Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are well established as the two premier players of the current generation. The battle between supporters of the pair, however, to determine who is the greatest can be at times vitriolic and intense, fueled by the clubs that the Argentine and the Portugal star represent.
Messi and Ronaldo are the figureheads of Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, and the comparison between the two is far too often used as just another battleground to continue this most hateful and historical of rivalries.
Over years the players in question have adopted various ways of dealing with the constant competition, renewed every year in La Liga and a variety of tournaments. Messi has many times attempted to play down the rivalry on a personal level between the two, recently heaping praise on the Los Merengues sharpshooter in an interview with Time Magazine:
I think he's a good person. I think he's a good player, who brings a lot to Madrid, and who, in any moment, can decide a game.
I don't think [there is a rivalry]. I never really fixated on him or compared myself with another player. My mentality is just to achieve more each year, to grow both as an individual and as a team, and if he wasn't there, I'd be doing the same thing.
Ronaldo, on the other hand—perhaps inevitably given his more bombastic media presence in comparison with the more retiring Messi—has raised the subject of who is the more complete footballer on certain occasions. Talking to CNN in 2012, the Madrid man may have only been half joking when he gave his answer to the question: who is the best?
At the moment ... I think it is me (laughs).
You cannot compare a Ferrari with a Porsche because it's a different engine. You cannot compare them. He does the best things for Barcelona, I do the best things for Madrid.
I think we push each other sometimes in the competition, this is why the competition is so high. This is why Madrid and Barcelona are the best teams in the world because everyone pushes each other, not just me and Messi but other players.
But who truly deserves to be recognised as the most talented player on the planet? Looking over every aspect of each star's game, the truth is, at times it is almost too close to call.
Since the appearance of Messi and Ronaldo on the scene, La Liga's Pichichi trophy for top scorer has only been about two players. Perhaps driven on, as Ronaldo alludes to, by the need to make both themselves and their team evermore formidable, the two stars have taken hitting the back of the net to new, almost unimaginable levels.
The numbers barely separate them. Messi has netted 315 goals in 381 games for Barcelona, since making his debut back in the 2004/05 season. Ronaldo averages a perfect one per game in Merengue ranks, with 201 in 201.
This would appear to give the Portuguese a slight edge, but take into account that Messi's total includes the first four seasons of his professional career, when even as a precocious teenager he was still learning his trade.
This was a phase also experienced by his rival, who was in his sixth year as a professional when first recording a goal every two games in league football.
Ronaldo is the consummate poacher in front of goal and strong enough to make him a fearsome prospect for any defence. Messi's ability to score from across the pitch, however, and coolness in defining shots, means that he comes out as the best goalscorer in this analysis.
Ronaldo began life in football as a lanky teenager often thrown off the ball, but he began an incredible metamorphosis in his time at Manchester United. At 6'1" and with an imposing presence, he blends pace and power to mark himself as one of the most perfect physical specimens in world football.
The Rosario native, too, had to battle to make the grade. Diagnosed at 11 with a growth hormone deficiency, it is unlikely that Messi could have become the player he is today if Barcelona had not spotted his potential and promised him the medication that neither hometown club Newell's Old Boys nor local giants River Plate could afford.
The diminutive forward (at 5'7") has the mark of Diego Maradona in his game: a low centre of gravity and a strong core that allows him to shrug off challenges from even the toughest of defenders. There is no doubt, though, that in purely physical terms, he trails his towering rival.
Talent on the ball
Watching grainy images of the teenage Sporting wonderkid on his way to Manchester United back in 2003, those far off days before YouTube served as a highlight reel for any young player in the world, was illuminating. Ronaldo appeared equipped with fearsome dribbling skills which, allied to his pace, made him a prospect to watch very closely indeed.
In truth, however, the striker was never a Ronaldinho or a Maradona (or indeed, a Messi) with the ball at his feet. It was only when the stepovers, lollipops and attempted dribbles followed by theatrical dives were cut out of his game that he really became one of the best in the world.
In contrast, Messi's game is inextricably linked with his skills on the ball, as is common with so many young Argentines who learn their trade jinking on potholed wasteland and quiet suburban streets.
The Barcelona man never uses his dribbling abilities when there is no need; a quick flick here, a lightning turn there and suddenly he is clean through on goal. This talent for dribbling, and most importantly the foresight to know when to use it best, puts him ahead of CR7.
A man blessed with all the electrifying talent that the great Diego Maradona had, but without the ego or God complex that went with it; Messi is really something special in the world of football. The soft-spoken star does not court headlines, and this is what makes him such an asset for both Barcelona and Argentina.
For this reason, Messi provides almost as many assists as he does goals, working brilliantly with the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to form football's most formidable trio. Those qualities, plus the impeccable example he lends to team-mates, prompted Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella to make Messi national team captain almost as soon as he took over.
From the evidence of the last two years, that arrangement has been to the benefit of both Messi and La Albiceleste.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, has been burdened with the reputation of being an egotistical player who likes to make the headlines himself.
While rather unfair, there is some reason behind that tag. In interviews, while his rival goes to great lengths to put the team above his own performances, the Portuguese star has no problem with highlighting if things went his way or not.
When they don't, Cristiano can look put-out, petulant and disinterested in what is unfolding before him on the pitch. Public displays of intransigence, such as the infamous "I am sad" outburst back in September 2012 as reported by the Guardian, have marked the striker as a man who looks out for No. 1.
The Final Verdict
In some ways, Cristiano Ronaldo suffers from rotten luck. Strong, quick, deadly in front of goal and with the ability to do the spectacular and clean up from close in order to score, in most generations he would undoubtedly be lauded as a cut above the rest.
Unfortunately for him, he shares the credits and La Liga with Messi. Both the Argentine's talents and his humble approach put him slightly above the Madrid star and leave no doubt that he is the best player on the planet.