“The question of our times” is often thrown around at bars, universities, and kitchen tables between drunks, scholars, friends, and you and me. It might might take different forms, but its nature is always the same: it’s a question that we all have an answer to, but to which there is no real answer.
There isn’t really a universal question of our times, but there are specific ones in specific areas. In football, there is no debate about what that question is: Messi or Ronaldo, who is better?
A majority of the world would say Messi, but that majority is not overwhelming. Ronaldo is the current holder of the Ballon d’Or and last season he scored 3 more goals than Messi in all competitions. Those are accomplishments that will always carry weight in an argument, even in the face of Messi winning his second treble.
Accomplishments and statistics are some of the few ways in which fans like you or I can judge these players. We see them play all of the time, but we never actually play with them. We really don’t know who is harder to defend, who is more likely to finish a pass, because we have never defended or passed to either of them.
So when Barcelona’s Dani Alves, one of the best right-backs of this generation, weighs in on the question of our times, it matters.
He has a working knowledge of what it’s like to play against these two all-time greats: he is teammates with Messi, and Ronaldo plays for Barcelona’s arch nemesis, Real Madrid. Alves understands the nuances of what separates these players from the pack in ways that we, as fans, could never know, and his words reflect that deeper understanding.
"Messi is much better than Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi influences the game, Cristiano doesn't. He doesn't influence the game beyond scoring goals and being involved in a few actions.”
"Messi is influential - he plays, scores and makes assists. Messi has a divine gift, Cristiano is about work".
Influence, that is what it all comes down to.
Alves doesn’t focus on who scores the most goals or who wins the most trophies; he doesn’t care about who has the most international success. He just talks about influence, and he talks about it because his ability as a defender gives him more knowledge about the subtleties of the game than maybe a hundred people in the world.
Alves knows that Messi is better than any other player for the same reason that you and I know that football is better than any other sport: the small things. Messi moves here at the right time, places a pass there so the defender cannot reach it, shifts his weight in just such a way that he can shield the ball while moving past the defender. Alves is saying that all of those small things add up to an ability to influence a match in ways that Ronaldo simply cannot match.
It almost makes you want to pity Ronaldo.
Then you remember that he still managed to score 3 more goals than Messi last year, found a lost phone and took 4 stunning women out to dinner because of it, and that he just might be the best looking man in the world.
Hard work counts for something, I guess, even if it can’t make him the best footballer in the world.
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