But there are atheists in football, too, and in the manner of all religions, an atheist is a terrible situation for the devout. Even God is scared of him; what is a God who can’t convince you of Himself? That non-believer who complicates our football morality, who denies his inferiority to Messi, is now a man who also has won five Ballon D’ors: a lingering taint called Cristiano Ronaldo.
According to the numbers, which I don’t want to recount, Ronaldo is on a par with any great of the game, including Messi, but for the pious among us Messi has no equal. As if our faith has come under attack, we say, “Have no doubt, Messi is far superior.” For how can there be any when he can effortlessly dribble past several professional players and score incredible goals? Cristiano – we have seen him, he is only extra to ordinary; he can be contained. Sevilla’s former manager Jorge Sampaoli thinks that comparing anyone else to Messi is like comparing “a really good cop to Batman.”
Here, Ronaldo’s own pronouncements appear contrary. But we doubt their honesty; we suspect even he thinks Messi is greater than him.
In recent years, where Ronaldo has come back to equal Messi in Ballon d’Ors, consensus has been delicate. Previously, in 2012, where there was scarcely any room for ambiguity, there is now doubt, and that has led to a cautious equality between the two. But we still wonder: Is not the indecisiveness in newspapers regarding each other’s superiority just polite journalese? Guardian writer Sid Lowe wonders the same: “There’s an equality that may be a little false…[a] tyranny of numbers which is sometimes a substitute for actual appreciation.”
The devil, however, is in the doubt, and Ronaldo knows it. There are few times when we come close to the near certainty of a fact, and when we do, we’d like to preserve it. But by culturing doubt, Ronaldo has become the despoiler of that sacred moment of peace.
It was precisely to this end that in 2017, immediately after winning the Ballon D’or, that Ronaldo announced, with an urgency seen only in the great comebacks of the game, that he is the greatest of all time: “People have the right to prefer Neymar or Messi. But I insist: There is no one more complete than me.” Even after the ridicule that followed – Diego Maradona is said to have told him to “quit fucking around” – the smugness of that statement still rings out loud; it won’t be subdued.
But what Ronaldo did was hard to miss, and I now look upon him with renewed respect: at his patience for the most convincing moment of parity with Messi, and his steadfast but silent subterfuge of the most powerful of faiths in football.
In an article for GQ, on 14 November 2016, Robert Chalmers wonders whether we will ever love Ronaldo. ‘Historically, the greatest footballer in the world has been…regarded with affection,’ he says. Yet, in the case of Ronaldo, who has a claim, there is a curious lack of it. Football today has a strange reverence for the juvenile rashness of men like Zlatan whom it admiringly calls super-egos. But Ronaldo’s vengeful wait and his moral courage to persist in the face of Lionel Messi is never marveled at. There is in Ronaldo the stoical art of weathering time and the enduring interest that turns the pages of a very long book. From being a thought crime in 2012 to a thought experiment in 2017, and maybe more in the future, the idea of Cristiano Ronaldo as a football player on par with Lionel Messi will be one of the greatest heists in football.
What Ronaldo has done, however, will remain imperceptible to many of this generation. After he has gone out of the Real Madrid team, Messi’s reign will come. Without Ronaldo’s incredible struggle against his God-like rival, Lionel Messi is bored, we will joke. It will take a while. Soon, our generation will fade, and those ahead of us will look back, and we will realize that a man not worthy of Messi’s talent has stolen from his destined glory.
In this great conspiracy of Cristiano Ronaldo then – the corruption of future’s memory – Messi will appear incomplete and Ronaldo whole. Ronaldo wanted to prove that he could equal Messi, and he did, albeit for a brief time in a sunset year of thirty-three. Ronaldo, we will then realize, is the Joker, and not the good cop Jorge thought him to be.