Messi and Ronaldo, the Best Players in the History of the Sport
Posted on January 12, 2012 6:58 pm
On Monday I was in Zurich for the Ballon d’Or ceremony. Before the event started, I had to write a story from the red carpet for FIFA.com, and I was lucky enough to talk a few seconds with Zinedine Zidane. The French genius was in a hurry, and not too eager to talk, but before he fled down the hall I got a good quote from him. To the question “Which of the nominees do you think resembles most to you?” He replied, “None of them, all of them are different, football has changed a lot”.
He’s right. Zidane was -perhaps with Juan Román Riquelme, the last of the players of its kind. Those languid creative geniuses, sensitive playmakers which seemed to walk on the pitch but, suddenly, with two magical strokes they brushed aside their rivals and sent the striker away with one last touch. Football has changed, and made extinct those old artists. Never again will there be a player like Zizou.
I invite you to try an experiment. Go to YouTube and type in “Game of the Century Italy-Germany”. The second video on the list are the highlights of what is considered the best match in football history, the semi-finals of Mexico 70 between the Azzurri and the Mannschaft. You have probably heard your parents or grandparents rave about this legendary game, but the images say otherwise. The forwards are going in slow motion, the defense gives them acres of space, the midfielders have an eternity to pass the ball. Compared to current standards, the game looks like a dated B-movie.
Just hours before the red carpet, I had the opportunity to speak with Sir Alex Ferguson, who confirmed the perception. For the Manchester United’s manager, football is not the only sport that has got faster in the last few years, the enormous advances in nutrition, medicine and even pitches have made all the athletes in most disciplines much more powerful than in the past.
That brings us to the title of the column and its real purpose. At the end of the night, FIFA announced Lionel Messi as the winner of the Ballon d’Or, Cristiano Ronaldo second and Xavi Hernandez third. The fourth, although it was not announced in the ceremony, was Andres Iniesta. And there seems no doubt that these are the best players of our time.
So far, no controversy, but I will go further and, without hesitation, I can state that those four players are also the best players in history. A few days ago I said the same thing in Twitter and the responses ranged from complaints to insults. Most of the people insisted that Pele and Maradona were above Messi and far above all others. That sounds great in theory, in the end, both O Rei and El Diego dominated their times, while neither Leo nor CR7 have won a World Cup, and no one would say that Xavi and Iniesta are better than Messi.
But here comes into practice what I described at the beginning of the column. If we put any of today’s top four in a time machine, they would completely dominate any of the past eras. They run faster, are more resistant, dribble in less space. They are, in short, better. “But if Pele or Maradona eat what players eat today, or have today’s technology at their disposal, they would be much better” most will surely argue. It may be, but the matter is that neither of them had that nutrition or that technology, so their best versions are representative of their time, not ours.
“Pele and Maradona were the best because they were more talented, not more athletic” others might say. Wrong. You only need to read the words that Terry Butcher, the English central defender, used to describe the famous goal from Diego in Mexico 86 to the magazine FourFourTwo. “It was so hot, we were all knackered, so when I saw him pass by after he ran forty meters, I thought I would catch him easily … and, suddenly, it was as if he changed gears. He accelerated so fast that, when I realized, I was ten meters behind him”. As for Pele, he admits in his autobiography that in an era where most of the best players had some extra pounds, he always had the great advantage of keeping his body in perfect condition.
And yet, when you see both playing, they are clearly slower and less efficient than current players. That does not mean, of course, that they weren’t geniuses in relation to their times, but in absolute terms, they wouldn’t be great on a twenty-first century match. On the other hand, neither Messi nor Ronaldo will remain the best ever for a long time; science and the human body have not yet found their limits and a new breed of faster, more powerful and more technical players will replace them, even if they may not impress their contemporaries as La Pulga and Cristiano impress us week in week out.
(I apologize for not publishing this week’s Winners and Losers. As you now know, I was in Zurich during the week, and didn’t have the time. I will try to write a Copa del Rey edition tomorrow morning).