1. Cristiano Ronaldo
At the end of the day, this decision comes down more to philosophy than anything else. Could you argue that Lionel Messi had a better 2016/17 than Cristiano Ronaldo? Sure. Did Ronaldo play with a better team? Yes. From August to February, was Lionel Messi unquestionably better? Certainly. So who had the better season, Ronaldo or Messi?
To answer this question, your philosophy of football doesn’t matter as much as your philosophy of life. As I mentioned in the last article, Messi was nearly perfect this season. Ronaldo wasn’t. So, let’s address this methodology, and why I deliberately put Cristiano Ronaldo #1.
Let’s take music as an example. Do people, decades after an album drops, remember the songs that had the most thought-provoking lyrics, and the most culturally relevant topics, or the songs with the most sales? Is “Yellow Submarine” a better song than “Tomorrow Never Knows?” The former is the one song on Revolver that nearly every millennial will recognize. The latter is one of the most influential songs of all time, from its backward guitar solo, to its trailblazing use of sampling. “Yellow Submarine” is clearly more memorable, but does that token of popularity weigh more than the influence and musical experimentation of “Tomorrow Never Knows”?
The great thing about The Beatles is, you can sing the former’s buoyant, child-friendly chorus with your nephew, and minutes later, bask in the latter’s musical glory, a sitar-speckled ode to LSD. So, wouldn’t the natural thing be to call it a tie, and appreciate both Messi and Ronaldo? That again, is a question of philosophy. In my 19 years, I’ve noticed that people are tribal. They get in the corner behind their guy, and yell their lungs out cheering him on. The ancient Romans didn’t want their gladiators to fight to a draw, they made them fight to the death. People don’t want to see Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed fight once and make up afterwards. No, they’d rather Rocky lose, have that desire for revenge fester in his mind, and then see Rocky win. So I’ll stop side-stepping around Nixon-era cultural references and explain why Cristiano Ronaldo is #1 on this list.
Cristiano Ronaldo fully deserves to be number one on this list. This isn’t a sham, Jorge Mendes (Ronaldo’s agent) did not hack into Breaking The Lines’ servers and change the results of the Top 50 list. Ronaldo won the league, the Champions League, and above all, our number one spot on the list through his own grit and skill.
Real Madrid never took a breather for the entire season, but it took a while for Ronaldo to settle into his head honcho role. For me, it all changed against Napoli. In both legs of Madrid’s Round of 16 tie with Napoli, Ronaldo did not score, but he ran the show, set up goals, and essentially “got his groove back.” We all know the rest of the story: Ronaldo scores five against Bayern in the quarterfinals, then three against Atlético in the semifinals, then two against Juventus in the final. On December 7, 2016, Messi had 10 Champions League goals in the 2016-17 competition. He finished with 11. On December 7, Ronaldo had 2 Champions League goals. He finished with 12. On December 7, Ronaldo had 3 Ballon d’Ors, and Messi had 5. In less than six months, Ronaldo will have 5. Everyone loves a scrappy comeback kid.
Except, when it comes to Ronaldo, everyone hates him. Until a short time ago, I used to hate him, too. I mean, he has the best team in the world, he has the best midfield in Europe, and all he has to do is just tap it into the back of the net. How hard can that be?
First of all, nothing is more difficult in football than goalscoring. Not passing, not crossing, not defending. When you take into account the psychological pressure, the split second you have to make an impact, and the drastic impact it can have if your first touch is too heavy, or if the ball reaches your head at a higher point than expected. It’s like golf. Everyone loves using the driver, but if you hit it a degree off your original target, the ball will reach a hundred feet away from your intended target. Use a 5-wood, which, for the sake of complicated, intersports comparisons, is the square pass of golf, and the ball will only be a few feet off the marker.
There’s a reason why goalscorers get paid the most, why they get the most Ballon d’Ors, and why Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s most important player over the likes of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. Goals win games. Goals bring in trophies and money, goals make players into legends and give audiences something to cherish for the rest of their lives. Above all, important goals. Cristiano Ronaldo did not “stat-pad” against the minnows this season. Against Sporting Lisbon, Napoli, and Legia Warsaw, he scored one goal in six games. Against Bayern, Juventus and Atlético, he scored 10 goals in five games. Moreover, against Málaga, Ronaldo turned final matchday “drama” into a mere formality, scoring the opener in the 2nd minute, sealing the title for Real Madrid. If the thought was that Ronaldo would win the Pichichi by racking up points against the Schalkes and Deportivos of the footballing world, this was the season that Ronaldo collected all the narratives and defenestrated them into a blazing fire.
It’s a joy to see Neymar samba his way through opposing defenses until a skittish right back slams him down for a penalty. It’s a delight to see Zlatan recreate a Bruce Lee stunt and end up scoring. It’s the 8th natural wonder of the world to see Lionel Messi slice open a defense with impeccable dribbling or a pitch-perfect through ball. However, train your mind to focus on the player rather than the ball, and you’ll find beauty in a Cristiano one-touch finish. He’ll run one way, and instantly change direction to throw the defender off. He’ll fake a slant run, or collapse into a center back before pushing off to grab that late header. This is more than just a fake shot because it looks sexy. This is his livelihood.
The best managers build their systems around their team’s strengths. Zinedine Zidane built his Real Madrid side around crossing because of Cristiano Ronaldo, and it’s gotten him five trophies in his first 18 months of coaching. Ronaldo cannot take out five players with a dribble; it isn’t suited to his physique, and it isn’t necessary either. He will make a difference through his scoring, which, even though it may seem simplistic, hinges on his intelligence and talent.
Cristiano Ronaldo escaped the Valley of Ashes, a racing heart condition, and a period of serial underachieving, to live to see another day. From 2009 to 2011, Messi cemented a European dynasty with the two best midfielders on the planet. Ronaldo could only sit and watch his rival’s domination, as he was forced to drag teammates far inferior to him into title races they had no business being in. Sound familiar?
“Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes,” –Virginia Woolf, 1938.
We could argue over the merits of my methodology — there will always be a voice in the back of my mind telling me I got it wrong — but I stand by my philosophy. My alarm clock will always ring again, the sun will always rise again, and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will continue to fight for this honor until the end of the world.
By: Zach Lowy/@ZCalcio