Spinoff by Soumya Bhattacharya: The two faces of sporting greatness
Ronaldo and Messi have both pursued, and attained greatness. The end is the same; the means are different.Updated: Mar 23, 2019 20:45 IST
In the 27th minute of what was a tournament-defining game between Juventus and Atletico Madrid in Turin last week, Cristiano Ronaldo made his leap. Faster, higher, stronger. He soared, years of instinct, experience and excellence crystallised in that microsecond when, perfectly poised, almost hanging in the air, his head met the ball and barreled it into the net. Juventus led 1-0.
Ronaldo’s team, Juventus, trailing 0-2 in the first leg, needed to win this game 3-0 to progress to the quarter final of the Champions League. The Champions League, the tournament Juventus — serial winners of the Italian domestic league — prizes above all else, the tournament it has been so close to winning several times in the past decade and been denied on every occasion. And now Juventus was on the verge of being knocked out in the pre quarter final.
In the 48th minute, Ronaldo rose again, a colossus. He scored again. The aggregate was level. With four minutes of regular time to go, he buried a penalty, a screamer that had intent and resolve stamped all over it. Juventus was through in the most miraculous of ways, thanks to this most miraculous of players. It was Ronaldo’s eighth hat trick in Europe’s premier club competition, this one against the meanest defence in European club football. How does he do it?
Ronaldo celebrated by thrusting his hip forward and grabbing his crotch. The gesture was a riposte to the Atletico coach, Diego Simeone, who had celebrated in a similar manner after Atletico beat Juventus in the first leg (and been sanctioned for it). Ronaldo, too, was charged with improper conduct for his celebration. Afterwards, speaking to reporters about the match, he said: “This is why Juventus brought me here.” Even his worst critics would not be able to accuse him of being understated or modest.
The day after Ronaldo’s historic hat trick, Messi applauded his great adversary. “Cristiano had a magical night with all three goals.” Cue for Messi to dispense, as if from a slot machine, his brand of magic in a weekend game in the Spanish league.
In Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Real Betis, Messi scored a hat trick. It was his 51st hat trick. As big occasions go, it was not comparable to the crunch game in which Ronaldo had just got his one. But the way in which Messi accomplished his feat, and what happened after he had done so, was unique.
His third goal was one of jaw-dropping audacity, one that hovered on the border of the barely credible. Sid Lowe, author of Fear and Loathing in the La Liga, described it like this in The Guardian. “Not so much hit first time as coaxed, the ball rose softly and curved gently, granting [the crowd] time to take it in, inviting them to halt everything and watch it orbiting alone, so they did… The ball caressed the bar, landed in the net, and there was a collective intake of breath.” How does he do it?
And then the stadium full of Real Betis fans got to their feet and gave Messi a standing ovation. They chanted his name, he who had just orchestrated a 4-1 defeat for their own team. Messi raised the index fingers of both hands skywards. Asked about the crowd’s gesture afterwards, Messi said, “Truth is, I don’t remember anything like this.”
Ronaldo and Messi are the two faces of sporting greatness. Both have ruthlessly pursued greatness and attained it. But while the end may be the same, the means are different. Ronaldo is perhaps the most divisive footballer on the planet. Messi can, in the hyper-tribal world of football fandom, bring fans of a rival team to their feet. Ronaldo (especially after having reinvented his game in the latter stages of his career, especially after having turned himself into a clinical scoring machine) comes across as a snarling, primal, elemental, almost atavistic creature. His celebrations after scoring, especially the one after his latest exploits, exemplify this. You may or may not like him, but he wrenches admiration out of you. Messi comes across as one with a gossamer touch, dribbling, dinking, feinting, transmitting even now in his play (as in that third goal) an illusion of almost childlike wonder at how one can bend a football to one’s will.
Even in the world of super galactico football players, Messi sometimes, somehow, manages to make his work look like play. Ronaldo will not countenance that. His job is, well, to get the job done as clinically as possible.
When Messi and Ronaldo were playing together in the Spanish league, their duopoly defined not only that particular league, but the modern game at large. Like all great rivals, like Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, like Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, they inspired each other to ever-greater heights season after season.
When Ronaldo moved to Italy with Juventus in 2019, it seemed we would no longer see that. It is our fortune that that has not happened. They continue to inspire each other. The Champions League draw is such that it is possible for Barcelona to meet Juventus. It is possible for Messi to meet Ronaldo again. Were that to come to pass, what a story it would be.
First Published: Mar 23, 2019 20:31 IST