Two weeks ago, I would have described myself as a Cristiano Ronaldo partisan in the great global struggle for hearts and minds and jersey sales pitting Ronaldo and his Spanish league rival, Lionel Messi.
Casual fans of world football almost always prefer one or the other. And along with that usually goes casual allegiance to the teams they represent — Real Madrid for Ronaldo, Barcelona for Messi.
And I came down on the side of Ronaldo. He seemed to me to have much less help around him, and his goals seemed to come with so much more effort … and Messi had scads of talent supporting him — most of the Spanish national team, actually. And I was pleased when Ronaldo finally won another Ballon d’Or for his play in 2013, with Messi second.
But that was then.
This World Cup has flipped my preference. Or, at the least, put Messi right next to Ronaldo. I can’t help but admire the relentless little guy.
I suppose my earlier lukewarm attitude towards Messi was about Barcelona tika-taka. The club just knocking around the ball and, eventually, feeding it to Messi, who otherwise rarely touched it, as he split the defense and went in for a short shot and goal.
Couldn’t all sorts of people do that? If they had Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez giving them perfect passes, and (lately) Neymar distracting opponents on the wing, wouldn’t any one of a hundred guys score outrageous numbers of goals?
Then came this World Cup, and Team Argentina, which for weeks has looked quite ordinary, aside from the heavy lifting done by Messi.
Not only is he their only real offensive threat, he also carries the ball into the attacking end. Which he rarely does, with Barcelona. And he has two guys following him closely at all times, and when he gets within 25 yards of the goal someone else comes over to help … and he still manages to dribble past most of those people, sometimes.
Argentina reached the final by defeating the Netherlands 4-2 in a shootout tonight. Messi didn’t score. But neither did anyone else. He did knock in his penalty shot. Of course.
And now we start comparing Messi in this tournament to the other great players. And who has done more?
Ronaldo showed up not quite healthy, scored one goal, made one assist and was out in the first round with Portugal. He never looked like the menace he is with Madrid.
It was Brazil’s Neymar, then, who became the other great example of a “one-man team” … and when Neymar couldn’t play, against Germany, Brazil disintegrated.
I’m not sure Argentina would do much better, without Messi, who has four goals and an assist and probably lots of bruises from where he is kicked repeatedly by defenders.
I like that he never seems to complain about the load placed on him, how he doesn’t look disdainfully as his often inept teammates, that he just keeps plugging along and plays at full speed despite close marking by mobs of people as well as difficult conditions in Brazil.
I also like him for looking less like a great athlete than any great athlete in modern times. He’s just a stumpy little guy with an Everyman face an unkempt hair who looks like he just rolled out of bed … and he happens to be one of the best players in the world.
I also like him for killing himself for Argentina, which (apparently) doesn’t love him as much as he loves Argentina. To hear it told, Argentina is still infatuated with the ridiculous Diego Maradona, who is considered a real Argentine. It’s almost like a “street cred” thing.
Maradona is all too human and, hence, lovable; Messi is a bit aloof and rarely is involved with anything even vaguely dubious (as opposed to Diego and his many vices). But Messi spent his teen years in Spain, has never played for an Argentine club and he doesn’t raise a ruckus or mention how poorly the guys around him are playing — and apparently he’s not quite local enough for his countrymen.
Which is ridiculous.
Argentina is in the final, against Germany, because of one man. Take Messi off that team, and they would certainly have lost to the Dutch, and maybe to the Belgians, too.
In the Spanish League, Messi benefits from having those Barcelona pass-masters around him, but he has proved here he can make an enormous impact doing it by himself.
He’s not the product of a system. He’s the real deal. In any situation. He has changed my mind.