FIFA BALLON D'OR

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Messi-Ronaldo debate alive and well

Cristiano Ronaldo won't boycott FIFA Ballon d'Or
Cristiano Ronaldo won't boycott FIFA Ballon d'Or
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Or perhaps it’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? The Portuguese playboy prima-donna or the slouching Argentine quasi-recluse? The debate has veered into philosophical territory.

It’s a matter of preference that cuts to the core of the human condition. We recognize counterpoints to our own characters in each of them. Things to admire and deride -- flamboyancy and modesty; efficiency and excess -- and it’s terribly hard to tell who is the anti-hero and who the hero. Yet once again, a decision had to be made for Monday’s 2013 FIFA Ballon d’Or award, which anoints the world’s best player of the last year.

Only one can win -- the way Messi did in 2012, 2011 and 2010, and in 2009, back when the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or were still separate awards but he swept both. The way Ronaldo did in 2008, when he also scooped up both prizes.

There was no circumventing Messi in 2012. He’d just scored a preposterous 91 goals during the calendar year, almost certainly a world record -- we’re not entirely sure, since Zambia claims that one Godfrey Chitalu scored 107 times there in 1972.

But this year is a different story. There is no consensus on who is the better player; only that both are of a soaring transcendence. Ronaldo has plainly had the better year. Messi spent a sizable chuck of the year out with injuries. He first injured his left hamstring in April and labored through the rest of the season, noticeably out of sorts. In the new season, he injured his right thigh once in August and once in September, before the left hamstring injury returned in November and shelved him for the rest of the year.

That isn’t to say he wasn’t productive. He has already tallied eight league goals and scored six times in the Champions League. Ronaldo, however, has continued his torrid form apace. If he trailed Messi by a half-step in the previous four years, he doubtless had the upper hand in 2013. With 69 goals in 60 games for Real Madrid, his stratospheric scoring record alone sets him apart from the pack. That includes Messi, who scored 45 times in 46 games. Consider, too, that Ronaldo plays as more of a winger than does Messi, who is typically deployed as a roaming striker for Barca.

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Further buttressing Ronaldo’s candidacy is his performance in Portugal’s World Cup qualifying playoff with Sweden. He scored the lone goal in the first leg, and then all three in the 3-2 thriller that sent Portugal to Brazil, in spite of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s best attempts. Many argue that this feat alone merits the prize. And one has to dig pretty deep in the memory to recall a player dragging his side into the World Cup all by himself the way Ronaldo did.

Up until then, Bayern Munich and France’s Franck Ribéry had actually been the front-runner for the award. The dazzling winger had spearheaded his club’s thundering run to the Champions League-Bundesliga-German Cup treble. But, citing a low percentage of votes cast, FIFA decided to extend the deadline. And so the mantle of favorite was handed to Ronaldo. Ribéry was forgotten and suddenly it was back to the old equation between Ronaldo and his nemesis.

The argument has long since stopped being about stats and merit. The Messi-Ronaldo discourse doesn’t have much use for them. For one, both players play in the top-heavy La Liga, where Real and Barca practically score at will, rendering their towering scoring tallies somewhat irrelevant. Secondly, they are both talents of such an unprecedented sort that they caught us bereft of the tools to properly quantify and qualify their actions.

And they are, in the end, so very different. Aside from their comportment and off-field personas, their playing styles are as opposed as they can be within the confines of our fair game. Messi is the perfect cog in Barca’s near-perfect machinery of tiny passes, tidy through balls and up-close finishes. Ronaldo is the centerpiece of Real’s more bombastic assault of long balls, swooping crosses and swerving shots from distance.

Ronaldos and Messis. Apples and oranges.

Then there’s the ideological standoff between their clubs, which colors the entire dispute. For the most part, the emotions affixed to each player, whether it be fondness or loathing, follow your loyalties in the sectarian split that has defined the vitriolic Barca-Real rivalry for a century or so.

Voting for Messi or Ronaldo, then, is a matter of taste. And that’s how the national team coaches, captains and select members of the international media will have filled out their ballots. Which is just as well -- there is no empirical evidence to settle this debate anyway. So, merits be damned, there’s no predicting what will happen.

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