Cristiano Ronaldo & Messi: Staring into the Eye of the Whale

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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?

Digital Image Impressions by Julia Blankenship. Check out her graphic design skills at her website: Jules Productions (disclaimer: she is my sister).

13 thoughts on “Cristiano Ronaldo & Messi: Staring into the Eye of the Whale

  1. Messi plays lots of defense! He is an essential part of the most effective press in the World. Ronaldo plays very little defense, although on set plays here helps.

    Messi leads La Liga in goals and assists while taking nearly half the shots as Ronaldo. Messi drops deep, Ronaldo waits for service.

    Is there really a comparison. Messi is the ultimate team player, Ronaldo is self centered.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, especially with the Clasicos coming up, and the Messi vs. Cristiano comparisons being inescapable.

    I’m biased, I admit – Cristiano was one of my favourite players at Man Utd, and I loved seeing him develop throughout the years. I’ve continued to watch him at Real Madrid. I think he’s one of the best players in the game today, as is Messi. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fan of either RM or FCB who will say it’s just scoring goals when those goals are carrying the teams and when both are competing for the Pichichi.

    However, I think you raise a lot of really good points – most importantly, the need to quantify everything. Someone has to be “the best of all-time” or “the best player in the world”. But what makes some of those same players from past eras and generations so special to us? Not necessarily their stats – but rather, what they represented as a player, something that is not always tangible. Whether they won a Treble, a Double, a World Cup… those are the added benefits.

  3. Bill,

    all fine points, but I don’t equate offensive pressure with defense. I can appreciate that Barcelona and Spain’s possession game acts as a cover for the defense – the other team can’t score without the ball – but for me defense is backtracking to your own box to cut out crosses, block shots, intercept passes, etc. Hence the criticism of both Messi and Ronaldo, who treat their own defensive half like a foreign planet incapable of sustaining life.


    glad you liked the post. Get ready for the Messi vs. Ronaldo tsunami…..

  4. Gosh. I thought the approved stance of the football cognoscenti was to admire Messi while disparaging Ronaldo. Now I realise I have been guilty of vulgarity! The truly refined fan is able to look down his nose at both of them.

    Seriously: you have to have a pretty jaded palate for football to watch those two players and not find any moments of magic or transcendence.

  5. I don’t buy this argument, that Messi and Ronaldo may be scoring machines, but aren’t memorable players, one bit, at least as far as it applies to Messi. Everything that little man does when he touches the ball is memorable: the unbelievable speed on the dribble, the genius passes into the box, the sometimes almost miraculous finishing. I never take my eyes off him because I don’t want to miss his next surprising move. The only thing I would concede is that watching him can become wearying — or numbing — after a while because he brings it so consistently. He’s like a wind-up doll, released when the game starts and going until the final whistle sounds.

  6. Hum, but is it really that they need a “signature” move that shapes this narrative of greatness? I guess your individual moments of magic are telling, but we do quantify the greatness of players- trophies matter, in the club context as well, so I don’t think it’s purely those moments of magic. Tho all this discussion of greatness makes me want to go back and read all those pele articles on runofplay.

    Oops, is that poor blog etiquette? To admit that I go elsewhere? Sorry, you can edit that sentence out of my comment.

  7. Harry & Mr. Gabe,

    you both make the same interesting argument that Messi & Ronaldo have lots of interesting, transcendental moments, yet fail to state what those moments are. Let me guess – Messi runs around Getafe and Ronaldo shoots a cannon for a crucial away goal for United in the CL. Sigh.

    Otherwise, the two of them feed off creative midfielders, hang out in the weeds for long stretches of games (Messi has gotten better as of late, conceded), and run like the wind at underpaid (or never paid) defenders for debt-burdened La Liga guppies.


    I definitely think that a signature move helps, but won’t overcome the lack of trophies (conceded). Still, Iniesta is my pick of this litter.

    • My god, man, you don’t get individual, non-quantifiable moments of magic from Messi? I would pay to watch the young guy trap the ball. Ronaldo, fine, I’m with you, but Messi is *exactly* like the magical players of the past. I didn’t think I would get another chance to watch a player like Zico, Cruyff, and Ronaldinho at his peak again. But he’s here now, equally magical. Here’s a little something I just favorited today:

      “Messi gives to Drenthe a private lesson on how to manipulate with the football”

  8. Also, Mr. Gabe – I very much like your wind-up doll analogy/simile. Messi is definitely very energizer bunny, especially when he smells blood in the water.

    And Harry – I assure you that my football is the least jaded part of my palate. Let that be a warning and a promise.

  9. Wonderful piece. Reminds me of when I would marvel at the passing stats of the early Mike Leach era. Alas! All those 400-yard games from Kliff Kingsbury were mostly efficient dink and dunk passes and not the Dan Marino bombs I thought.

    Watching the brutal efficiency of the Barca machine and it’s finisher extraordinaire, Messi is awesome yet leaves me with that same feeling.

    I will say that much in the same way I adjusted my expectation of what a beautiful touchdown drive/score is, I have learned to appreciate the lulling of the underpaid/non-paid Malaga defender.

  10. let be fac t Ronaldo have played in ELP now in Lg-liga with the same form on arrival @ madrid he is a tested player in different league .