Will Cristiano Ronaldo’s Madrid departure hasten the end of the ‘Greatest’ era?

Words By John Brewin Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 16, 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo’s flit to Italy and Juventus has removed the sting from the most discussed matter of this football age. If Lionel Messi stays at Barcelona, it is entirely possible that they will never meet again on the field of play.

The pair cannot now overshadow El Clasico, the grandest domestic club fixture in world football, with apologies to the Old Firm derby, the River-Boca Superclasico, the Oxford-Swindon A420 derby and whichever other rivalry lays claim to that accolade. The end of the ad hominem argument that can never be solved, even by the amount of Ballon d’Or gongs they hold, may finally be in sight.

And for many, that should be a source of relief. Russia 2018 proved that the show can quite easily go on without the tedium of a “greatest of all time” debate, with its even more attendantly grating “GOAT” acronym. By the third Sunday of the tournament, both players were planning their summer holidays and the club season ahead.

This is a sporting era that has mirrored the Hollywood system of superstars and blockbusters, with golf still yearning for Tiger Woods to make a full return and relaunch viewing figures, while tennis has still not weaned itself off Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Over in America, Lebron James defines the NBA, and Tom Brady is not far off doing the same for the NFL.

For marketeers, such primacy of individuals makes things simple. Get one of the big two, most probably the less selective Ronaldo, on board and your product can reach millions of phone screens via social media. On the morning of Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, Japanese company “Six Pad”, whose product purports to give its user the same ripped abdominal muscles as CR7 himself, were given a spin on his Instagram page, and received almost 7m likes.

Even allowing for the long commercial afterlife that David Beckham has continued to enjoy, it will soon be time for the money men to place their bets on the next big thing. And that may not be so easy, even allowing for Kylian Mbappe’s grasping of the nettle during the World Cup.

In Russia, Neymar fluffed his chance to climb aboard the pantheon with the big two, and appears to have chosen to live in Paris in the style of a spoiled Bourbon Dauphin rather than the ultra-committed machine that Ronaldo in particular converted himself into.

Article: Neymar’s place within the game.

And without having an officially trademarked best player in the world, football will be just fine, just as it managed to be in the pre-Ronaldo/Messi era. Admittedly, the Pele v Diego Maradona question has raged on for the last three decades, but those players were rarities in being the undoubted best of their era, even if in both cases, they could not dominate throughout their playing careers.

Maradona entered the 1986 World Cup with Michel Platini, five years his senior, considered to be his probable superior, an opinion that was never voiced again after Argentina’s triumph. A teenage Pele captured the world’s heart in 1958, but had to wait until 1970 to again show his best at the World Cup, a time during which several players, including Alfredo di Stefano, Eusebio, and George Best, could all claim to have been better than him at a certain point.

The time from the late 1980s to the 2000s was far more democratic for the game’s great players. A torch was passed between the likes of Marco van Basten to Roberto Baggio to Romario to Brazil’s Ronaldo to Zinedine Zidane to Ronaldinho to Kaka, with many other worthy pretenders besides. A time when globalisation and TV allowed greater access to foreign talent increased the depth and breadth of knowledge, as those stars’ moments in the sun came and went.

And the players didn’t even need to be in the debate to be the best in the world to be appreciated. From Eastern Europe came players like Hristo Stoichkov, Gheorge Hagi and Dragan Stojkovic, exotic, enigmatic talents while Serie A, the best league in the world for most of that time, could show off Gabriel Batistuta, Gianfranco Zola and even Paul Gascoigne.

And then came ten years of Messi and Ronaldo, who amid the yah-boo hot takes and embracing of repetitious debate, deserve their pre-eminence with performances that have defied all previously credible statistics with a relentlessness of success that left everyone in their wake. When Harry Kane spoke ahead of the World Cup of his aspirations to be at such a level, he generated more than a few smirks.

Yet once Ronaldo has seen out his days in the unlikely retirement home of Serie A and Messi takes leave of Barcelona, a state of normality, a calibration of sensible appreciation, might then be able to resume.

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