Age is catching up with the two footballing maestros
The start of the 2019-20 football season has seen both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi missing from most of their respective club’s matches. For someone like me, who has grown up watching the two maestros compete with each other for over a decade, I must say it feels like the beginning of the end of an era.
The duo has dominated headlines, footballing titles, and sporting awards for over 10 years now. Between them, they possess 10 Ballon d’Ors, nine Champions League titles and 12 La Liga titles, apart from a ton of other awards and accolades. In fact, there isn’t a single global footballing title that either of them hasn’t won. But now, aged 34 and 32 respectively, one could make the argument that Ronaldo and Messi are showing signs of slowing down.
This season, Messi did not make Barcelona’s starting lineup until the fifth La Liga game, against Villareal at the Nou Camp. He missed the opening four matches due to a foot injury sustained while representing Argentina in Copa America. Although Barcelona went on to beat Villareal 2-1, Messi had to be substituted at half time after suffering a strain on his left thigh.
“First team player Leo Messi has a strain in the adductor of his left thigh,” a club statement read. “He is out and his recovery will dictate his availability.”
As a consequence, Barca’s main man missed his team’s 2-0 win away at Getafe on Saturday. If Messi does not recover in time, Barca will be staring at a difficult road ahead, with Inter Milan due at Camp Nou for a Champions League fixture next Wednesday and Sevilla waiting away in the league four days later.
Just like his great rival, Ronaldo hasn’t had the best start to the season. He has played just six games for Juventus, scoring three goals and making an assist. He missed his team’s Serie A game against Bresica on September 24, having damaged his adductor in training.
“Cristiano has a little fatigue to the adductors,” Juventus manager Maurizio Sarri said before the match against Brescia. “I do not want to take any risk.”
It was because of this injury that Ronaldo reportedly missed the annual FIFA Best awards ceremony as well.
Being a Ronaldo fan, I remember his debut for Manchester United like it was yesterday. It was August 16, 2003, and the Red Devils were playing at home against Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League. A scrawny, golden-streaked boy wearing United’s legendary number 7 jersey was brought on by Sir Alex Ferguson to create an impact on the wings, which they were finding difficult to stretch. With Ronaldo on the field, things began to change. He ran at defenders without fear and put on a flashy string of stopovers to run circles around Bolton defenders, especially on the left wing. United supporters knew that day they were witnessing the start of something special. This boy would go on to become a legend worthy of the number 7 jersey, much like his predecessors David Beckham and Eric Cantona.
Messi’s coming of age story with his childhood club Barcelona during the same year isn’t very different. At an away game against FC Porto, he was brought on with 15 minutes left. A short but nimble-footed Messi was soon taking on the rival defenders, tracking back into his own half to recover the ball, and getting into a scoring position after receiving a brilliantly weighed through ball from one of his teammates, which he failed to convert. In the next few months, he was toying with the club’s arch rivals Real Madrid in an El Classico. In successive matches, Messi went on to chip, assist, cut, dribble, and weave his way through some of the world’s finest defenders. His Maradona-esque goal, scored directly from kick-off after dribbling past the entire opposition, will forever remain etched in the minds of sports fans, as will his camaraderie with legendary teammates Xavi, Iniesta and, briefly, Ronaldinho.
Both Messi and Ronaldo have come a long way to being exquisite players. They have matured, and learned to play the game in its totality. Ronaldo is not as flamboyant as he used to be, Messi is not taking to the field as much as he used to, especially on the international stage. But this does not take away a nickel’s worth from the fact that the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry is one of the best the sporting world has known.
Age catches up with everyone and Messi and Ronaldo are no different. Still, there isn’t a player out there today who can compete with them. In time, both of them will hang up their boots. So, while they are still here, why are we endlessly debating, “Who is the best of them?” Shouldn’t we instead enjoy the last few years of unparalleled brilliance they have left?
There was a “master and apprentice” moment that happened a few weeks ago that sums up what I am talking about. It was shared between Ronaldo and his compatriot Joao Felix, 19, right before the Juventus versus Atletico Madrid game in the Champions League. The two Portuguese internationals stood near the ball at the halfway line, and Ronaldo reached out and ruffled Felix’s head in a manner of acknowledging him. Felix sheepishly offered a half-smile as Ronaldo whispered in his ear what apparently were words of encouragement. To me, it seemed like the passing of the footballing baton, from one generation to the next.