When the Annals of football history are written (if annals are written. Are annals written? What is an annal actually?) the last decade and a bit will be looked back on as the best of times, the worst of times and as the time of two legends in particular. If we lazily skip through the last 15 years we’ll see many faces and many places that bring us smiles in some cases and at others our heart races and encourage us to momentarily indulge in horrendously appalling childish poetry. We’ll see Ronaldinho, being there, doing it, then getting fat. But we’ll know that someone had been there and done it and gotten fat before him. We’ll see Henry being great, being suave and being French. But knowing someone else was greater, and suaver and Frencher before he. We’ll see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi pop their heads out at the end, knowing their era is just beginning, but merely a footnote in this one. We’ll see the Klinsmanns and the Baggios take their bows and inevitably the Beckhams and the Bergkamps will be in there too, but none of them will be the prominent figures. That honor will go to the two men who defined their footballing generation. Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo De lima.
It’s always impossible to compare players across the eras. There will always be unwinnable arguments for and against players who never competed directly against each other. The modern player has it easy with his smooth pitches and protective referee’s while the older ones never had to contend with the improved athleticism or four hundred camera’s trained and ready to capture every bad performance, and so thus – clearly – never had one. Ronaldo and Zindane will likely never reach the standing of Pele and Maradona, as those players will never be surpassed as long as the “well you didn’t see em’s” are alive. And when they’re not, well, no body will have seen ‘em! – Rendering any argument instantly unarguable.
However it’s fair to say they’ll be near or near abouts as time and hagiography embellishes the already sparkling careers of these two titanic players. But while we cannot place them both in history yet, we can compare the men themselves. Just about. They played both with and against each other on numerous occasions and although both intrinsically different, they both have claims to be the best player of their era. And no football blog site would be complete without a good old “my dad’s better than your dad” fandango.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was almost unarguably (though I’m sure someone will try) the best striker of the last 15 years. Strong, quick, skillful, prolific. Good in the air and on the ground, delicate yet forceful, the boy had everything. 44 goals in as many games during his debut season in Brazil with Cruzeiro, he followed it up with 35 in 36 at PSV and, even more impressively, 47 in 49 at Barcelona. Moving to Inter a year after Bobby Robson had brought him from Holland, Ronaldo let his standards slip slightly with only a paltry 34 goals in 47 starts in his debut season. Injuries then started to loom their ugly heads and he was sporadically out of action with a series of knee troubles for much of his remaining time in Seria A. Back in Spain in 2002 as a new Galactico at Madrid, he passed the 30 goal mark in both his first two seasons, grabbing 24 in the 3rd before – once again – injury, and the inevitable fatness that often entails, cut short his playing time. He still remained prolific whenever he was fit, and still does now, back in Brazil with Corinthians, sporting significantly bigger shorts than when he was last there. His international record is – fittingly given his nickname in his homeland – Phenomenal. 62 goals in 97 appearances, including a record 15 at World Cup tournaments has kept his Goals per game ratio never below 0.5 at either club or international level. 3 World player of the year awards, 2 Ballon D’ors, several domestic player of the year trophies and countless League and Cup triumphs added to 2 World Cup and Copa America medals apiece is a fearsome haul. Only really the Champions League escaped him, and probably a dentist.
Zinedine Zidane was almost a polar opposite. Graceful, thoughtful, methodical, his game was based on elegance and forethought more than instinct and power. Though he could turn on the pace – and brute strength – when needed as well. He controlled games and the tempo of them and when he was needed, stepped up if no one else would. 3 goals in World Cup finals (or World Cup finals finals – that always confuses me), a brace to bring the trophy to France for the first time in 98, and a spectacular winner in the European Cup Final in 2002 mark him out as the epitome of a big game player. It also marked a personal quadruple, meaning he’d won an honor at every available level in football (Which for him meant a top tier League, a European Cup, a World Cup and a European Championship). 3 World Player of the year titles and a Ballon D’or, along with a player of the year title in every league he played, he also came top of a 2004 poll to determine the greatest European player of the century. He even won the Golden Ball in the 2006 World Cup, a tournament that saw his almost perfect swansong ruined by a head butt just as he was almost single handedly driving France towards a winner. If anything it only enhanced his legend and even a ridiculously pretentious film chronicling his actions over a particularly drab match for Madrid (which was essentially just Player-Cam with a fancy title) was poured over with chin stroking enthusiasm by beret-wearing aficionados for months. Nothing escaped him in his career, except maybe that second World Cup, and of course the chance to play for Blackburn. But in the immortal words of Jack Walker – “who needs Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood.”
So who’s better? My heart leans towards Ronaldo, but my head Zidane. Let me know what you think, cos I’ll be damned if I know.