When Tiger Woods came to the scene in golf, his domain was so big that in some places the ground where he played was altered. This, so that the other competitors could have a little chance to win a first place.
The laws of the game cannot be altered simply because one player or another is better than the rest. There is no way to harm the best because they constantly reset the standards.
This means that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the only “Tigers” in the jungle playing with their prey. They have been so good for so long that it is almost impossible to appreciate the legacies of those who preceded them in the past, or those who will succeed them in the future. They have made us reevaluate the definition of what a great player is and what makes them great in the first place.
Messi and Cristiano have single-handedly made the legacies of those before them seem petty.
Football is like music. Every generation says that the songs of their youth were the best in history. Something similar happens with the players we admire. Let’s think about a simple question: who is the best player in history? If we ask someone who had their teenage years in the 60s, their answer would be George Best or Pele. Someone from the 70s would have said Johan Cruyff.
Those who grew up in the 80s would say Diego Maradona, while those from the 90s would have to choose between Ronaldo Nazario or Zinedine Zidane. Years later, Ronaldinho led the show. Then, something out of the ordinary happened. Messi and Cristiano became adults and were objectively better than any previous player.
Over the course of this decade they have monopolized all the individual achievements of football. It is as if the records established by Alfredo Di Stefano, Paulino Alcantara, Gerd Müller and all the others were destined to be destroyed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Smashing statistics left and right
Donald Lippincott achieved the IAAF’s first 100-meter world record in 1912, with a time of 10.6 seconds. The world record is currently held by Usain Bolt, at 9.58. This means an improvement of 11% in 97 years.
Raúl was the top scorer of Real Madrid before Ronaldo arrived. He scored 323 goals in 741 games. An impressive record, since the consistency and endurance necessary to play 741 matches in the white shirt is quite hard, but to score a goal practically every two matches is practically a milestone.
However, Cristiano has scored 324 goals in 310 games for the Los Blancos so far. That is an improvement of more than 100% — not over centuries or decades — but only a few seasons after Raul established it. On the other hand, Messi overturned Alcántara’s record of goals scored by a Barcelona player in 2014, a record that had lasted 87 years.
It does not make sense to try to list all the records they’ve broken. It’s enough to say that the both of them will probably own every single record there is in football by the time they retire. By club, by country, in continental competitions, in national competitions, in goals…in whatever. The names that lead these lists are always the same. We only see Ronaldo and Messi everywhere.
Can someone match Messi and Cristiano in the future?
They have won the last nine FIFA Ballon d’Ors. The Argentinian has five, while the Portuguese has four. Once upon a time, players dreamed of winning one — like Ronaldinho, Best or Zidane — or maybe two like Ronaldo, Di Stefano or Franz Beckenbauer. Only the bigger, greater ones like Platini, Cruyff or Van Basten had three in their hands. But four? Five? That was just impossible.
There are no words to describe the achievements that these two extraterrestrials have attained in the last decade. This cannot become the new standard. There is no human being who can approach them. When they both retire we will have to readjust our expectations about what it means to be a great player. One day we will wake up and this dream will be over.
It is not enough to say that Ronaldo and Messi have improved football. They have changed it. This is not like Arsene Wenger teaching English players to eat well and take care of themselves. Eventually everyone can do that and catch up. This is not like the tactical changes of Pep Guardiola. Ideas come and go in this game.
Messi and Ronaldo are far from anything that has happened or is going to happen in football. It is almost impossible for anyone who succeeds their throne to match them.