There are few things better than a sports rivalry. Two world-class athletes at the top of their games, playing unique styles, vying to become the best, pushing each other to be better. The fans get treated to unbelievable competition at the highest level while the sport undergoes an evolution, as children dream and train to become like the competitors, and others try to figure out ways to stop them.
In golf, there was the rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, which attracted fans to their television sets and provided some of the greatest moments in golf history. In boxing, there was the epic rivalry between the flamboyant and elusive Muhammad Ali and the hard-hitting Joe Frazier, which spanned their three bouts and shaped the culture of the time. In tennis, there was the rivalry between the quiet champion Bjorn Borg and the crass young John McEnroe, which caused the sport to have a radical spike in popularity; further, there was the more recent rivalry between the classical talents of Roger Federer and the energetic style of young Rafael Nadal, which invoked a renaissance in the sport.
So where does the world of football fit into this? Before a few years ago, it really didn't.
If you hadn't noticed, all of the examples above involve individual sports. Hence, it is in those games' natures to have players compete with each other and form personal rivalries.
In team sports, on the other hand, team rivalries reign supreme while individual rivalries are not nearly as prevalent. Sure, there are a few exceptions, what with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the NBA and so on, but football had never seen the likes of a personal rivalry. I mean, the closest it had ever come to such a thing was the war of words between Brazilian legend Pele and Argentine great Diego Maradona. However, the two had enjoyed the primes of their careers at least 16 years apart.
But that has all changed now.
On Sunday, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona played to a 2-2 draw in Barcelona's Camp Nou in the first of their two Spanish La Liga meetings this season. Lionel Messi scored both of Barca's goals, and Cristiano Ronaldo scored both of Madrid's. At the end of the match, both sides shook hands and accepted the draw, which means that Barca remains eight points clear at the top of La Liga. For Ronaldo and Messi, though, the match marked yet another insanely dazzling display, all but cementing their rivalry as the best in sports today and one of the greatest of all time.
It all started a little over four years ago in the final of the 2008-09 Champions League.
Cristiano Ronaldo, 24, was the established star, using his speed, tricks and cannon of a free kick to guide his Manchester United side to their second consecutive Champions League final. If they won, it would mark the first time a club had repeated as champions.
Standing in front of them was a young Barcelona side, with the budding star of 22-year-old Lionel Messi leading them. Messi and Barcelona did things quite differently from Ronaldo and United, incorporating the newfound tiki-taka tactic to utilize their short-passing and smarts, forcing their opponents into submission through possession.
That match in Rome was to be Messi's true arrival on the big stage, as he headed in the second goal to assure a Barca victory. From there, the rivalry took off.
Ronaldo moved to Barcelona's archrival, Real Madrid, and in the process became the most expensive footballer ever. Meanwhile, Messi stayed at Barcelona and continued to build chemistry with his teammates.
In 2010-11, Messi won the trophies while Ronaldo scored a record number of goals. In 2011-12, Ronaldo won the trophies while Messi scored a record number of goals.
Ronaldo won a Ballon d'Or. Messi won three.
Ronaldo won a Champions League. Messi won two.
In this team sport, their rivalry has, quite incredibly, transcended their teams. Anyone who attended, or even just watched the friendly between Portugal and Argentina last year can attest to this.
The debate over who is the better player has taken over all discussion of the sport, as they have so far surpassed everyone else that they are thought to be in a stratosphere of their own. For some, the inventiveness and honed guile of Messi makes him the clear winner, while others argue that the raw talent and pure mechanics of Ronaldo are more impressive.
It all came to a head Sunday, as they hit their dueling braces to finish the match in a stalemate. An El Clasico (the name given to the legendary encounters between Barcelona and Real Madrid) was taken over by two men so possessed that they made nearly everyone else's place on the pitch look pointless. (Honestly, when Pedro burst in on goal for that last chance, I thought, "He can't possibly score because it's not Messi.")
Given the fact that neither Ronaldo nor Messi is over 27 years of age, this rivalry still has quite some time left in it.
It's a competition the likes of which the sport has never seen, and one that could just shape its future.
So on to the question that everyone wants to know: Who's better?
My take: Who cares? Just like with all great rivalries, we should, above all, appreciate both competitors and the fact that we're privileged enough to witness their battles.
Here's hoping they just keep coming.
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