In his book Born Standing Up, Steve Martin describes working one of his first jobs. He writes that the experience was so good that it brought about something that should not exist: “nostalgia for the present.”
The contradiction here is obvious: You should never know the moments you’ll long for when they are happening. Moments pass, subsequent moments reshape their meaning, and then, some years later, you decide what’s important. For about a century, this has been especially true in sports. The prime of a great athlete is usually so short — even Michael Jordan lasted just a decade at the top, give or take — and there are no clear markers at the beginning, since stars can be made in an instant, or the end, since the signs of decline are subtle, so everything feels urgent. We’ll shape the myths later on. With every news story that makes it seem more likely that Tiger Woods will never win again, the 2008 U.S. Open becomes a better tournament.
Legend-building isn’t done in real time. At least, it wasn’t — until now.
In the current era of sports, the best players achieved superstardom in the same way as any other generation, but now they are staying there for longer than ever before, becoming legends and being the best in the game at the same time. Tom Brady just had his top moment at age 39. LeBron James is, according to all evidence, going to dominate the sport into his late 30s. Roger Federer will apparently never not be good. I’m sure there are some good hockey and baseball guys. Whatever. (OK, fine. This Sidney Crosby guy seems good.) And in soccer, where age has been a crueler thing than it has in most sports, the journey of superstardom is being completely rewritten.
There are plenty of reasons for this: modern training methods, technology, and avocado ice cream are all involved. And while it may sound like hyperbole to say it, just listen to Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who have said it themselves: We’re in the era of the living god.
On Saturday, two of those living gods, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (who has publicly compared himself to a clown, but not a god … yet) will both be playing in their second Champions League final in three years. This matchup is the perfect example of what the God Era has brought us: impossibly famous people doing cool shit. These kinds of players seem to be playing on the biggest stage in perpetuity, and there’s almost no turnover at the top of the sport. It is awesome.
Here’s what’s changed: From 1977 to 2002, no winner of the Ballon D’Or, given to the world’s best soccer player, was over 30. Ronaldo is 32 and won the Ballon D’Or last year at 31. He’s won four times, stretching back to 2008, a run matched in its length and consistency by only Lionel Messi, another member of this God Generation, who has won five times since getting his first top-three finish in 2007. The consistency is almost preposterous: Messi and Ronaldo have been the award’s top two vote-getters for six straight years. No other player in the history of the award, which dates back to 1956, has been in the top two for more than three straight years. Now, a pair of players have those two spots as an annual appointment.
While he’s never won the Ballon D’Or, in January, a 38-year-old Buffon became the oldest player ever to be named to the UEFA Team of the Year. He is still universally regarded as one of the two or three best goalkeepers in the world at the moment, a title he’s enjoyed for over a decade. He was regarded as such when he transferred to Juventus from Parma for 53 million euros — and that was in 2001. He is the only goalkeeper to win the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year — another “best player in the world”–type award — and that was in 2003. Meanwhile, Madrid just signed a Brazilian prospect for 46 million euros — and he was born in 2000.
The dirty little secret of soccer used to be that most superstars peaked between 25 and 28, and the massive transfer fees they’d garner afterward were paying for huge fame but not top-performance players. Rarely did fame and talent match up: David Beckham was hugely famous in the 2000s but he peaked in 1999 at age 24 — before he went to Real Madrid. Ronaldo and Buffon and Messi are like Tom Hanks hitting us with Apollo 13 when it seemed impossible for him to get more famous and great.
These prolonged peaks seem the most pronounced in soccer, but it’s happening in every sport. The top six passing-yardage seasons in NFL history have all occurred since 2011, and they all came from quarterbacks 32 and older. Aaron Rodgers just turned 33, and he’s playing the best football of his life.
It seems likely that this generation will usher in a fundamental shift in how we look at sports and elite athletes. Soccer genius has always been a young man’s game. The Sisyphean climb toward superstardom is usually met with a sharp decline shortly after. By age 32, Johan Cruyff was playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs. Diego Maradona didn’t have a double-digit goal season in any country after 30. Ronaldinho was out at Barcelona by 28.
When players perform at such a high level for so long, we no longer get sick of them. Instead, they become such an ever-present part of sports culture that many of us can’t help but love them. Buffon was launched to superstardom in 2006, when, perhaps already the best goalkeeper in the world, he was one of the faces of a then-unlikable Italian team that controversially made their way to winning the World Cup. Now he probably has a near-100-percent approval rating — still saving enough shots, winning enough games, and doing enough stunts to earn it. Ronaldo became a worldwide name after replacing Beckham in the no. 7 shirt for Manchester United and doing a bunch of stepovers. He was unpopular with a segment of English fans for his entire stay in the Premier League; they viewed him as having an overly precious playing style in a game that was supposed to be anything but. Even upon his 2009 departure to Madrid, which came after he delivered every major trophy to Manchester, Ronaldo was mocked for, as this Telegraph headline put it, being a preening peacock: England would miss his footballing talents but not “the theatrics, the astonishing self-regard.”
But if you hang around long enough, you begin to earn a grudging respect from everyone who isn’t a Barcelona fan. If you have closely watched the last decade-plus of Ronaldo, Buffon, Messi, and Zlatan and not seen a play in which you learned to love them, then you haven’t really watched them.
It is possible that Ronaldo cannot pass the Turing test. His tweets barely pass for human:
By now, if you do not like that Ronaldo gets upset that teammates score instead of him (that’s my Ronaldo moment), I cannot help you. The “self-regard” the Telegraph knocked Ronaldo for is still there. This week he had another Gordon Gekko moment, saying that “too much humility isn’t good.” The only difference now is that unlike in 2009, most of the world thinks that self-regard is awesome. He is a cultural icon, so famous that when he brought a camera to film his trip to get tea last year, it was one of the more fascinating studies in fame I’ve ever seen.
One day, we’ll be able to look back and appreciate Ronaldo, Buffon, and the rest of their generation, but similar to Steve Martin, we don’t even have to wait.