MADRID -- They'd make quite a five-a-side team. The only question is which one of them would draw the short straw and be forced to play in goal. A Friday afternoon at the Intercontinental Hotel in Madrid and the ESM group was presenting the Golden Boot to Cristiano Ronaldo as the continent's top scorer in 2010-2011. Alongside him on the stage sat Alfredo di Stéfano, the man many Spaniards consider the greatest player of all time, and Eusebio. In the front row, Zinedine Zidane and a couple of rows back Paulo Futre.
All of them are winners of the Balón d'Or. And, although it was the Golden Boot that was being presented, everyone seemed obsessed with the Golden Ball. In their obsession they once again revealed much of what is wrong with soccer -- the twisted logic and not-so-hidden agendas. Time and again, they went back to the Balón d'Or, which is a roundabout way of saying that time and again they went back to Leo Messi. It was Ronaldo's big day but Messi was there too. He always is.
So dominant have the pair of them become that you can barely mention one without everyone demanding a mention of the other. It is partly because the players themselves seem to go so hand in hand, of course, matching each other stride for stride -- you almost imagine them chatting on the phone on a Saturday morning agreeing how many goals they are going to get that weekend. There have been more credible suggestions that the player who plays second each weekend knows how the other has performed in the earlier game before kick off. And that, maybe, just maybe, it matters.
Since they have both been playing La Liga they are running at 0.96 and 0.97 goals a game. Last week Ronaldo broke the 100-goal record for Madrid; Messi reached 200 with Barcelona.
It is also because they seem to embody their clubs -- clubs that, despite being far more similar than they would ever wish to admit, are embarked upon an irreconcilable conflict. They are defined by each other. And now the players seem to be too. Note a statistic relating to Messi and immediately a thousand people will demand to know what Ronaldo's equivalent figure is. Say something good about Ronaldo and there will be a chorus of "he's never as good as Messi." And vice-versa. The hatred, bitterness and myopia can be genuinely shocking.
What is so striking about it is that at times it feels like it is not about the players at all, but the clubs. Put Messi in the Madrid team and watch its fans change their tune. The Catalan media didn't mind Ronaldo when he was reportedly a Barcelona target. They didn't call him arrogant then.
On Friday, asked yet again about the Balón d'Or, i.e. about Messi, Ronaldo replied: "this [the Golden Boot] is objective, about statistics; that [the Golden Ball], is about votes, opinions." He was right of course, even if he had slightly missed the point. They reward different things: one measures the previous season's top goal scorer, the other its best player. And "opinions" cut both ways; the problem is when they are not actually opinions at all but agendas; when "opinions" are colored by prejudice. Sometimes, the same "evidence" supports different cases. There is invariably a desire to de-legitimize other opinions on ridiculous grounds. Never mind constructing an argument.
When Ronaldo was asked why some people don't like him, he responded: "If even God wasn't liked by everyone, what chance have I got?"
The audience -- this was a Madrid event and a Portuguese one too -- gave him a round of applause. The following morning the Catalan dailies saw it as a sign that he could not take the pressure from Messi and had "snapped." Never mind that it was a pretty funny response after countless leading questions loaded with meaning and laced with intent, or that he delivered it tongue in cheek, other Catalan dailies moaned that he was arrogant: "Ronaldo", the gasped in faux moral outrage, "compares himself to God."
Nor is it just about the media. It is also about those that should know better. The president of the Portuguese Football Federation, Gilberto Madaíl, who also attending the event, complained that he could not understand how Carlos Queiroz could have voted for Messi for the Balón d'Or. He made a surprisingly -- or not so surprisingly considering the difficult relationship they had -- bitter attack on his former coach. And there in a nutshell was the problem.
Because Queiroz was Portuguese coach he had to vote for a Portuguese player? Even though while he actually was Portugal's coach he was not allowed to -- precisely to try to prevent political voting. And if he dared not to vote for Ronaldo and instead chose Messi he deserves a public reprimand? Because he chose someone who is not Portuguese, the president of the football federation feels entitled to try to align the country against him? Because the relationship is difficult the president feels justified in doing so -- on this issue? Apparently so.
How could Queiroz not vote for Ronaldo? Well, perhaps he didn't think it was a vote-for-your-countryman-competition. Perhaps he simply thought that he'd been asked to vote for who he considered the best player in the world over the previous year, without prejudice and without favoritism. No big deal: just a question with a simple answer: who do you reckon was the best? Perhaps he thought that because that is exactly what he had been asked to do. In a year in which Messi won the league and the Champions League, scoring in the final and finishing as top scorer in the competition, Queiroz thought that, you know, maybe Messi was the best. It's not really that hard to understand, is it?
Carlos Queiroz thought he was being asked to make an honest footballing judgment and so he did. He should have known better.