Last season, Lionel Messi faced Osasuna having scored hat tricks in each of his previous two games. All the buildup was about whether he could become the first player since the War to score three trebles in successive La Liga matches. Osasuna, understandably, double-marked him and, in a tetchy game, Messi was booked for kicking the ball away in frustration. With 18 minutes to go, though, Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally broke through for Barca; the first player over to congratulate him was Messi, his face relaxed into smiles. For him, the most important thing was not his personal record, but the team, winning the game.
Compare Cristiano Ronaldo's reaction in Moscow after Manchester United had won the Champions League. Playing on the left wing, he had scored the opening goal, but after winning the battle in the first half hour, found himself dominated by Michael Essien, playing at right back. Again and again the Ghanaian surged past him, and Ronaldo was unable or unwilling to track him. It was just such a surge that led to Chelsea's equalizer shortly before halftime. Ronaldo then missed his penalty in the shootout. United still won, because John Terry and Nicolas Anelka also missed, but Ronaldo, having looked like being the hero, was the player who'd got away with it. As the rest of his teammates celebrates in front of the United fans, Ronaldo sat alone on the halfway line, weeping. Perhaps he was merely overcome by the emotion of the whole occasion, but it was hard not to interpret his attitude as a sulk.
Both Messi and Ronaldo have supreme technical ability. Both can turn games single-handed. Ronaldo is taller and more powerful, much better in the air. But he is also an egotist, wrapped up in his own personal glory to a deleterious extent. His pursuit of the pichichi and Golden Boot (the awards for top goal scorer in Spain and in Europe respectively) this season have been pitiful. Away against Atletico Madrid, after Real Madrid had gone 2-0 up in the first half-hour, Ronaldo spent the rest of the game pinging in shots from unlikely distances and angles. Sergio Aguero pulled one back with five minutes to go, and Real Madrid almost drew a game they should have won by a vast margin.
Perhaps Ronaldo would have acted like that anyway, but it's hard to believe his selfishness was not accentuated by his desire to win the individual goal scoring awards, something that was turned into a consolation prize by the Madrid press once it became apparent that Barcelona was walking away with the league title, and even more so after Barcelona had beaten Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal. But, frankly, who cares?
Look at the list of players to have won the European Golden Boot. Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Josip Skoblar, Hans Krankl and Ian Rush were all great players, but really, who now remembers Hector Yazalde (Sporting 1974), Kees Kist (AZ Alkmaar 1979), Rodion Camataru and Dorin Mateut (Dinamo Bucharest 1987 and 1989), David Taylor (Porthmadog 1994), Arsen Avetisyan (Homenmen 1995), Zviad Endeladze (Margveti 1996)? All of them were also top scorers in Europe. Is that the pantheon to which Ronaldo was so desperate to be elected?
Those last three never won the Golden Boot because the award was discontinued for five years after it became apparent the result was being rigged. That two Dinamo Bucharest players won in the space of three years was not coincidence, and the blatant manipulation of tallies in Cyprus in 1990-91 led to the award being discontinued.
If only it had remained so. Imagine the scene. It's 1-1 and a forward is clean through on goal in the last minute. His team needs a win to lift the league title, but if he scores a goal he will win the Golden Boot. He could roll the ball square for a teammate who can't miss, or he can seek personal glory and shoot. The correct thing to do is to roll the ball square as that is the move that brings the greatest probability of a decisive goal; yet by some perversion of soccer's logic the action that will bring an individual award is to shoot. That cannot be right.
Before Manchester United's final game of the Premier League season against Blackpool, Patrice Evra breezily admitted that he was desperate to help Dimitar Berbatov win the Golden Boot ahead of Carlos Tevez. "Whenever I get the ball I'll be passing to Berba because I want him to score," he said. Which sounds like a generous gesture, but imagine the following scenario. United and Blackpool are locked at 1-1 in the final minute, a score line that, if it becomes the result, will keep Blackpool up. Evra finds himself with a shooting chance. If he scores Blackpool are relegated, while United, having already wrapped up the title, doesn't really care, so he pauses to try to allow Berbatov to catch him up so he can lay the ball to him. As a result the chance is wasted. Blackpool stays up and -- say -- Wolves is relegated instead. In that instance the individual award actually distorts the competition.
And that's just the goal scoring awards. The Ballon d'Or and other player of the season awards are just as insidious -- invariably going to forwards and creative midfielders and encouraging the sort of showboating that looks good in five-minute YouTube clips, but doesn't necessarily win matches or lead to constructive play. "I heard [the boxer] Carlos Monzon's trainer, Amilcar Brusa, explain that when a boxer fights on television, it's crucial he throw many punches, regardless of where they land," Jorge Valdano said in an interview six years ago. "That's because television demands activity."
And by introducing an ulterior demand, but stimulating interest in a side issue, it diminishes the game itself. All the greatest greats -- Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfred Di Stefano -- all those at the very highest level of the pantheon, were, while individually gifted, great team men. Messi may not have won the Golden Boot or the pichichi this season, but he is an awful lot closer to joining them than Ronaldo.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.