Members of the Real Madrid hierarchy have reportedly rated Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi as a superior talent to Los Blancos poster boy Cristiano Ronaldo, but club policy prevents them from admitting as much.
Ronaldo and Messi have long vied for status as the world's best, but despite their longstanding rivalry, the Daily Mail's Rob Draper alleged the Barca ace is preferred by some executives at the Santiago Bernabeu.
According to Draper, a shared fondness for Messi may even have helped encourage the sacking of Rafa Benitez earlier in January, which was linked with his failure to publicly call Ronaldo "the best player in the world":
Real Madrid are also acutely aware of Ronaldo's marketing worth to them. One executive said to Benitez: "Don't forget, Ronaldo can get us all sacked." And the club could be hypersensitive to the needs of Ronaldo, as is evident in the cover-up of Bale's transfer fee.
Benitez discovered as much when he referred to Ronaldo as "one of the best players in the world," to be greeted with consternation by Real Madrid officials after the press conference. Benitez was bemused because senior Madrid executives had talked often about Lionel Messi being the best in the world but the media officials had to inform him that publicly it was necessary to keep saying that Ronaldo was the best.
Those claims go a long way in detailing the kind of rare power Ronaldo boasts at Real, suggesting his influence as a player can allegedly dictate who keeps their job on the club's board.
Ronaldo's good mood is even thought to be so valued that the Telegraph's John Percy reported the club were "panicked" after news of Gareth Bale's true transfer value came to light, proven to be greater than Ronaldo's. The Guardian's Richard Whittall hinted he didn't believe those claims, however:
Real Madrid in supposed panic over how sensitive Ronaldo will be for not getting Bale's astronomical fees and wages...grow up.— Richard Whittall (@RWhittall) January 21, 2016
It's no secret that three-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo has long been the driving force at Real Madrid, winning every available club trophy in the six-and-a-half years he's been stationed at the Bernabeu.
However, the success he's enjoyed in the Spanish capital hardly compares with the haul Messi has collected in the same space of time. Most notably, Messi's record five Ballon d'Or awards have all been won since 2009, the year Ronaldo moved to Madrid.
Since moving to Spain, Ronaldo has won La Liga once, the Copa del Rey twice, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and more. He's also led the club to the fabled "La Decima," their 10th European Cup.
In the same space of time, Barcelona have won La Liga on four occasions, the Copa del Rey twice, two Champions League crowns, two FIFA Club World Cups, three Spanish Super Cups and two UEFA Super Cups.
Both Barcelona and Real have mighty squads capable of the greatest feats in football, but the trophy collections separating Messi and Ronaldo, though both vast, hardly compare on a team or individual scale.
Catalan newspaper Sport also revealed Messi's shirt was the highest seller of 2015, according to a study by World Soccer Shop, showing the Argentinian may also be the more powerful marketing tool.
Club allegiances run strong at the Bernabeu, but it appears even those in the upper echelons of Real Madrid's brotherhood can't help but admire the poster child of their most hated rivals.