Messi or Ronaldo for Ballon d’Or: Another year, another debate

Rivalry between players is a microcosm of the rivalry between two of the best teams in Spain, writes Andy Mitten.

Barcelona fans do not like Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, but they know he is great, according to our columnist. Andres Kudacki / AP Photo
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One of the greatest compliments that can be bestowed on a footballer is to be barracked by opposing fans.

It shows he is feared. Yet an elite few escape invective from rival supporters.

When it became clear that Lionel Messi was entering the pitch as a second-half Barcelona substitute in Saturday’s key game at Atletico Madrid, many Atleti fans fell silent – through fear, but also in reverence.

They had seen him destroy their team too many times before.

Similarly, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Real Madrid at Barcelona’s Camp Nou in a huge clasico match last April, Barca fans were also silenced. They do not like Ronaldo, but they know he is a great. But is he the greatest?

On Monday night in Zurich, he is likely to win the Ballon d’Or ahead of Lionel Messi, a year after he left the stage and asked a friend: “What more do I have to do to win this?”

Ronaldo lifted the award while a Manchester United player in 2008 but Messi has won it the four times since.

While Ronaldo recognised the brilliance of the Argentine, he felt that he, too, was worthy of being feted with football’s highest individual honour again.

Ronaldo did in 2013 what he has been doing for years. He scored more goals and won more matches for his club and country.

Messi did the same and he played in a team that won the Spanish title, but injuries meant his annual record-breaking progression was checked and his year was not quite as spectacular as previous.

Spain is fortunate to have the best two players in the world playing in a league skewed by financial disparities.

Once they have been dazzled by their talents, it is a shame that many cannot look beyond the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry when forming their opinion of Messi and Ronaldo.

Fans side with their own out of loyalty and jealousy. The rivalry between players is a microcosm of the rivalry between clubs.

Madrid’s biggest star is derided in Catalonia, until those moments when his genius has to be recognised.

The Catalan media portray him as being vainglorious with an uncheckable ego, a pouting peacock so in search of perfection he only thinks of himself.

Messi is the one with the god-given talent, who let his football do the talking. Their personalities differ greatly, but also Messi has an ego, which is regularly massaged by those at his club.

Rival players respect both. Gerard Pique played with Ronaldo at Manchester United and against him for Barca.

“He’s in the top two or three in the world,” said the Barca defender who has to mark him at least twice a season. “Some say he’s the best, yet he still wants to improve.

“I admire him because of that. He’s the same as he always was. He’s a player I’ve always admired because he’s a worker who wants more and more and more.

“He’s a machine, he’s so ambitious. He’s naturally very strong but never, ever stops fighting to improve.”

You will not find a Barca player saying publicly that Ronaldo is better than Messi, nor a Madrid player saying that Messi is better.

The business model of both clubs is partly built on declaring that they have the finest player on the planet. The clubs want their players to believe it and they do.

Debate rages about whether Ronaldo’s better than Messi, but in 2013 there is a strong case for it because of his goals and game-changing performances, despite the fact his team did not triumph domestically or in European competition.

Ronaldo’s side finished 15 points behind Messi’s Barcelona in the league, he was sent off in the Spanish Cup final when Madrid lost to neighbours Atletico, while Portugal did not qualify automatically for the World Cup, though the two play-off games against Sweden ended up working in Ronaldo’s favour.

Billed as a battle between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, they were dominated by Ronaldo’s brilliance as he scored a hat-trick in Solna.

Messi will attend the awards ceremony tonight, just as Ronaldo attended all of Messi’s awards.

Madrid fans are urging Ronaldo on, yet Madrid fans took time to be won over. They have now; they have embraced him whole heartedly.

Now they chant “Ronaldo, Ballon d’Oro” because they know it would mean a lot to him to win for the first time in a Madrid shirt.

Football is a team game, but individual trophies appear to mean as much to Ronaldo. On Monday night, his desires should be sated, for the time being.