Cristiano Ronaldo: the world's second-best footballer?

The world's greatest...but by how much? ©Wikimedia Commons; Image credit: Christopher Johnson

When football fans ask one another who they consider to be the best footballer in the world at present, the response is a foregone conclusion. It is programmed into the shared consciousness of the footballing community. And not without merit: the player in question has already broken countless records, bamboozled defences across the continent and dropped the jaws of pundits and punters alike.

We are, of course, talking about the one and only Lionel Messi, the appointed successor to Maradona. At the age of 24, he’s already racked up over two hundred goals and almost one hundred assists. Individually, the superstar has no fewer than seventy-two awards to his name. Leo has even won the prestigious FIFA Ballon d’Or – three times in a row. Not that the humble forward is the sort to focus on solo glory. Leo will take far more pride in leading Barcelona to seventeen trophies in just five seasons. He is the sport’s poster boy and the media’s darling – skilful, intelligent and unassuming. He is worshipped by the flock.

What about Ron?

In the midst of Messi mania, spare a thought for Cristiano Ronaldo. Whilst the column inches and social media updates wax lyrical about Barcelona’s new all-time highest goalscorer, Ronaldo continues to go about his business in Madrid. A double against Real Sociedad on Saturday night saw the Portuguese hitman draw level with his Argentinean counterpart in the La Liga scoring charts. Often criticised for his purported greed, CR7 also sits just one assist behind Barca’s selfless playmaker in Spain.

This all in mind, why is there not so much as a debate about which forward is “better”? Talk of the world’s greatest player – contemporary as well as historical – used to be something open to interpretation and reason. Instead, conversation drifts into the same familiar territory. “Is he the best of all time?” “Is he the new Maradona, or is he better?” “Do you think a Beckenbauer or a Baresi could deal with him?” Perhaps the last question isn’t asked with the same frequency as the first two, but the point still stands. The he in question is never questioned. Barca’s golden boy has already been earmarked for a place amongst the all-time greats, ready to jostle for the ultimate theoretical mantle with the Peles, Di Stefanos and Eusebios. What about modern competition?

In the here and now, there is only Messi.

Refusal to acknowledge this ‘unquestionable truth’ is considered blasphemy in many circles. To say that Ronaldo’s performances this season at least rival those of Messi is not some paganistic comment from a man wildly flagellating himself in front of the Church of Football. Heretical as it may seem, the former Red Devil is having the same measurable impact at Real Madrid as his counterpart in Catalonia.

It is, of course, easy to disagree; and, armed with the Holy Bible of statistics, even easier to back up said disagreement. The Castrol Performance Index seems to conclusively show Messi to be the world’s greatest player, with fewer minutes per goal, fewer minutes per chance created, greater shooting accuracy and higher chance conversion rates than any of his rivals. However, this same index ranks Edin Dzeko as the fifth best performer in Europe, and also places the indifferent Florent Malouda within its top twenty rankings. The table below features the top five players in these ratings, and perhaps goes some way to showing the consistent impact those players have on the performance of their side.

These players are considered the top five forwards in Europe, according to the Castrol Performance Index. I don't know how Dzeko's on there either. ©The Yorker; Image credit: Craig Dobson

Ronaldo comes out on top in this particular instance, contributing to at least one goal in almost three quarters of the games in which he plays a part. Facts and figures never paint the whole picture; there’s more to what a player can bring to a game than what can be recorded and tallied on paper. This is certainly true of Messi, as all will testify, but can also be said of Cristiano - particularly this season. His opening goal against Ajax, where he participated in and rounded off a superb flowing move, slipped beneath the radar. His classy touches against Lyon, his assists against Betis and Espanyol, often go unnoticed on these shores.

The Cult of Messi / The Occult of Ronaldo

Why? The powers that be, pundits preaching from their pulpits, tell us that Barcelona are the team we should praise to the high heavens for their style of play. We hear of Real only for more negative reasons; when they occasionally look mediocre (a rare occurrence this season), when one of their stars has an off day, or when rumours swirl around Mourinho coming or going. Barcelona versus Madrid; Messi versus Ronaldo; worldly good versus perceived evil. Admittedly, the media is a little more subtle about it.

Cristiano Ronaldo in action. ©Getty Images Europe; Image credit: Jasper Juinen

The contrasting demeanours of the players in question play into the hands of this concept. Messi’s humility is at odds with Ronaldo’s arrogance. One lets his feet do the talking; the other runs his mouth off. And yet, their contrasting approaches result in the same end product. For Cristiano, it is his gift and his curse. His arrogance manifests itself in the way he plays the game; it’s what enables him to beat that extra man or to score a backheel, but it is also a contributing factor to his general unpopularity. Messi, on the other hand, is a comparative saint, performing at the highest level without the posturing and the bravado. Unlike CR7 and his celebrity lifestyle, Messi represents everything that’s good and holy about the game (even if, paradoxically, he is earning more money than most of his counterparts).

There can be no denying that Lionel Messi is an excellent player. But to put him exclusively in a class of one is unjust. At the time of writing, Cristiano Ronaldo has met the little maestro almost blow for blow this season. What the former may lack in five goal hauls, he makes up for with slightly more consistent contributions. When all is said and done, I still believe that Leo is the better player. But to consider him as such without even daring to explore or even acknowledge the other options, as so many tend to do today, is shallow-minded idolatry.

The gap between the adored prophet and the anti-heroic poser is nowhere near as distant as most are led, or would lead themselves, to believe. Hopefully, this will garner some form of recognition come the end of the footballing year from the High Priests over at FIFA. Even a slightly closer margin in the Ballon d’Or votes – which I would expect Messi to win for a fourth consecutive time – would be ample recognition for the world’s second-best footballer. For Cristiano, there is no shame in being a close runner-up.

Until such a time, if anyone needs me, I’ll be hiding from the zealots in my basement.

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