By MW Desk
The two greatest football players of this generation have every footballing silverware in their respective cupboards, except for the elusive World Cup. Qatar will be their last chance to break the jinx
Welcome to the fractured world of football. This is a world where disagreement means division, a world where no middle ground exists between reverence and desecration. The nuance is long dumped in favour of binary thinking. This is football disguised as ideology, where you’re either with us or them. One such ideological conundrum that the game throws are whether winning the World Cup is an absolute requirement for great players to enter the pantheons of legend, whose inhabitants currently include the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.
The question is now more relevant than ever, as two players who have captivated the world with their mesmerising skills for over a decade have now entered the twilight of their respective careers, and the upcoming World Cup in Qatar is going to be their last realistic attempt at claiming the most prized possession in the world of football. Yes, we are talking about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Admittedly, reading out these two names separated by ‘and’ feels a bit disorientating. It is supposed to be Messi vs Ronaldo, as it has been for a better part of the 21st century.
But for all the antagonism they share — in their aesthetics, appearances, and style of play — one common feature that binds their careers is the lack of a World Cup trophy.
This is going to be their fifth World Cup appearance, and though it can be argued that they have passed their absurd peak, the fact that the tournament still revolves around them to some extent remains irrefutable. It also tells even a team sport like football is not immune to the individual conception of talents.
Over the years, the running theme of Messi and Ronaldo endeavouring to win the World Cup with their respective nations have attained a Sisyphean theme. Every World Cup after 2006, when both made their first appearance, there’s a premonition among the fans that this is the year when dreams turn into reality. But the object in the dream is farther than they appear. We’ll see both stalwarts starting from scratch in Qatar, in what seems to be their final chance to right the wrong.
Jorge Sampaoli, the former Argentina manager, wrote in his book that the World Cup is like a revolver in Messi’s head, and “if doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed.” Sampoli’s words provide us with a great insight into the sporting culture of a South American nation, where football has still retained its unifying, communitarian characteristics, and where individual heroics are not appreciated in full measure unless it brings something noble for the nation.
This is the baggage of expectations that Messi has been carrying since a very young age. The quest for international success hasn’t been an easy road to walk on for a player who had a habit of making even the most ridiculous skill look easy on the field. It has left him broken, beaten, and damned. The continuous despair almost killed his desire, as a result, he announced his retirement after an agonising defeat in the Copa America final in 2016. Messi took a U-turn over his hastily taken retirement decision, only to go through under bout of disappointment two years later in Russia, when Argentina was outclassed by the eventual champion, France.
It’s interesting how Ronaldo and Messi are treated on different parameters when it comes to the World Cup. For Messi, winning this trophy represents the final expression of his godly talent, a logical end to his storied career, and a must-needed artefact that will put him in the league of Maradona and Pele. For Ronaldo, the World Cup will be a massive bonus. It’s not something that he is destined to achieve like Messi.
Much of this sentiment owes to the fact that Ronaldo is the first superstar in a country that doesn’t have a long and consistent conveyor belt of talents. In contrast, the Argentine played in a team that had no dearth of players who had already established themselves in elite European leagues. For instance, in the 2014 World Cup, Messi shared the space with Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Pablo Zabaleta, and Gonzalo Higuaín, while Ronaldo played with Raul Meireles, Hélder Postiga, and Fábio Coentrão.
Ronaldo didn’t have a reference point in his country. He is the best that the peninsular empire had ever produced. Messi, meanwhile, had someone like Diego Maradona to emulate. Maradona won the World Cup in 1986, and for Messi to be counted in the same breath as him, he needs to win that thing.
Messi’s treacherous international career has been a stark contrast to his smooth club career. There’s not a single accolade that Messi doesn’t possess at a club level, while on the international circuit, his first success came only last year when he won Copa America with a 1-0 win over Brazil. It was Argentina’s first trophy since 1993. It can also be assumed as the start of something beautiful for Messi, as Argentina will be going into the World Cup as one of the favourites.
For a change, Portugal’s squad depth is as good as anyone this time. They are showered with some supremely skilled players at every position. However, the biggest concern for them is Cristiano Ronaldo’s form, as he is having a forgetful season at Manchester United. In whatever limited opportunities he got, he looked totally out of place. It’s quite ironic that for all the years when he was in his heyday, Ronaldo didn’t have the level of support from his teammates he desired, and now that when Portugal looks incredibly strong on paper, his own finishing prowess has waned.
Reproduced with permission from Mansworldindia.com