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Sit back and savour Messi v Ronaldo

The pair’s head-to-head resembles other great sporting rivalries of the past

Gulf News

Dubai: So, Lionel Messi has been officially named the greatest footballer on the planet for the fourth year on the trot. But the debate over whether he deserves this accolade over Cristiano Ronaldo, following his fourth straight Ballon d’Or triumph, will inevitably rage on.

The duo’s respective merits can be discussed ad infinitum, but perhaps we should merely celebrate the fact that football is blessed to have two of the finest footballers of all time driving each other on to even greater feats of brilliance.

As such, irrespective of your allegiances to Messi or Ronaldo, it is important to remember that stirring rivalries between stellar sportsmen and women are intrinsic to our enjoyment of sport. Such fascinating match-ups appeal to sports lovers because they provide a riveting sport within a sport; they sate our hunger for cut-throat competition between a pair of gifted sporting gladiators, who perform to their optimum level when tested to their limit by a performer of comparable ability.

Most great sporting rivals are also contrasting characters and have differing strengths, adding to their allure.

Think of the power and athleticism of Martina Navratilova against the grace and guile of Chris Evert in tennis; the cerebral Alain Prost’s fiery tussles with the flamboyant and temperamental Ayrton Senna in Formula One; or Muhammad Ali, the eloquent and supremely gifted technician, against the bull-like power of the glowering Joe Frazier in boxing, to name just three.

While football is a team game, certain individuals shine brighter than their peers, as in the case of Messi and Ronaldo. But in most cases, it’s rare that two players like the Argentinian and his Portuguese counterpart define a generation, and can be directly compared, unlike Pele and Maradona, for instance.

In the vein of all classic sporting head-to-heads, Messi and Ronaldo’s battle extraordinaire to be the best is built on contrast and steeped in opposition. The Barcelona star is small, quiet and humble, while the Real man is tall, outspoken and ostentatious.

They also represent arguably the two biggest teams in world football, and two of the planet’s greatest football rivals, emblems of a divided Spain of the past.

In a perfect distillation of their unofficial rivalry, they created a thrilling sub-plot to last October’s El Clasico between Messi’s Barcelona and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. Both men turned in virtuoso displays by scoring two goals apiece in a pulsating 2-2 draw: Ronaldo gave his side the lead, Messi responded with an opportunistic equaliser; the Argentinian looked to have prevailed in this most divine of duels with a sumptuous free-kick, but the Portuguese restored parity for his side and himself in his rivalry with Messi. It was a magical microcosm of Messi v Ronaldo, epitomising unyielding commitment and compelling tit-for-tat jousting in the quest to be the world’s greatest footballer.

Such unstinting excellence from these two luminaries has transformed the Ballon d’Or into a perennial two-horse race, their own personal fiefdom.

No less a player than Andres Iniesta, the gliding midfield genius of Barcelona, whose silky skills and precision passing embellished Spain’s historic Euro 2012 success, did not have a look-in in this year’s contest. He finished third.

For as far as Messi and Ronaldo are concerned, two’s company, three’s a crowd.

And that, for sports aficionados everywhere, is something to cherish.