On Tuesday night, Lionel Messi didn’t score as Barcelona were humbled by a rampant Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes. He still hit the headlines, though. He was mugged in possession inside his own half in an incident which led to a Parisian goal: it seemed to sum up so perfectly Barcelona’s terrible night.
That’s the power the superstars of world football have. Messi didn’t score or even make a positive contribution on a chastening night for his team, but he’s still a headline maker.
It was an altogether more positive night for Barcelona’s bitter capital-based rivals on Wednesday, but once again Cristiano Ronaldo hit headlines without scoring a goal himself. He broke his own assist record and – according to StatBunker, anyway – he broke Ryan Giggs’ all-time record for most Champions League assists.
This is all set to the backdrop of an ongoing battle between Messi and Ronaldo, of course. Most of it is overplayed and turned into a war between two polar opposites. That’s surely untrue, and surely too far. In the end, they’re only footballers and want wider victories than simply beating the other global superstar.
But there is a very real way in which the two compete: Messi is only two goals behind Ronaldo in the list of all-time Champions League top scorers. They certainly compete on a professional level – and if both want triumphs for their teams more than they want to beat the other player, it still amounts to the same thing. Both are competing for the same trophies and records, only one can win.
But all of that makes it far too easy to slip into Messi v Ronaldo mode, too easy to hit the ‘narrative’ button. It makes it far too easy to cast Messi as the natural talent and Ronaldo as the brute force of hard work. It makes it easy to forget that Ronaldo is also a natural talent, and that Messi is an elite athlete who works as hard, if not harder, than anyone else. Ronaldo, the playboy Narcissus and Messi, the shy and retiring prodigy.
On Wednesday night, though, we were reminded in fairly stark terms that Ronaldo isn’t just in it for himself. He is a player of such force and talent, such earth-shattering ability that he can do more than make selfish runs, play selfish passes and score selfish goals. Breaking assist records is a serious business these days. Partly those records look better because assists weren’t really measured in the days of Ferenc Puskas or Diego Maradona, and so it is easier to top the list. But there is also a growing tendency to see assists as almost equal to goals – understandably so in many ways. After all, where do you think the goals come from?
And yes, we were also reminded on Wednesday evening that Ronaldo is even capable of the human emotion known as happiness when his teammates score goals.
All of this is to say that Ronaldo isn’t quite the self-centred automaton he is portrayed as. If he is interested in the self-gratification that comes from goals and self-promotion that’s only at least one side of the story. Assists aren’t really a good measure of ‘team player’, of course, those tireless defensive midfielders who create no chances but work only to make their teammates look better deserve to be included, too. But assists are one measurement of team ethic: and if you judge Ronaldo on that score, he is one of the most fitting ‘team players’ in the history of the Champions League.
And yet you also have to question why Ronaldo is as he is. Wanting to call him a team player throws up some uncomfortable difficulties: how do you explain the fact that the Action Man Ronaldo is the only person in that infamous team photo dressed down to his underwear and showing off his (admittedly stunning) physique?
How do you explain the fact that Ronaldo routinely stands on his tiptoes in team photos? How do you explain the fact that, when asked what it was like to mark Cristiano Ronaldo, Wolfsburg defender Bruno Henrique replied that the Portuguese spent the whole match staring at himself on the big screen?
How do you explain the quotes from last season where he lambasted his teammates for not being as good as he is?
There are so many examples to show that Ronaldo isn’t a ‘team player’, and yet the stats don’t back it up. The reason, I think, is that we read the situation wrongly almost every time.
Ronaldo makes it so easy to paint him as an individualistic narcissist that we forget football is a team game: if Ronaldo wants to win, he needs his team to win.
And that explains all of the above. If Ronaldo is a selfish goal machine, it’s because he trusts himself to do the scoring. But if he has the most assists in Champions League history, that probably has something to do with teammates being in better positions. It probably has a lot to do with trusting his teammate to score from that position more than he trusts himself in that moment.
And that’s the crux of the problem when it comes to reporting on Messi and Ronaldo: this isn’t about team versus individual, nor is it about natural talent versus hard work. It’s all about winning for the team. Because without that there are no individual accolades.
Both Ronaldo and Messi know that they are head and shoulders above the rest of the cast of superstar footballers, but how can anyone seriously think that one of the best footballers in the history of the sport is unaware that it’s a team game – or at least wishes it weren’t? In reality, he knows he’s the best player his team has, and he knows that he’s an asset for them. He knows he gives them a greater chance of victory.
And so if Ronaldo’s assist record surprises you, it’s probably because we’ve all entered into a situation where we misread what Cristiano Ronaldo is. An individual, sure. But an individual who makes his team that much better.