Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Legends of the modern game.
“When the legends die, the dreams end; there is no more greatness.“
They are the people who romanticise our sport, the superstars who had us glued to our television screens, the heroes we tried to emulate. Whether it be Romario, Baggio, Van Basten or Papin, they were our legends, beloved by millions, respected by all. Memories were created by these performers, generations inspired and with each passing moment their legend grows greater and greater. They were the past though, today we have a new bunch of superstars but has time changed? Will the youth of today be looking back in twenty years with such admiration? Will the legends of our time be remembered as legend at all?
I raise this question with one particular man in mind, Barcelona and Argentina superstar Lionel Messi. A player who plays for his team, with a smile on his face and breaks every footballing record put before him. Not only is Messi regarded as the best player in the World right now, he is arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen. An inoffensive player, uncontroversial, unselfish and without a huge ego, Messi should be the ultimate footballing icon, beloved by all, but this isn’t really the case. It seems football has changed, or at least the way the general public view it and the players who perform for them. ‘Club vs country’ and the hype generated by media platforms before and after games has created a tribal club atmosphere where a number of fans refuse to appreciate any player who has wronged their club, or been part of a team that has. With the example of Lionel Messi, I have spoken to a number of Arsenal fans who refuse to appreciate his talents, this is undoubtedly connected to his 4 goal destruction of their side in 2010. Real Madrid fans are also critical of the Barcelona forward due to their club rivalry, and as an Argentina international Messi is on the end of regular barbed comments from Brazilian nationals.
It's the same for Lionel Messi’s great rival to the title of ‘best in the World’, Cristiano Ronaldo. Fans of English clubs remember him from his Manchester United days, Barcelona fans criticise because of his Madrid performances, and the Portuguese star is often labelled as egocentric and self-absorbed. But is that really fair? Is the ego of Cristiano any bigger than that of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff? Is he any more self-absorbed than George Best? Yet both of those players are considered when discussing the greatest of all time. With his goal scoring record and list of trophies won, Cristiano Ronaldo, like Messi, should be also considered in that bracket. But in the current climate it’s difficult to see the heroes of our time being held up in the same regard as those of the past, the game is full of too much negativity.
Now you might say, “players have always been criticised”, and that is true, but that critique has not generated such ferocity and hatred as it currently does. An example of this is German World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann, who in the 1993/94 Champions League semi-final cheated with a theatrical dive that caused a red card for Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta, costing the Italian a place in the final. There was outrage at first over these actions, and when the German striker moved to Tottenham the following year the initial reaction to his diving was negative. Yet within a few months it had all been forgotten, Klinsmann became one the most popular figures in the Premier League, even mocking his diving in celebrations. Opposition fans applauded the striker, he received awards for his displays and when he left England’s shores he had received appreciation for his efforts from all corners. Compare that now with another forward who has been accused of cheating his opponents, Luis Suárez. The Uruguayan is borderline despised by opposition fans, loved deeply by his own club’s supporters because of his World class quality, but dismissed as a cheat by others. If Klinsmann was a player in this era, I feel he would fall firmly into the same situation as Suárez, no longer universally loved and admired, but labelled a cheat and vilified at every turn.