You’ve worn us down and won our hearts over the years
Congratulations on winning the men’s Ballon d’Or. You did the unthinkable—broke Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s decade-long hold on what could be considered the most prestigious footballing award in the world. And for someone like me, saying this takes more grit, gut, and humility, as compared to the average person.
That’s because I’m a CR7 loyalist.
A Red Devil at heart—but at the same time—also the boy who hangs a framed poster of Cristiano in Real Madrid colours on his bedroom wall. After all, I’ve seen his metamorphosis up-close; from being a scrawny ball-hungry boy sprinting down the left flank, to a clinical two-touch goalscorer at Real Madrid. The boy had won me over ever since his first appearance against Bolton Wanderers 15 years back and has not ceased to amaze me ever since.
While winning the Ballon d’Or can be directly interpreted as you being the best player in the world during the 2017-18 season, your victory has triggered an uninhibited and unforeseen epiphany within me. Which is why I am writing to you.
It must be said at the outset of this letter that there is something exceptionally classy about “playing under the radar.” Over the years, both, Ronaldo and Messi, have not been privy to this privilege—something that comes along with the territory of being a “superstar.” I will also dutifully point out—once again, at the very outset of this letter—that I am not impressed by Messi’s achievement and accolades. He’s not played a season in England, nor has he been at his best when it comes to playing for his country. He’s God gifted, a natural—there is no doubt about that. But there’s a difference between being god gifted, and being hardworking. Ronnie represents the latter, which, in my opinion, was the better of both categories…up until now.
That’s because I was unaware—rather, oblivious—to a third kind that existed. And that was your kind, Luka.One of the primary talking points in any “Ronaldo VS Messi” debate is the latter’s inability to perform for his country. To single-handedly lead an entire nation to World Cup glory. And while Ronaldo hasn’t captained Portugal to a World Cup victory either, his performance at the international stage outclasses that of Messi’s by leaps and bounds. But you. You’ve set a new standard this year.
The Golden Ball awarded to you at the World Cup is a testimony to your long-standing perseverance; after all, you are 32 years old. Yet, just shortly after having played 45 games throughout the season for Real Madrid, you entered the World Cup stage and went on to play nearly every minute of Croatia’s matches, including three extra-time matches in the round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals.
It’s like you’re unaffected by age, something even FIFA seems to have taken cognizance of when it pointed out you had played a total of 604 minutes and had covered ground of a whopping 65 kilometres—25 with the ball at your feet—during the course of the tournament.
I remember the first time you broke my heart—and yet—managed to earn my respect. It was during the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, against Manchester United at Old Trafford. We (United) were leading by a goal—until your ruthless strike from outside the box demolished our chances of advancing ahead in the tournament.
Engulfed in an eerie silence, home fans watched on as your team, Real Madrid, went through to the next round. But if a single goal was to be considered as the epitome of perfection, then I guess even Oliver Giroud is “world class.” However, such a reality does not exist.
You’re different—not only because of your consistency—but also other factors. In your case, Luka, you are the centrifugal force that keeps a team running. You’ve been so ever since your Tottenham Hotspur days when the North-London club was just beginning to make a mark for itself in the modern-day footballing world.
Some might have even called you under-rated at some point, but Real Madrid recognised your talent for hard-work and impeccable precision play.
They signed you, and you continued to work silently in the shadows, providing support to the big names like Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale.
For me, it’s your demeanour that stands out. And in 2017-18, you have peaked beyond recognition. You won the UEFA Champions League with your club, and the World Cup with your country. And it’s not a country that’s a global footballing superpower. Even though the sport is widely played in Croatia, it’s only fair to point out that their presence at the international level has always been a tad bit short of greatness. Up until now.
I sneered when Antoine Griezmann and Mohammad Salah were cheered on as favourites to win the Ballon d’Or in recent years. Surely, the jury deciding the winner would know better than to recognise a one-season star and bestow upon him this award. But maybe they saw the same traits I see in you, Luka; that of a hard-working playmaker who blocks out the stadium noise and peers over his vulture-like nose to gauge the perfect pass, strike the perfect shot and execute the perfect tackle.
No one deserved to take home this year’s World Cup—and all the glory that comes with it—more than you and your team.
What I’m trying to say here is (breathes deeply and exhales): You’re one of a kind, mate. You always have been. The kind that plays with their head down and chin up. The kind that doesn’t feed off the energy of a crowd—rather—focuses only and only on the one thing that really matters: giving it your all. The kind that makes football look effortless, yet, knows that winning comes only to those who strive effortlessly, under the radar, unaffected by lack of attention and immune to the media frenzy, to play a perfect 90 minutes of football.
In a world where the debate on “Who is the best football player in the world?” has been focused only on two players in the past decade, you have made your mark as a playmaker who is not only skilful and precise but also as a human being who is humble, hardworking, and made of true moral fibre.
I may be a Cristiano fan, but by winning the Ballon d’Or, you have reminded me that it’s not about which faction I belong to, rather, about the game itself. The game which keeps us on the edge of our seats and glued to our screens. The game that brings together people from various walks of life, countries, and economic backgrounds. The game that can truly, in all its essence, be called a team game.
Being the best player in the world doesn’t mean being the top scorer. Nor does it imply winning more number of tournaments. In your case, it is the amount of responsibility one can handle, at both, the club and international level. Your hunger for the ball in midfield has proved to be greater than CR7’s lightning-fast stepovers as well as Messi’s nimble-footed trickery. An entire nation now looks up to you, Luka, and along with that, the rest of the global footballing community too.
In a world where the battle for total footballing dominance has just been primarily restricted to two players in the past decade, nothing could have made me happier than a third athlete—such as you—winning this year’s Ballon d’Or. On that note, I would like to sign off; this letter has already taken up more of your time than I expected.
Goodbye. And thank you, for making this game of football even more beautiful than it already is.
A CR7 loyalist.