The Playing Field

Why it is hard to be Cristiano Ronaldo

"I think we will never see another player like this. He is the best in the world by far."

For Barcalona coach Tito Vilanova, Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the 'numero uno' in football. He added that Messi's arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo would have been "more recognised" if his career had not coincided with Messi's. He wasn't downplaying Ronaldo by any means, but again, I wonder how far one can agree to that statement.

Comparisons can be exasperating, and it can inadvertently feed on the green-eyed monster that fuels animosity; the same time, it could help bring out the best in everyone. In sports, rivalries at top order have always helped players to set their limits higher - be it the Borg - McEnroe rivalry in the late 70s or Federer-Nadal duel of the current era - it draws a larger spectacle to the game without fail.

Messi or Ronaldo? The question itself is quite ambiguous as Hamlet's age old dilemma "to be, or not to be". The 6 ft 1 petulant, assertive Ronaldo isn’t a popular pick when weighed against the diminutive, soft-spoken Messi. At least according to Ronaldo, who has a proclivity for gaffes.

"It's surely because I'm good-looking, rich and a great footballer. They're jealous of me. I don't have any other explanation."

Such rib-tickling Ronaldo-isms are neither new nor surprising. Contrary to his assumptions, Ronaldo's off-court remarks or lifestyle or even looks don't account for him being eclipsed by Messi. By all odds he is idolized for his calibre that transcends his killer looks. Yet, being Cristiano Ronaldo is is tough; believes Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. Here's why:

"If Cristiano doesn't win the Ballon d'or this year, it's only because he's not nice, because he doesn't sell his image well," says Mourinho.

"It is harder to be Cristiano than Messi. Messi grew up in the team where he plays, with the players with whom he plays. Not Cristiano. He was in England, then they put him here in a losing team. He had to grow over the last two years with this team which has been forming. One (Messi) plays as No 9 and roams around in those 50 square metres where the distance to goal is smaller and defense, less intense. The other (Ronaldo) plays as a winger. How does a winger score as many goals as a No 9? Besides, Ronaldo is a player who is not protected by anyone," the Real Madrid coach adds.

We can't totally agree with Mourinho here; Messi , a 'false 9', do play deep into the midfield and is also a versatile team player. But the phenomenal fireworks of talent he displays on the field is however a fruit of synthesis. In Barca, Messi belongs to a perfectly orchestrated system where each player has the same understanding with the ball. What they do with the ball is something like a second nature, an art they have perfected over the years after getting inducted to the prestigious 'La Masia' -  Barcelona FC's very own production house where players like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi, Busquets, Pique, Puyol, Pedro Rodriguez and Jordi Alba flourished.

Eight of these La Masia alumni, except Messi, play for the Spanish national team. The kind of training they had been receiving since their childhood made them imprint the 'tiki-taka' technique in a way that it seems they could pass the ball with precision even when blindfolded. What makes Barca different from the rest of the clubs is the fact that their each and every player is adept to playing in any position.

Lionel Messi is a part of this whole; indeed pivotal. There is a sizable amount of lucidity favouring Messi when he plays for his club as opposed to his national team. This explains his jinx with blue and white stripes, although he started scoring more of late with Sergio Aguero by his side. Spain, on the other hand, with three quarters of Barca players in their national squad, had managed to win three consecutive world titles even in the absence of Lionel Messi. The system itself is so flawless that it suffered little setback in the absence of their most prolific player.

It proves that technique precedes individual skills in Barcelona. (This explains Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's failure at Barca). Hence Messi has a greater advantage over Ronaldo by playing in a team like Barca.

Messi has ruled out ever leaving Barcelona. If at all he leaves, it's doubtful whether he could replicate the same success story in other clubs, especially the English Premiere League that favours aggression and pace. On the other hand, Ronaldo had played with three different clubs. He started with Sporting; had a successful six-year stint with Manchester United, before Real Madrid bought him in 2009.

Within three years of his tenure at Madrid, Ronaldo became one of the top 10 goal scorers of the club's history. The aura around Real legend Raul Gonzalez Blanco's all time record of 323 goals ( 228/550 in league matches alone) has lost its invincibility with Ronaldo's ascend. Going by Ronaldo's strike-rate, one can say that the day isn't too far as he had already been through the halfway mark. Raul mostly played as a forward, while Ronaldo finds himself switching between winger and striker's role for his team; something that makes his achievement even more commendable.

Thanks to Ronaldo's goals, under Mourinho, Real earned 100 points last season, a milestone in European league history. Ronaldo is the only player to score against every team in a single La Liga season with 20 clubs competing in the championship last season. He is also the fastest to score 100 goals in La Liga history. The list doesn't stop here. There is more to this man than his iconic coiffures or foot in mouth remarks. He deserves more.

Whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo wins the Ballon d'or, one thing cannot be agreed upon - that he would have been "more recognized" if his career had not coincided with Messi's. Ronaldo is here at the right time. Messi being in a more successful club doesn't make Ronaldo secondary.  Both have their pros and cons and are brilliant in their own ways. Why can't two legends thrive the same time? The question who is greater is kind of complicated. Perhaps the day when they bring laurels to their respective countries would decide on that. Only time will tell.

Flexible with both feet
Scores mostly with left foot
Power, pace and precision

Finesse, balance and acceleration

Excellent in aerial duals
Heading not his forte
Long-range shots, 'step over' maestro
Close-range shots, mostly inside penalty area
Stronger, versatile free-kicks                                   
Excellent passing and finish

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