For the last six years, every Ballon d’Or has been won by Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Every weekend for more than half a decade, we have turned on our television sets convinced that the best is still yet to come, that these men and some of their closest friends really do exist in a realm of perpetual youth, where the ages 29 and 26 have no meaning and snosberries don’t taste like snosberries. A place where, week after month after year, our favorite players reenact prior miracles and perform new ones as if immune to the constraints of time and gravity. How many times have we seen Messi dart head-first into a thicket of flesh and bone only to emerge, teetering back onto balance, with the ball on his left instep? How many times have we seen Ronaldo deliver that knuckle-balling free-kick past a humbled goalkeeper? Each touch, every rise of the crowd, makes us believe it’s about to happen again.
The illusion of agelessness is easy to maintain for fans in their twenties. And then, little by little, we accept that we are indeed getting older and so, therefore, must our heroes. Zinedine Zidane went bald before our very eyes. Time recently caught up with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs—and is about to put Xavi on the bench for good.
It’s a reminder that the game expands and contracts like the universe: stars eventually collapse upon themselves, becoming black holes, nothing but nothingness. When you watch players every week, it can be hard to see the shifts. But it’s happening whether you notice or not.
Here’s my suggestion: Put away your telescopes and watch this World Cup as though you’re oblivious to the forces we know to be at work. Because this is as good as it gets for both men.
In 2018, when the world descends upon Russia, Ronaldo will be 33, Messi 30. Absent injury, both will be selected and likely captain their respective countries. Either one could still lead his nation deep into the tournament, especially if younger talent barges onto the scene in the interim.
But that’s all speculation. For now, we have two men playing in the stratosphere—capable of single-handedly dismantling defenses, slaloming and devastating, inventing and inspiring. Let’s not get caught up in comparisons—the partisan bickering of lesser minds. Let’s just enjoy two all-time greats at the height of their powers.