People love to compare the sport's best players.
From the days of Pele, to the years of Maradona, then the reign of Zidane, soccer has seen some phenomenal athletes. In modern times, we are blessed enough to see two players who make the case for being all-time greats: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Debate will ensue for years about who the better player is, and while recent performances may lead some to believe Messi is the world's best, you can never write off Ronaldo.
The biggest problem I see when comparing Messi and Ronaldo occurs in five key comparisons that simply do not work.
Prolific is one of the best words to describe Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. They both have easily outscored the rest of the world's best players. Two consecutive seasons of over 50 goals for both players. In 2012, we saw record-breaking performances from both players: Messi becoming Barcelona's all-time leading scorer, Ronaldo scoring 100 goals faster than any Madrid player ever.
It's a natural inclination to want to differentiate the two players based on the goals they've scored because of how prolific they are. It's a simple statistic that many feel sheds light into who the better player is.
This season, Messi holds a strong edge in goals scored, having netted 68 across 49 appearances for a ratio of 1.39. By comparison, Ronaldo has 53 goals in 46 competitions for a ratio of 1.15. Both incredible, but Messi's better..right? Well...
The problem with the goals scored stat is that it doesn't account for a lot of factors. For one, while Messi's ratio is currently better, it's not better across the previous two seasons, standing at .88 compared to Ronaldo's .90 ratio.
One might be argue that Messi's goal scoring rate is higher than Ronaldo's over their respective careers, but there are two driving factors for this.
The first is that Ronaldo has played his entire career on the wing, spending many years acting as a true winger (one who brings the ball forward and delivers a cross or pass to the striker). He wasn't meant to be the biggest goalscorer.
In contrast, Messi plays centrally and in the years he played wide, he had to cut into the center. That's not Messi's fault, though, as Barcelona just hasn't been great aerially the past few years. They've also had problems keeping strikers (just ask Ibrahimovic and Eto'o who are both world class), so Messi has had to assert himself as a principal scorer.
The second and more important factor is that they play for different teams. Ronaldo's played in three different leagues for three different teams across his career. He's had to adjust to new teammates, new offenses and new playing styles.
At United, he had no real playmakers to set him up. The midfield was hardly the most creative in the world, and the style of the Premier League is rougher and more aggressive.
Looking at Messi, he's been at one club his whole life, which is admirable. He's gotten the benefit of years of play with the same teammates. He has arguably the best midfield in the world behind him and has for years. He should be expected to score more.
Another area people love to compare Messi and Ronaldo is team contributions. Again, they look at the stats.
This season, Messi's tallied 18 assists to Ronaldo's 13 and is currently tied for second in Europe in league assists. Last season, Messi had 22 assists when Ronaldo had 14. And the season before that, Messi had 11 assists and Ronaldo had seven.
If that weren't enough, Messi completes 86 percent of his passes while Ronaldo completes 80 percent, and Messi passes on average 30 times more per game. Followers of the rivalry will even say that you can see the difference between the two players in the fact that Ronaldo is content to shoot from 40 yards out rather than look for the pass, whereas Messi will always look for his teammates.
That sounds pretty good. So Messi is the better teammate, right?
Well, again, there are several factors that help Messi here.
Again, we're dealing with comparing players at two different positions. Playing centrally, Messi should be expected to pass more and spread out the defense. He can see more of the field because of where he's playing and he has teammates on all sides of him. Passing makes sense.
In contrast, Ronaldo is out wide. He's the fastest player on his team and many times leaves his teammates in the dust as he advances down field. From the wing, the passing opportunities are fewer, which is why you will see Ronaldo drop back to Marcelo so very often.
He averages less passes because he gets fewer touches. Both offenses build up play centrally. For Barcelona, that's through Xavi and Messi. For Madrid, that's through Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil. Ronaldo can't be expected to contribute as much, and not surprisingly, he doesn't.
Who is more important to his respective team? People from both camps love to argue that without one of the players, their teams would fall apart.
The argument is not surprising, but what is is the number of people who believe Madrid are more dependent on Ronaldo.
How often do we hear the media comment that Madrid need Ronaldo to perform well if Madrid hope on winning? How often are losses blamed on the Portuguese winger, especially in El Clasicos?
If you look at Messi though, it's clear that Barcelona are more in need of him. On a world scale, Barcelona are more dependent on Messi to score than Arsenal are on Robin van Persie to score. Messi accounts for 44 percent of Barcelona's team goals compared to 40 percent for RVP, and don't forget assists where Messi also leads his team.
If you look at Barcelona's record, they are clearly weakest on the road. They've drawn five and lost two away from Camp Nou. Not surprisingly, Messi is half the man we know him as when he's on the road, having tallied just 13 goals and four assists, incredible for any other man but weak for Messi. Compare that to his home numbers (28 goals, 10 assists) and you begin to see why Barcelona suffer on the road.
What of Ronaldo? He accounts for 38 percent of his team's goals and has strong help from the likes of Gonzalo Higuain (21 goals, 20 percent of team's goals) and Karim Benzema (18 goals, 17 percent of team's goals). Barcelona's next best scorer is Alexis Sanchez with 10 goals for just 9 percent of his team's goals.
Barcelona are quite simply over-reliant on Messi. While you might think that Messi's ability to carry Barca shows he is a better player, it could arguably mean the opposite. By far Barcelona's most important player, Messi gets more touches than Ronaldo and has more opportunities to pass or shoot, and yet he has just three more assists in league and the same amount of goals.
Too often I read about a key difference between Ronaldo and Messi being their attitudes. Ronaldo's arrogant, he's headstrong, a sore loser. Messi is the poster child of modesty. He is quiet and draws little media attention for his off-field actions. While I agree that this are fairly accurate descriptions of both players, I just have one question:
Why does it matter that Ronaldo is cocky and Messi is not? You might like Ronaldo less as a result, but that doesn't mean he's not as good.
Look at other sports. In the NBA, one of the single most arrogant figures in Kobe Bryant. He's completely unlikeable: a ball hog, hot-tempered, even accused of rape. But does that affect his standing as a basketball player? No. And for years he was viewed as the best player in the NBA despite his attitude.
Messi is arguably the most naturally talented player in history. He's beaten the odds of a growth deficiency to develop into one of the world's best. And he's humble. That's fine.
Ronaldo was not supposed to be one of the best in the world. There was a time when people thought Quaresma would be Portugal's star winger. Ronaldo is the single hardest worker in the sport and has fought hard to earn the title of world's best. How can you blame him for being cocky?
By far one of the most common arguments people use to contrast Messi from Ronaldo is the difference in trophies.
Messi has more La Liga titles and Champions League titles, so he's better, right?
It might just be me on this, but that logic is ludicrous. League and European titles are indicative of team quality. Over the past few years, Barcelona might very well have been better than Real Madrid. If not for the current league table and the fact that both are a goal down going into their second Champions League legs, I would be more inclined to say Barcelona are the better team currently.
If silverware was really was about individuals, then Messi should be able to find better success at the international level. The fact of the matter is, Argentina is not a exceptional World Cup force, and so despite Messi's immense talent, the World Cup might be out of his grasp for his entire career. That's not a fault on him.
But what about the hallowed Ballon d'Or, the award given to the best player in Europe? Admittedly Messi holds the edge, but as much as we like to think that the Ballon d'Or is an individual's award, it has a very large team component to it. Do you honestly believe if Madrid had won the league and Champions League in 2011 that Messi would still have his third Ballon d'Or?
Of course not. And should Madrid win the Champions League and La Liga this year, you should fully expect Ronaldo to claim his second Ballon d'Or.
Before you are two of the greatest players to ever grace the pitch. They have supremely different styles of play and succeed phenomenally with their respective teams.
In the future when their careers are done, we'll be able to look back and tell who the better player was, but for now, let's just appreciate what we get to see this incredible talents do every week.