At 13 minutes past nine, on april 23, Casemiro scored a goal that would be seen by everyone in Spain. The scoreline read: Real Madrid 1–0 Barcelona. The Brazilian’s goal seemed to have been the first step Zinedine Zidane’s men took towards sealing the La Liga title. However, by around 10:45 pm local time, everyone in the world knew what Lionel Messi had done. In the 33rd minute, the Argentine cancelled out Casemiro’s 28th-minute opener with the kind of goal that only Messi knows how to score. He got the ball at the edge of the box, skipped past Luka Modrić’s challenge, left Real defender Dani Carvajal kicking air, then slotted past ’keeper Keylor Navas. It was a sight all too familiar for the Madridistas, as no player had scored more goals than Messi in the fixture.
Then Ivan Rakitić put Barcelona in front in the 73rd, while James Rodríguez levelled for Madrid in the 85th, and that seemed like the end of it. Messi, however, had other ideas. In the second minute of injury time, Messi guided a first-time shot past Navas to put Barcelona ahead 3–2. The goal had significance for Messi. Bloodied by rash challenges, he had fought on through the game, and his 24th goal against Madrid came as respite for a team that had been under-performing all season.
One Portuguese was not pleased, however. For Cristiano Ronaldo, this loss would have stung. The 2009 Champions League final loss to Barcelona in Rome when Ronaldo was playing for Manchester United may have been the most significant in terms of silverware, but the countless others since his move to Madrid in 2009 seemed to have been rolled back as a highlight reel for him. There was one more reason why this match was so significant for the two players personally: it was the last Clàsico before Messi turned 30. He had reached the age when footballers are supposed to be “over the hill.” However, judging by the shape in which Ronaldo is in at the age of 32, this was certainly not be the last time the two are thrown onto the pitch at the same time.
But it begs the question: What happens when they aren’t there? The Messi–Ronaldo rivalry has been the most talked about for nearly a decade now. Of the last nine Ballon d’Or awards—the top individual award for a footballer—the pair has won all with Messi edging Ronaldo five to four. Neither is showing signs of slowing down, but if the Ballon d’Or is the way to judge who the top footballer is, there will come a time when neither will be good enough, however preposterous that may sound at present.
Historically, defenders haven’t won the honour too often, which rules out Madrid’s Sergio Ramos in all likelihood. That leaves the goal-scorers and the artistes pulling strings from midfield, and there are very few players who are either already good enough to take over from Messi and Ronaldo or have the potential to. France’s Antoine Griezman and Paul Pogba, Brazilian Neymar, Juventus forward Paulo Dybala, Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Tottenham’s Dele Alli are all capable contenders, but they either have to take their game to the next level or need to iron out minor flaws.
It should not be assumed that other emerging talents on the big stage of European leagues such as Marcus Rashford of Manchester United, his teammate, Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembélé of Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, or Monaco’s 17-year-old wunderkind, Kylian Mbappé, are not capable of scaling the heights that Messi and Ronaldo have reached.
France, Atlético Madrid, born in 1991. The forward was superb at Euro 2016, finishing as top scorer as France romped their way to the final. He has the skill and the temperament to take over from the heroes.
France, Manchester United, born in 1993. The most expensive footballer ever a month ago, Pogba has shown that he has what it takes to become the best. However, he needs to add goals to his game to stake his claim.
Argentina, Juventus born in 1993. The “Next Messi” may not always get on the scoresheet but, rest assured, if there is a goal, more often than not Dybala has a significant role in it. He’s surely getting pointers from the best.
Belgium, Manchester United, born in 1993. The Belgian had rejuvenated his career at Everton, and the coming seasons could see him taking his game to the next level. Playing with the giants will also boost confidence.
Kevin De Bruyne
Belgium, Manchester City, born in 1991. The chief creative force at Manchester City has all the attributes to become a global superstar: silky footwork, an eye for a pass, and a lethal shot.
France, AS Monaco FC, born in 1998. The youngster has been a breath of fresh air this season, scoring for fun and setting up his teammates with clinical passes. A star in the making.
But these players are simply too young, or we haven’t seen enough of them to know whether or not they are truly capable of being up there with the world’s best. Manchester United teammates Rashford and Martial are a case in point—the former showing promise in his breakthrough campaign when he was just 18 but struggling for the better part of last season, and the latter finding the going tough after being the club’s top scorer with 17 goals in his debut season.
As Griezmann rightly pointed out after he finished third behind Messi and Ronaldo in the 2016 Ballon d’Or (which was the FIFA Ballon d’Or between 2010 and 2015), he lost to “two monsters in the game,” but the Atlético star arguably has the most going for him. The forward was the star performer as hosts France reached the Euro 2016 final, with his six goals in the competition twice that of the next best of three, and he was also judged the best Player of The Tournament. That fine display was on the back of a splendid season with Atlético Madrid. He will be well aware of the fact that individual performances are not all that matter in football, and silverware with club or country go a long way in improving a player’s chances of winning individual honours. Of all these, success in the Champions League seems to be most vital. AC Milan won the competition in 2006-07, and Kaká was judged the best. A year later, United won the tournament, and Ronaldo took home the Ballon d’Or. The next was Barcelona winning the trophy, and Messi winning his first Ballon d’Or. It hasn’t always been the case, but the trend is obvious.
That, then, poses a problem for Griezmann. Atlético were the losing finalists twice in the last three years, and their appearance in the 2014 final was the first in 40 years, which they lost as well. It does not make for good reading for a player who has done all he can on the pitch in a team that has overachieved with the squad they have, owing to an excellent coach in Diego Simeone and their ability to play as a unit. “Do you have doubts about results being the most important thing? Look who won the Ballon d’Or,” Simeone has said, vaguely implying that the best player doesn’t always win the award if his team doesn’t win trophies.
His France teammate, Pogba, is another player who has been tipped to become the best in the business. The 24-year-old midfielder has made exceptional passes and scored super goals, but statistics don’t tell the whole story. The Frenchman has hit the post on a number of occasions, and it is only a matter of settling in before those shots hit the back of the net.
A certain Belgian is also in the mix. Eden Hazard has been the star performer for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. His numbers also tell only half the story: it is not the number of goals that make him special, but when he gets them. On a number of occasions, Hazard has saved his team blushes either with a winner, setting up a winner, or a mazy run that results in a winner. In the FA Cup semi-final win against Tottenham, the Blues blew a two-goal lead and Hazard—rested for the game—was brought on to turn things around. Sure enough, the Belgian scored an exquisite goal to make it 3–2, as his team went on to win 4–2, with Hazard being the provider for the fourth goal.
But a factor that could push Hazard out is that the last time a player playing in England won the Ballon d’Or was Ronaldo in 2008. Before that, it was Michael Owen in 2001 while he was playing for Liverpool, and the one before that? George Best in 1968. In all, only on six occasions since the award was instituted in 1956 has a player plying his trade in England won, and four of those have been from United. It has been said that while the Premier League may be the world’s most popular league, it is by no means the best in terms of quality. And the poor display of English clubs in Europe hasn’t helped their cause. The last English side to win the Cup was Chelsea in 2012. In fact, La Liga has taken over as the best league on the planet in terms of quality, and the world’s best talent, young and old, is naturally drawn there. James Rodríguez, Modric, Gareth Bale, Angel Correa are just a few who have picked Spain over England, despite there being more lucrative offers from the Premiership. Then there are those who picked Spain, couldn’t quite cut it and were then brought over to England and paraded as among the world’s best. Cesc Fabregas went to Barcelona from Arsenal, failed to make an impression and was sold to Chelsea where he hasn’t exactly set the league on fire. Mesut Özil is another.
Tottenham’s young Dele Alli is another contender, and many have said he deserves the same price and favour as Neymar. Plus, the midfielder—like Pogba—has the rare mix of being physically strong and stupendously gifted technically. Which again leaves the question unanswered: After Messi and Ronaldo, who?
Football is changing. Gone are the days of big centre-forwards and hard-tackling midfielders, and more of the best forwards and midfielders in the game are creative players. Andrés Iniesta of Barcelona and David Silva of Manchester City are just two midfielders who are tiny magicians pulling the strings behind slightly taller forwards. While players can get away with being a bit more physical in England, they are punished in European competitions for the same challenges, leaving them struggling to deal with players like Messi who rely on technical prowess rather than winning headers in the air with elbows flying.
FIFA already announced Ronaldo as the Best FIFA Men’s Player in 2016—the first since the revamp of the award—and he’s being seen as the possible 2017 winner for both the FIFA and Ballon d’Or. In fact, both Messi and Ronaldo have passed the record winners of three Ballon d’Or each: France’s Michel Platini, the late Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten.
Wherever the next Ballon d’Or winner is to come from, one thing is almost certain—it is unlikely that we will see a similar rivalry, and two players as good as Messi and Ronaldo in our lifetime. Might as well enjoy them while we still can, and hope there are more like them.