat finishing, but Ronaldo boasts a cannon of a free kick. Messi is fast. Ronaldo is strong. Both accelerate rapidly. Yet, in my personal opinion, they are tasteless, hollow entities. Their football, while inspired at times, lacks flavor.
What have we been been spoon fed for the last few years? Well, the Messi & Ronaldo comparisons rely upon two premises. First, by a coincidence of nature, they play futbol during the same era and at rival clubs. Second, they both score goals. Aside from that superficial analysis, few have delved into their similarities and differences as athletes and wingers. Why?
Well, we probably wouldn’t like what we’d see. Both players display great talent. Yes. And I know that sport is an ephemeral, artificial delight, a bio-dome of a world where superficial constraints combine to entertain us. In this Willy Wonka land, you can’t drink from the chocolate river, touch the ball with your hand, and the goals are criminally small and way far apart. In this rigged land of scarcity, we prioritize the providers of goals. Messi and Ronaldo score goals. Ergo, we prioritize them.
Yet how do they get from Point A to Point B? Messi will either drift behind a center back to sprint the offside trap, dribble by two defenders, or work a neat give-and-go. He displays calmness in the box, but more correctly can be labeled a mathematician. The TI-83 graphing calculator in his head instantly analyzes the angles, leading to a perfectly floated header or low bouncing shot to the corner angle.
Cristiano Ronaldo may play the angles on his free kicks, but he’s more athlete than Algebra major. On the dribble, Messi will attack a defender’s inside foot and then pop outside, leaving said defender on his deriare or dumbfounded. Or both. Cristiano, however, graduated from the Luis Figo start-stop-go school of dribbling. He’ll try to catch a defender flatfooted, or deceptively decelerate to then buzz by him. If his engine didn’t have Castrol Plus, you could imagine the gears coming undone.
Both these skill sets have allowed the players to master the sport and in effect photoshop defenders off the field. But the fine line between dominance and transcendence has not been crossed. At least not in my humble opinion. Why? Well, it’s partly our fault.
Zinedine Zidane had his roulette, Ronald had his stepovers, and Ronaldinho had his elastico. What move defines Messi? What skill defines Ronaldo? Goals? The mere scoring of goals? But this utilitarian analysis overlooks the simple and individual moments of magic which make the game enjoyable. The now defunct FreeDarko similarly criticized the “Double-double-dumbdown” of professional basketball. Can you look at Messi and Ronaldo without superimposing a number on their faces? Would you look at Messi and Ronaldo without being able to impose a number on their faces?
I won’t wade into the normal bickering of national team success (or lack thereof). Let’s keep the focus on their clubs and what these two fine gentlemen do. They dribble. They score goals. The media then concocts a Terminator-themed “Messi vs. Ronaldo” storyline. Rinse. Recycle. Repeat. Yet the efficiency-mindset of the 21st century blinds us to the reality of the present. We watch and wait for the goal, only mildly surprised by the steps along the way.
Basically, the excel-spreadsheet-era has coaxed us to look beyond the players to only see their end result. Stats have become excessively ingrained in our evaluation of sport, such that this quantitative bias has either duped us into accepting the greatness of players based primarily on stats or, alternatively, into not appreciating contributions beyond stats. Numbers have monopolized our cognitive processes – like school testing, this imposition threatens to engulf meaningful and qualitative alternatives to understanding and enjoying sport.
So, as we gear up for the wave of clasicos, try to look beyond basic charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. There’s a great chance that Messi or Ronaldo, or both, will make the difference. But how do they make that difference?