For all that links the two, there are many differences between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, not just as players, but as people do. Of course, much of what we know about the character of the duo comes through the prism of public perception. It’s difficult to know what is real and what is merely brand image, but it’s fair to adjudge that Messi and Ronaldo are very different people.
Ronaldo, for instance, is always very public about his desire to win the Ballon d’Or. He expresses his disgruntlement when he doesn’t win it, this year claiming the “numbers do not lie” as he was beaten to the accolade by former Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric. Messi, on the other hand, kept his silence, as he always does.
And yet there’s reason to believe he too felt slighted by the award of the 2018 Ballon d’Or to Modric. Since being voted the fifth best player in world football for the past year, Messi has scored five goals in two starts, also contributing three assists. He has been simply unplayable, with his performance against Levante last weekend one of his best ever.
Something has certainly lit a fire underneath Messi these past two weeks or so, with some pointing out that his surge in form also coincided with comments made by Pele, who labelled the Argentinian one-footed and incapable of heading a ball.
Whatever it is, 2019 already feels like it will be Messi’s year for revenge. He has already spoken of his burning desire to lift the Champions League trophy again, given that it will have been four long years since Barcelona were last European champions when May rolls around, but after the Ballon d’Or snub he was dealt, on top of Pele’s remarks, there is now a personal aspect to Messi’s motivation.
Of course, at 31 Messi must he careful not to push himself too hard. This is where Ernesto Valverde has a duty to his player. Last season, Zinedine Zidane rested Ronaldo more than the Portuguese forward probably would have liked. This preserved him for the games that really mattered, though, and undoubtedly played a part in Real Madrid going on to win their third successive Champions League title. Valverde must use Messi in a similar way.
If he can do that, Messi could be set for the best year of his career. The pressures of the World Cup weighed down Messi in 2018, wiping the smile off his face. At times, it was painful to watch. There will be a Copa America in 2019, but it’s not yet certain that Messi will actually play in it. Taking into account all that he has faced playing for Argentina over the years it would be understandable if he were to miss this one out.
It’s possible that years from now we will look back in retrospect and question how anyone could possibly be given a Ballon d’Or ahead of Messi. He is the player of our generation. Nobody can do on a football pitch what he can. Messi should be celebrated every time he crosses the white line. In a way, it is a mark of his sheer brilliance that he has made his genius mundane.
Modric won the 2018 Ballon d’Or not because he was the best player in world football this year, but because he was pushed forward through football’s collective desperation for a new king to be crowned. We wanted a new story. Something different to talk about.
Messi looks determined to restore a familiar narrative in 2019, though. Barcelona, despite their collection of league titles and cups, have underachieved in recent years. This is a club defined by its European honours more than anything else. Whether it’s a Ballon d’Or or a Champions League title, or both, Messi already has his eyes set firmly on the prize for next year.
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