One of the best parts of watching great players is the moments of insane competitiveness, when they let their guard down, toss aside their public personas and stoop to levels of common pettiness like the rest of us jerks. For this reason, the never-ending Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate is still interesting.
The real stories about how these two view each other as peers — from deliberately standing on opposite sides of rooms at parties, to insulting nicknames, to ignoring friends and teammates seen fraternizing with the enemy (and all of that is just Ronaldo) — are so entertainingly childish, it’s easy to imagine each man obsessing over the other’s every move.
Last week, after Messi was surprisingly on the bench for the start of a Barcelona match, I joked that Ronaldo did the same a few days later, just to prove to us all the he was the greatest bench-sitter in the game. He seems just trifling enough when it comes to Messi that you could believe it was true. We even suspected that their winter break vacation photos were taken in the name of competition. No battle is too small, no amount of glory is too paltry, when you’re dead set on everyone knowing that you are the greatest.
Today, Ronaldo added to his trophy case by winning his second straight Ballon d’Or over Messi, but that wasn’t their only battle of the afternoon. Before the awards ceremony, both men — along with party crasher Manuel Neuer — sat down for a group interview to discuss the usual sort of things people ask athletes. They were both dressed like their girlfriends has just asked them to go get some cat food from the bodega down the block; Ronaldo in Nike, Messi in adidas, of course. God forbid one allows himself to be out-branded or appear less casual than the other. It looked like they were competing to have the most chilled out posture, the winner being the one who could best pretend that he really didn’t care about winning the award. In reality, they were too busy imaging each other on fire.
The relaxed-fit jeans pageant wasn’t even the most piddling tiff of the day. When asked about their respective futures, the La Liga stalwarts battled to see who could be the most vague and misleading.
“Who knows? Who knows? Only God knows,” Ronaldo intoned. “Listen, I am very happy at Real Madrid. I signed a new deal last year and I am very happy.” It was a masterclass in ambiguity.
With no intention of being out-vagued his Portuguese nemesis, Messi offered “I am not sure if I will go back to Newells Old Boys one day,” because that’s an actual topic right now? “I am not sure where I will be next year. I have always said I will end my career at Barcelona but as Cristiano said, only God knows the future. Things in football can change overnight.”
Both players seems to suggest conversations with God are required to get an understanding of their future plans. Is the creator their agent? It would be weird for them to have the same representation. Is “God” a reference to Zlatan Ibrahimović? Are they telling us that they’re both consulting with him as they consider moves to Paris Saint-Germain?
Certainly not, but at the very least, it’s a glimpse into how these players see each other; or more importantly, themselves.