Whatever off-the-pitch game he is playing, in this tussle within the Old Trafford confines, there is bound to be many sides to the story. But the cold truth is that the superstar’s reputation has popped like a balloon and only a rejuvenating performance in the World Cup will pump up his post-Qatar club prospects.
As the spotlight shifts from the leagues to the Arabian hub of expectations — cue a smiling Ronaldo in his Portuguese domain — there is that sense of fleeting time.
The generation which has debated who is greater, Ronaldo or Messi, is privileged to witness their rivalry, talent, steadfastness and dedication; contrasting demeanour but similar methods to the same goal. The topic itself generated 14,30,00,000 results in a google search.
There is a clash of personalities, and it is difficult to be neutral, but step aside for a bigger picture and you could imagine they are twins, the yin and the yang. And perhaps, to borrow a line, they complete each other.
These are strange journeys we undertake. Soon after discovering Argentina, Messi had to lose Barcelona. But Paris was needed for an escape from chaos, for reinvention, a breather. In a club, where the primary plot was that of a young Frenchman with the world at his feet, Messi could just sit back and enjoy the view.
Will his script grab the centrestage again in the West Asia? The Albiceleste captain, heartbroken in the past, treads cautiously. It will be the perfect crescendo after the Copa America conquest but only time will tell. With the tick and the talk, you just can’t wait for the December 18 finale but aren’t we always told that the travel is more important than the destination.
And what a bittersweet voyage it is going to be! Ronaldo will be 41 come the 2026 World Cup, Messi 39. One cannot rule out the Manchester United mutineer to set sail again in North America, knowing about his physical regimen, but surely for the Paris temp, this is the final chance to capture World Cup permanence.
Messi’s poetry stems from joy in his heart, not despair. Often portrayed as a tragic hero in his national colours, he seemed burdened by Messidependencia. Standing at the periphery, there was that willingness to escape into oblivion, disappear. But now, there is a sense of belonging in blue and white, an understanding with his peers, wards and coach. And a feeling of acceptance, a letting go to the Fates. Age does it to you.
And with the tumbling hours also comes the waning of powers. When Ronaldo stares in the mirror, he certainly sees a well-chiselled sculpture. But the time travel and personal damage may have eroded some features. The shadow of a court case that immediately forces us to judge him; death in the family that most of us empathize with; a refusal to be treated like everybody else and a rebuttal that will certainly isolate him – all these themes have played out this year as the man from Madeira craves to fill Portugal’s cup to the brim.
Half full it may turn out to be, and maybe he will make this about him. One remembers an injured Cristiano limping on the sidelines during the Euro 2016 final against France, rallying his players, outscreaming coach Fernando Santos. Who remembers the goalscorer? Eder, last spotted in Moscow.
But it should be all about him. One also remembers his gravity-defying high-jump goal in the semifinal. Individuality can be a virtue in strikers, it is also a by-product of self-belief. He did not become the top-scorer in men’s international football with 117 goals for being accommodating. 700 club goals, more than 30 trophies, five Ballon d’Or, innumerable records – now, now, that is self-explanatory.
Ronaldo’s return to United had all the fireworks but the stats are not encouraging this season. He has scored in only one of Portugal’s 10 games over the last year, and only three goals for United where he has struggled to get a starting spot.
Conversely, after a sputtering debut season in France, the one with 7 Ballons d’Or is thriving. Messi’s second year at PSG has been lively with 11 goals and 14 assists in 18 games.
While the Messi-Ronaldo dynamics is inescapable, natural like breathing in and out, let us celebrate their differences and similarities. Let us not compare but thank them for the experience. And with every child who dreams of waking up with a football glued to the feet, or being able to gallop like a thoroughbred, we will be reminded of the magic of possibilities.
Will the super heroes rage against the dying of the light? As we pretend to tap into our favourites’ stream of consciousness, we are probably oh-so-wrong. But one thing’s for sure, they are out to seize the day because there is no dawn. Time, please move slowly, because soon there will be no looking forward but only glancing back.
ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI (Poland)
Robert Lewandowski (AP Photo)
The 34-year-old Lewandowski perhaps never got the credit he deserved in the shadow cast by Messi and Ronaldo. He kept scoring goals for Borussia Dortmund, then Bayern Munich before his recent switch to Barcelona. He is Poland’s undisputed leader, the team captain and record scorer with 76 goals in 134 appearances. He has yet to score at a World Cup. In his only previous World Cup tournament in 2018, Poland were eliminated from the group stage.
LUIS SUAREZ (Uruguay)
Luis Suarez (AFP Photo)
Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer with 134 goals, the 35-year-old Suarez is set to play at his fourth World Cup. It will be his first while playing back with boyhood club Nacional in Montevideo after a storied career at Ajax, Liverpool, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Suarez was sent home from the 2014 World Cup for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder. Suarez helped Atletico win the La liga title in his first season with the club in 2021. He duelled with Ronaldo when they were playing for Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, and the old rivals are scheduled to meet again when Uruguay play Portugal on Nov. 28.
KARIM BENZEMA (France)
Karim Benzema (Reuters Photo)
It has been quite a turnaround for Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema. After a fall from grace that led to a long exclusion from the national team until his recall last year, he has grown from strength to strength. Benzema has scored 10 goals in 16 games and he enters the World Cup as arguably the world’s most complete forward along with Lionel Messi. Benzema will turn 35 the day after this year’s World Cup final.
LUKA MODRIC (Croatia)
Luka Modric (Reuters Photo)
The 37-year-old Modric is one of those players who seems to be getting better with age. Now in his 10th season with Real Madrid, Modric played a key role in a decade of success for the Spanish club, winning five Champions League titles and three league titles in that time. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 2018 in the first occasion since 2007 that it wasn’t won by Messi or Ronaldo. For Croatia, he’s just as important — the all-seeing controller in midfield, the driving force that helped the team reach the World Cup final in 2018. Although Croatia lost in the final, Modric was still awarded the Golden Ball. This will be his fifth World Cup tournament.
DANI ALVES (Brazil)
Dani Alves (Reuters Photo)
One of the best attacking right backs ever to play the game, the 39-year-old Alves is determined to finish his international career on a high. Alves has only played in two World Cups, in 2010 and 2014. He came to prominence with lightning runs up and down the right side of the field in a successful spell at Sevilla before moving to Barcelona in 2008. He spent eight trophy-laden years at the Catalan club before spells at Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, then São Paulo, before a return to Barcelona last year. He joined Mexican club Pumas this year.
MANUEL NEUER (Germany)
Manuel Neuer (AFP Photo)
The 36-year-old Neuer is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers to have emerged from Germany, a country that has been spoiled with talent over the years with the likes of Oliver Kahn, Jens Lehman, Harald Schumacher and Sepp Maier. Despite the strength of rivals like Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen or Eintracht Frankfurt’s Kevin Trapp, Neuer has maintained his No. 1 status since claiming the spot at the 2010 World Cup. The Bayern Munich captain was voted goalkeeper of the tournament when Germany won in 2014. This will be his fourth World Cup.
THOMAS MUELLER (Germany)
Thomas Mueller (AFP Photo)
The 33-year-old Mueller scored five goals at the 2010 World Cup and has been an almost ever-present for Germany and Bayern Munich since. He was briefly dropped by Joachim Loew in 2019 in the thenGermany coach’s ultimately unsuccessful shakeup of the team after its poor World Cup showing in 2018 as defending champion, but Müller was recalled for last year’s European Championship and has established himself as a leader.