They are monsters. Leonel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo took over our world – our football world, and they won’t let go. For a decade, no one has been able to realistically challenge them. Indeed, some fans know nothing other than a world dominated by the Ronaldo-Messi axis, stretching from Madrid to Catalonia. The pair have shattered records, and set new ones, only to break them again. Whenever we think we’ve seen their superhuman best, they come out to outdo themselves. It’s a perpetual pattern, and one that has brought unrivaled joy to observers of the game around the world.
A decade of dominance
The last time a player other than Messi or Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or was in 2007. Kaka ruled the world then, but Ronaldo and Messi queued closely behind him in second and third place, primed to take over. Sure enough, Ronaldo took over in 2008, in a season which saw the Portuguese break both George Best’s and Denis Law’s goal scoring records for Manchester United. That year, he famously helped the club to both the Premier League and the Champions League trophies. He emerged as the top scorer in the latter competition.
Ronaldo was subsequently named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year, and the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year. It was all deserved. It was so good Barcelona Legend, Johann Cruyff, remarked that “Ronaldo is better than George Best and Denis Law, who were two brilliant and great players in the history of United”. Little did he know that it was only the beginning.
His nemesis was to take over in 2009 as the Argentine helped Barcelona to the treble of the Copa del Rey, La Liga title and Champions League trophy — the first time a Spanish club achieved such a feat. Messi was just 22, but who could deny him of both the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year? He had them all to himself. And if that was not enough, he went ahead to claim the awards for the next three seasons in succession. He broke and set records in the process, including the European and La Liga records for the most goals scored by a player in a single season. Ronaldo was to come back into the fray in 2013 winning the golden ball again for two consecutive seasons before being interrupted by Messi (who else?). The cycle went on interrupted.
All good things must come to an end
As the World Cup approaches and their achievements come full circle in 2018, it is becoming that clear the duo’s days of dominance are coming to an end. For the first time in over a decade, the extraordinary duo seems to have genuine competitors to their shared throne atop the summit of world football.
In the close season, Messi scored 50 goals in all competition for club and country. Ronaldo scored 45, while Mohamed Salah and Neymar Jr. scored 46 and 28 respectively. But for the league and Champions League, Salah came out top with 42 strikes followed by Ronaldo with 41. Messi was next with 40, and Neymar followed with 25. But recall that Neymar was injured for over three months in the season, which affected his numbers.
At 30 and 33, age is now beginning to set in for Messi and Ronaldo. But at 25 and 26, Salah and Neymar are still in their primes. The 2018/2019 season, therefore, promises to be different as they both appear to have come of age to finally challenge the duopoly. With the Egyptian getting his name into the history books in the Premier League, as well as through helping Liverpool to the Champions League final in Kiev, more can be expected next season. Neymar on his part was by far the best player in a Paris Saint-Germain side that won the double in France. He was fittingly named Ligue 1’s Player of the Year as well.
Signs of slowing down
Messi and Ronaldo have already started showing signs of slowing down. The Argentine performed below par in the Champions League scoring only 6 goals in 10 matches. He even played the full 90 minutes as Barcelona got knocked out of the UCL losing 3-0 to Roma. His impact on the game was unusually minimal. But that was not for the first time in the season or in the competition. That could mean that diminishing returns are now setting in. Ronaldo, on the other hand, performed (relatively) poorly in the league. He scored only 26 goals, the lowest he has scored in as many seasons. At 33 that is normal for any player as he is not getting any younger.
But on the contrary, both Salah and Neymar are on the upward climb in performance. They’ll get even better next season. And just like they both won the player of the year in their respective leagues in the close season, they will stake a claim for the golden ball next season. And may the best man win.