Debatable Merit of 'The Best' Aside, How Much Longer Can Ronaldo, Messi Reign?

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's reign over the world's top individual honors can't go on forever. Which players may finally end their run, and how soon?
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Cristiano Ronaldo has been crowned yet again, by FIFA, as 'The Best.' The eyes roll, a yawn wells in the throat and the mind, prodded reluctantly into action, tries to recall anything he actually did this year other than get a five-game ban for shoving a referee in the Spanish Super Cup final. Not that it really matters. His club won the Spanish league and the Champions League and that its key player in both those triumphs was probably Luka Modric doesn’t matter. Ronaldo is Ronaldo, and so when his team does better than Lionel Messi’s, he wins the individual award. That is what politics and marketing demand, and so that is how it is.

Perhaps that’s a touch unfair. Ronaldo does, after all, continue to score goals in industrial quantities and it’s hardly his fault if the startling nature of his goal returns have become familiar. He did score vital goals in both the Champions League quarterfinals and semifinals–eight over the four legs, before another two in the final; and nothing is so prized, so valued in football as being the man who gets the final touch. Ronaldo certainly isn’t an unworthy winner. He’s just a winner who comes with a sigh, a player who has stripped his game back to eye-catching, prize-winning individualistic essentials.

That Messi in the past couple of months has almost single-handedly dragged an ailing Barcelona to the top of La Liga doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that Messi produced a performance of almost unparalleled brilliance even by the standards he and Ronaldo have set to carry Argentina to the World Cup. Once Real Madrid had won the Champions League in June, the awards were Ronaldo’s.

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The Best doesn’t matter. The Ballon d’Or doesn’t matter. No individual awards matter other than to those obsessive fans who have only to see Messi earning praise to take to social media in defense of their man (or vice versa; it’s not that Ronaldistas have a monopoly on one-eyed mania). And it matters to Ronaldo, of course.

That’s now a full decade that either Messi or Ronaldo has won The Best or the Ballon d’Or (the awards split in 2015; this is the second time The Best has been awarded). On each occasion other than 2010, whichever of Messi and Ronaldo didn’t win came second. They were second and third in the 2007 Ballon d’Or behind Kaka.

Their dominance seems so natural now, it feels so inevitable that it must be Messi against Ronaldo, that perhaps the claims of others are not taken seriously. Modric, Isco, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos were all arguably just as important to Madrid’s success as Ronaldo was. Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic were all instrumental in Juventus winning Serie A and reaching the Champions League final. Monaco, who won the French league against all odds and got to the Champions League semifinal, may think Kylian Mbappe, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy might have been in with a shout.

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Given the award is supposed to recognize all of 2017 (which is absurd and unhelpful, given the natural tendency to privilege performances that win trophies that are handed out in May and June), Kevin De Bruyne’s performances this season should have propelled him into contention. Harry Kane, meanwhile, has outscored Ronaldo in 2017. Neymar, slightly mystifyingly, is the third name on the shortlist, presumably because he helped Brazil qualify impressively for the World Cup and achieved every modern footballer’s dream of becoming the most expensive player in the world.

None of it matters, of course. Even the format of The Best makes clear its fatuousness. Voting is carried out by four different groups: journalists, national team coaches, national team captains and the public. Players, coaches and a sadly large number of journalists are swayed by political concerns; it’s doubtful any member of the public who bothers to vote does so for any reason other than to support their man. This is not a debate about the nature of greatness. And so, necessarily, it becomes a predictable tussle between the two most vaunted players in the world. At least the Ballon d’Or still purports to be about footballing considerations. FIFA's award barely bothers with the pretense.

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Perhaps, though, this is the final year when the two will be such obvious candidates. Ronaldo is 32, and even last season he had to be used sparingly by Zinedine Zidane. Messi is 30. His form over the past couple of months has been exceptional, but this surge, apparently fired by frustration with the Barcelona board and pretty much everybody involved with Argentina, came after a lull.

Neymar is looming, even if he spends most weeks performing tricks in a laughably skewed French league. So, too, is Kylian Mbappe, although he, like Neymar, is barely tested at PSG. Success in the Champions League and/or the World Cup could tip things their way. Isco, finally, is beginning to emerge from Ronaldo’s shadow and it’s just about conceivable that by the end of the season he could not merely be Madrid’s key attacking player but could be perceived as such. Success for Manchester City in the Champions League or for Belgium in the World Cup could elevate De Bruyne.

If Messi keeps playing with the verve he is at the moment, he would fully deserve another award, in as much as anybody ever deserves an individual award in a team sport. Or with another Champions League for Madrid or success for Portugal at the World Cup and Ronaldo would almost certainly still be on the short list. But it feels at the moment as though both could be creaking along with their walkers at 80 and still be put up to the vote.

After all, when an award recognizes less footballing achievement than fame, why let retirement put an end to it?