If it’s by now well known how much Cristiano Ronaldo used to obsess about Lionel Messi, there’s a story that illustrates that it was never anywhere near as one-way as was often presumed.
It was January 2015 and Barcelona had mostly been enduring another of those chaotic crisis seasons, to the point that a rift between Messi and Luis Enrique saw the new manager want to take the unprecedented step of punishing the greatest star. Sensing the potential for further problems, Xavi Hernandez sought to speak to all the key players individually to try and sort it out. And, within some stern enough words for Messi about the need for some rapprochement, there was one question that stood out. Xavi specifically asked whether the Argentine was happy to see Ronaldo up there again winning the Ballon d’Or, because that’s what would happen again if Barca didn’t get their act together.
Except, Barca did get it together and accumulated all the major trophies together as they won a treble, and Messi produced perhaps the best season of his career to also win that Ballon d’Or. There were of course many elements to this, not least a transformation of his physical preparation, but the psychological edge provided by such a rival really can’t be downplayed. Their evolution over the past nine years seems such clean evidence of how an “enemy” – to use the Nikki Lauda/James Hunt term – can really take an athlete further, can be that final decisive factor.
The point here is not to once again discuss and debate this duopoly of the last nine years, but instead wonder about what’s next now that it’s gone. Because this is now what’s really interesting, but has oddly almost been underplayed since Ronaldo’s move to Juventus.
La Liga has lost its most intense driving dynamic, one that lasted for a very long time, and was arguably unique in football history. Beyond anything else, it’s just never happened that two players performing to such a high level played in such close proximity for such a long time.
Run through those considered the greatest ever and their main rivals at the time. Johan Cruyff never played in the same division as Franz Beckenbauer, while Pele never really had any rival worthy of the title in his many years at Santos. A peak Diego Maradona did come across a peak Marco van Basten for around three compelling years in Serie A, but that was in a ludicrously lavish league that still had too many variables, as was the case with Alfredo Di Stefano and Ladislao Kubala with Real Madrid-Barca in the 1950s.
And the Messi-Ronaldo predecessors point to one other reason why this represents such a profound historical juncture point.
The Madrid-Barca rivalry may well be football’s most intense, because of both the depth of feeling but also how often they directly compete, and that has only escalated over the last few years with Ronaldo and Messi bringing it to levels it can probably never go again. They personified this escalation, distilling it, bringing it right down – or up – to the individual.
And to illustrate it in the purest terms, how many Clasicos were decided by a moment of brilliance from one of them? The absence of one of them could now well leave something of a vacuum.
There is first of all the vacuum in Madrid’s team, an issue only emphasised by the fact president Florentino Perez wants two Galacticos to replace Ronaldo. The ideal would be for those to be two of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Eden Hazard but the reality is all of those look almost impossible to complete this summer. Madrid may have to resort to “place-holding” stars like Robert Lewandowski, and moves that would feel like they’re just keeping things together rather moving into an exciting new era.
As good as Ronaldo was for Messi, mind, there should be no real expectation of any negative effect of him. One other undermentioned aspect of their rivalry was how it had no negative effect on Messi’s domestic medal haul. He emphatically won their duel in the league, his brilliance literally became routine as Barca were the routine champions, claiming six of the nine titles while Ronaldo was in Spain.
This could mean it’s another procession of a victory for the Catalans, or could open the way for Atletico Madrid again. Amid all of this noise elsewhere, they have quietly gone about very clever business.
As regards the league as a whole, mind, it opens the way for more storylines, more intrigue. As sensational as the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly was, it suffocated all discussion as much as the rest of the competition.
And there’s only Messi left, but that leaves an awful lot of space for something maybe not as special, but possibly interesting in a different way.