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Ronaldo, Messi, and the World Cup As a Bad Barometer for Evaluating Legacy

The two defining players of their generation are still making headlines. Neither has won a World Cup. Does it matter?

Daniel Zalkus

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves the two defining stars of their generation and the confounding question of legacy.


Editor’s note: On Tuesday, Manchester United announced it had agreed to terminate Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract by “mutual consent,” effectively immediately.


1. Satanic Verses

1989. E.M. Trout Elementary School, Ponca City, Oklahoma. I am walking up the steps into the school, and I am nervous. My little sixth-grade heart is rattling in my chest like a hamster wheel.

I’m nervous because I’ve shown up at school this morning determined to take a stand on an issue that matters to me.

I’ve shown up at school this morning determined to be a hero.

Apparently heroes live in terror.

E.M. Trout is a long, low, single-story elementary-school building made of, like, peach-colored bricks. American flag clanking on the flagpole behind me.

E.M. Trout, the guy the school is named after, was a local funeral-home owner in Ponca City. It’s never been entirely clear to me why the town named an elementary school after a leading area mortician. The other schools in town are mostly named after presidents. You’ve got Jefferson. You’ve got Washington. There’s a Garfield, which is an interesting choice.

I go to the funeral-home school.

I open the door. Other kids are streaming around me in the halls. Sounds of kids talking and laughing. My heart rate quickens.

We’re supposed to make puppets out of Styrofoam balls in art class today. I can’t even get excited about Styrofoam balls. That’s the level of my anxiety.

Are all the other kids looking at me? I feel as if I have a spotlight aimed directly at my face.

I’ll tell you why.

It’s because I’m carrying a copy of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.

That’s correct. The fatwa against Rushdie has just been made public. I’m here at my small-town Oklahoma grade school today to express my defiance to the Supreme Leader of Iran.

This is important. I saw this on the news. The Ayatollah Khomeini, in Iran, has issued a call for the murder of the Booker Prize–winning writer. You remember this, right? If not from 1989, then you probably remember hearing about it because of the awful attack on Rushdie in New York this past August, which, thank goodness, he survived.

At 13, I have no idea what the prestigious British literary award the Booker Prize is. But books are the things I love most in this world. You do not fuck with writers, because I will get my mom to drive me to the bookstore so fast. And also give me $20, hopefully, because I can’t afford hardcovers on my allowance.

Hashtag resistance.

I don’t know what my vision here is, exactly. It’s just important to me to be seen with this controversial book. And then I guess, thanks to my moral courage, and, um, some other factors, one thing will lead to another, and the regime will crumble in Iran.

I don’t know. We’re taking this protest one step at a time.

The reason I’m so nervous, by the way, is not that I think my fellow Ponca Citians are in favor of murdering Rushdie.

The reason is the word “Satanic.” It’s right there on the cover of the book, in this very forbidding pointy font.

If there’s one thing you can say about us, in 1980s small-town Oklahoma, it’s that we are alert to the threat of satanism. A few years earlier, I was forbidden to watch the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon on Saturday mornings, because my grandma heard at church that there were men in white vans driving around kidnapping children to use in satanic rituals, or something, and Dungeons & Dragons was related, somehow. We see satanism—especially van-related satanism—everywhere we look.

The word “Satanic” on a book in the hands of a kid is definitely going to mean a trip to the principal’s office. It might mean the governor mobilizes the state police. The more religious kids in my class will for sure tell me at recess that I’m going to hell when I die, which, to be fair, they do a lot anyway. Because they are very religious, and I am very into Dungeons & Dragons cartoons.

I walk into Mrs. McCaughnagy’s classroom. I go to my seat. I put the book prominently on my desk. Heroism.

Mrs. McCaughnagy comes into the room. I slide a folder over the book. Practicality.

But no. If you’re going to fight for freedom of expression, you have to look tyranny in the eye. I remove the folder. I brace myself for the moment when Mrs. McCaughnagy sees the book, gasps, and declares, before the whole class, that I am definitely going to hell, and maybe also detention.

A few seconds later, Mrs. McCaughnagy walks by my desk. Her eye alights on the book. Moment of truth. She looks at the cover and says:

“Oh! Have you read this yet?”

Have I … read it??? Well, no, ma’am, I have not. Too busy saving the world.

And she pats the cover and says, “Tell me if you like it.”

And as far as I remember, that’s the only time anyone said anything about the book, or noticed it at all.

2. Holy Rollers

Well, I didn’t become a hero to get famous.

But I’m thinking about that day in the sixth grade not, actually, because I’m trying to make myself look like a hero. Because what’s a hero? Sometimes there’s a man … sometimes there’s a man …

No. I’m thinking about it because I’m wondering what it would be like to be the subjects of today’s essay. What would it be like to have that feeling of standing in a spotlight at all times?

What would it be like to have something that made all eyes turn toward you every time you walked through a door? I mean actually turn toward you, not spectacularly fail to turn toward you, as in my case.

There are some people, in this life—and this most definitely applies to the players we’re talking about today—there are some people who come into the world carrying a kind of Salman Rushdie novel of the soul, and everyone notices. Maybe it’s talent. Maybe it’s charisma. Maybe it’s a lot of confidence in your own hair gel. And those people either get sent to the principal’s office or get lionized as heroes immediately.

What’s that like?

I want to say we have a very special installment of 22 Goals for you today, but honestly … today’s essay is not that big a deal.

We’re here to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Not a big deal. Just two of the greatest players of all time. And we’re talking about them together. We’re doing another two-goal special.

Because … well, how could we not talk about them together? They’re the north and south poles of the modern game. They’re eternally linked.

And coincidentally, they’re both playing what may very well be their final World Cup.

Not a big deal at all.

So. What are we gonna talk about today? Well, thanks for asking. That’s thoughtful of you. And may I say that color looks great on you. We’re going to talk about two guys who have collectively won 12 Ballons d’Or, 18 top-level league championships in four different countries, nine Champions League titles, one European Championship, one Copa America, an Olympic gold medal, a World Cup Golden Ball, a Medal of Merit from Order of the Immaculate Conception of Vila Viçosa—that’s a dynastic order of Portuguese knights … and zero World Cups.

Is that relevant? Zero and counting.

We’re going to talk about two players who couldn’t be more different from one another. One of them is short, quiet, elusive, unprepossessing, someone you would not necessarily pick out as an elite athlete if you saw him emerge through a door marked Elite Athletes Only, wearing a shirt that said “Ask Me About Being An Elite Athlete.”

The other is tall, arrogant, flamboyant, striking—someone you’d pick out as an elite athlete in a drone shot of Times Square.

We’re going to talk about two wildly dissimilar stars who came to define their era, through their differences as much as their similarities. Who came to be so identified with one another that anything you say about one of them is almost inevitably a statement about the other. And who have whatever that mysterious thing is that compels us to watch everything they do.

We’re gonna talk about my least favorite word in sports. I’ll tell you what that is in a minute.

Are we also gonna talk about a couple of World Cup goals while we’re at it? Eh, we’ll see what happens.

This is not a soccer essay, this is a book club of the superstar’s soul. Let’s put on our reading glasses.


3. The L-Word

All right. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. I don’t have to tell you who these guys are, right? Like, we don’t really need to do the whole, “Born in blah blah in the year blah” thing with Messi and Ronaldo, do we?

Let’s be quick.

Lionel Messi. Leo Messi. Argentine. 35 years old. Diagnosed as a child with a growth hormone deficiency; famously joined the FC Barcelona youth academy because they agreed to pay for his treatment. Paid them back by winning everything under the sun and revolutionizing modern soccer under the tiki-taka style associated with the manager Pep Guardiola. (Though Guardiola rejects the term. No emo band wants to be called emo.)

Now starring for PSG alongside Kylian Mbappé, whom we talked about way back in the third essay in this series, and Neymar, whom we will talk about on a future series called 22 Imaginary ACL Tears.

Messi led Argentina to the South American championship in 2021, putting to rest a long-simmering argument that he underperforms at the international level.

Messi is considered by many millions of people to be the greatest player of all time. Messi has never won a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo. Not that Ronaldo. There’s already a Ronaldo. We covered him in Essay 2. Everyone just calls him Ronaldo anyway. Don’t get me started.

Portuguese. 37 years old. Son of a cook and a gardener.

Diagnosed as a teenager with tachycardia. Underwent heart surgery. No club had to pay for the heart surgery, because Portugal has national health care.

Rose to international superstardom playing for Manchester United from 2003 to 2009, then rose to something significantly beyond international superstardom playing for Real Madrid, the hated rival of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. Scored 450 goals in 438 total appearances for Real Madrid. That’s offensive. Moved to Juventus. Currently playing again for Manchester United, though he’s doing everything in his power to secure a move somewhere (anywhere) else.

Cristiano led Portugal to the European Championship in 2016, putting to rest a long-simmering argument that he underperformed at the international level.

Cristiano is considered by many millions of people to be the greatest player of all time. Cristiano has never won a World Cup.

OK. Enough Meet the Mets. We’ve got two players who are mirror images of each other. Who spent nearly a decade going up against each other in the biggest rivalry in soccer (no offense to Slough Town vs. Maidenhead United).

Even their personalities seem like polar opposites. Messi has struck people for most of his career as quiet, modest, maybe a little shy, a little boyish, a shaggy kid who just loved running after a ball. Cristiano has struck people for most of his career as a dude who wears mirrored aviators and pink polo shirts with Speedos, mostly due to the large number of photos that exist of him wearing mirrored aviators and pink polo shirts with Speedos.

It’s a choice.

I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna assume, beyond this, that you have a basic working knowledge of these two guys. I’m less interested in rehashing their careers or recapping their highlights—recapping highlights? couldn’t be me—than I’m interested in trying to get at something more basic about these two stars and they way they seem locked into each other’s gravitational orbits.

There is a question hanging over this essay like a math folder over a controversial book I have heroically not read. The question is, Why does athletic greatness seem to invite, or even to generate, this kind of extreme polar contrast?

Why do we love to pair great athletes together in these sorts of everlasting, abstract rivalries?

Ali and Frazier. Federer and Nadal. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding … kind of.

Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Why is it so much fun when stars come in twos? And does it help or hurt our sense of them as individuals when we start to define them in that way?

What does it mean, for instance, that every four years, both Messi and Ronaldo are lumped together in the same World Cup narrative?

Google “Messi, Ronaldo, last chance” and you will be treated to hundreds of articles about how both superstars are still striving to win their first World Cup. About how the World Cup is the giant blank space on their résumés, the thing they don’t have that Pelé and Maradona do. About how one of them winning it might help tip the “greatest of all time” scale toward them and away from their rival. About how winning a World Cup would “complete their legacies.”

Legacies.

Hello, my ancient nemesis.

Remember how I told you we were gonna talk about my least favorite word in sports? Yes. It is “legacy.” Let’s talk about it.

To be clear, I’m not against the idea that athletes’ careers become stories. I’m not against telling those stories after they retire. And I’m not against comparing those stories. Some bodies of work are more impressive, or more moving, or whatever, than others. That’s all fine.

What I hate is when sports people use “legacy” as a mental shortcut to impose a preconceived narrative on players’ real, messy, human lives.

What do I mean by that? I mean the idea that there is some ideal sports narrative, and that we can judge players based on how close they come to matching it. That there’s one standard, and the greatest player is whoever most convincingly cosplays that one standard.

I don’t like that at all.

What’s an example? Let’s say Roger Federer.

You used to hear murmurs, when Federer was first starting to slip down the rankings, that he should retire now, because slipping down the rankings might tarnish his legacy. It’s this Michael Jordan idea that if you’re the best player ever, you’re supposed to go out on top, and if you don’t — if people see you losing to players you’d have beaten handily in your prime — it will somehow harm you in fans’ memories.

The ideal narrative is that you make the last shot, win the last tournament, whatever, and retire as the reigning champion.

But that’s so dumb! Roger Federer is not living some theoretical life where he’s checking things off the generic athlete to-do list. He’s living his own life. If he wants to be the 32nd best tennis player alive at the age of 41, well, what’s wrong with being the 32nd best tennis player alive, if you’re enjoying it?

What’s wrong with retiring when Federer chose to retire?

I like the idea that athletes are all unique. They’re writing their own stories, and we should try to evaluate those stories on their own terms. And how we evaluate them after the fact shouldn’t be such a huge factor in determining the choices an athlete makes in the present.

When it comes to Messi and Ronaldo, the legacy conversation is really not that bad, most of the time. But it’s not great around the World Cup.

What I get a little itchy about is when people use the World Cup to focus on the Scales of All-Time Greatness, with Messi on one side and Ronaldo on the other. When people assume that Ronaldo’s career would be lessened if Messi won the World Cup, or vice versa.

Obviously, if you win the World Cup, that’s great for your story. Of course it is! But the thing is, no matter how good you are at soccer, you’re not solely in charge of whether you win the World Cup. You have teammates. You have a passport. There’s a context, one that even the best players can influence only up to a point.

The thought experiment I always fall back on is: What if the most talented player in the history of the world were born in the Federated States of Micronesia?

Micronesia has about 115,000 people. They have a national soccer team. But you could put Pelé and Maradona in their primes on that team and they still wouldn’t win the World Cup. Micronesia is not part of FIFA! They can’t even compete in a World Cup.

So take this hypothetical Micronesian superstar. Does it diminish his legacy that he’ll never win the World Cup? Of course not.

So do you have to win a World Cup to be the greatest player of all time? Because if you think so, you’re basically saying only people with passports from a select few countries have a chance of being the greatest. And that’s obviously unfair, because you don’t get to decide where you’re born or how talented the other players on your national team are.

It has nothing to do with Ronaldo’s legacy if Argentina happens to have an amazing defense. It has nothing to do with Messi’s legacy if Bruno Fernandes makes a penalty that gives Ronaldo a World Cup win.

That’s like saying you’re broke because I won the lottery. You’re not!

Also, you’re more than welcome to hang out on my yacht. We can sail around Micronesia. Scout the local talent.

OK. Speech over. Sorry.

But let’s agree, right now, that we’re going to look at Messi’s and Ronaldo’s World Cup histories for what they are. And whatever happens, let’s resist the temptation to judge them by how closely they resemble some two-dimensional zero-sum straw man of the perfect athletic career.

4. Astral Weeks

Wow! I think I just had a sports rant? There’s something that doesn’t happen often.

I’m not saying I’m a hero, because what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a man … sometimes there’s a man … who belongs on AM radio.

Lionel Messi has scored six World Cup goals in his career, and there’s one weird thing about that statistic. The weird thing is that three of those goals came against Nigeria. Fifty percent of Messi’s World Cup goals were scored against the Super Eagles. (Incredible nickname, by the way.)

That’s three goals in two separate matches, in two separate World Cups. Two goals in 2014 in the last match in Group F, and another goal in 2018 in the last match in Group D.

What’s even weirder is that if you look back over Messi’s career, he just loves playing Nigeria. Goal.com, the soccer news site, literally once ran a slideshow about him called “The man Nigeria couldn’t stop.” He scored two goals to beat Nigeria in 2005 in the FIFA World Youth Championship. He set up the winning goal against Nigeria in the gold-medal match at the Olympics in 2008. The list goes on.

The Super Eagles’ time will come.

Three of Messi’s six World Cup goals came against the same team. There’s something distinctly Messi-like about the sheer oddness of that statistic. There’s always been something weirdly hard to grasp, something weirdly understated, about Messi, considering his dominant position in the game.

“If I ventured in the slipstream”—I think about that Van Morrison lyric sometimes when I watch him play. Messi has just always seemed to belong in the slipstream. He’s not overt. He’s one of the hardest soccer players to describe, because he seems to live in this sort of invisible world that’s overlaid on the game.

You know how Frodo slips on the One Ring and suddenly he’s in that realm where everything is made of out, like, hissy white lines? Messi lives in hissy-white-line world all the time.

There are parts of the game that as a fan, maybe even as a player, you’re theoretically aware of but can’t really see. Things like how time unfolds around a long pass. How space is going to open up in a group of players reacting to the ball.

You watch Messi—this little guy, slightly hunched over, with his head kind of down and at an angle—and at first he doesn’t draw your eye at all. And then you slowly realize that all that incorporeal stuff you’re only theoretically aware of is physically real to one person on the pitch. And it’s him.

I know that “I can see through time” is something you say as a joke, like you have a third cup of coffee on a Wednesday morning and, hahaha, you’re now suspended between interplanetary dimensions.

Messi can see through time. This is not hyperbole. He’s got the ball. He’s moving toward the goal—and he very rarely runs head-on at it; he’s almost always slightly and strangely sidelong, on an angle that doesn’t quite make mathematical sense.

He’s moving toward the goal, and all the feet of all the players around him are hitting the ground in a pattern that’s too complex and arrhythmic to predict.

But Messi seems to see the pattern in his head like a drum solo in Whiplash.

He moves past one defender. He nutmegs another. He shoots just as one guy is lunging out with his foot, so the ball slides under him, at the exact angle necessary to miss the goalkeeper’s lunge by about a centimeter.

You do that once, fine. That’s luck. Lionel Messi scored 91 goals in 2012. That’s not luck! And a lot of them—like, a lot of them—have that same uncanny, ethereal quality.

A Lionel Messi goal happens very slowly, even while the game is moving very fast.

Messi’s best-known World Cup goal is possibly the long-distance screamer he hit against Iran in 2014. An incredible LRB.

You can hear the awe in the commentator’s voice, but you don’t have to listen for it, because he tells you outright that no defense in the world could have stopped this goal.

That was the year Messi won the Golden Ball as the best player in the men’s World Cup. Also the year he led Argentina to the final, where they lost to Germany 1-0 in extra time. The LRB against Iran was a beautiful shot, a long, curling strike that slipped between two defenders and arced into the net past the outstretched hands of Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Haghighi.

But for me, I think my favorite of Messi’s six World Cup goals is the one he scored against Bosnia and Herzegovina in that same World Cup.

It’s not necessarily a better goal, but it’s a goal that more clearly embodies what makes Messi so special to watch.

Picture Messi with the ball. He’s inside the Bosnia and Herzegovina half—I’m gonna just call them Bosnia from now on, for brevity’s sake; no offense to you, Herzegovina—he’s inside the half, and he’s running toward the right touchline. Again, at a slightly oblique angle, just dragging defenders a little out of their comfort zones.

He passes to Gonzalo Higuaín, and as soon as he releases the ball, he turns on the speed and cuts inside his nearest defender. Higuaín, seeing that Messi has beaten one man and has a lot of green grass in front of him, plays the ball right back. A little 1-2!

Messi keeps cutting inside, but again at a slightly flatter angle than you might expect. He’s got the Bosnian defensive midfielder, Muhamed Besic, the guy he cut inside, glued to his hip, but on the wrong side of him, the side away from the goal. And the angle is such that for a few steps it looks like he’s running parallel to the 18-yard line. But he’s actually getting closer to it.

Four Bosnian defenders are now ahead of him, two of them directly between him and the goal. One of those two, Ermin Bicakcic, comes out and tries to knock the ball away from him. But Messi—and this happens all the time with Messi—is somehow not exactly where Bicakcic expected, even though he doesn’t appear to have altered his pace or direction.

Bicakcic misses the tackle, and in doing so, he takes out Besic, the defensive midfielder. Those guys both hit the ground just as Messi shoots the ball past the three remaining Bosnian defenders, past the windmilling Bosnian goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, and into the left side of the goal.

This is a quietly sensational goal. It’s also the goal that ended years of muttering about Messi not getting it done on the international stage, after he’d failed to score during the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa. And you can hear the significance of the moment in the commentator’s voice as Messi breaks his eight-year World Cup goal drought.

5. Soap Star Joe

Cristiano Ronaldo has one more World Cup goal than Messi. He has seven.

He, too, has scored three of his World Cup goals against a single team. In his case, that team is Spain, and he did it all in one group-stage match in 2018 in Russia. He scored a hat trick in that game. We already talked about one of those goals, actually, in this series. Remember the incredible match-tying free kick that led to the whole Portuguese team refusing to celebrate with the poor defender José Fonte?

Maybe you read that essay. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you were reading a Salman Rushdie novel. Good for you.

Anyway, we discussed it.

To watch Cristiano Ronaldo is a completely different experience from watching Leo Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo does not venture in the slipstream so much as he knocks the slipstream on its ass. He’s not Frodo wearing the One Ring so much as he’s the elvish river crashing into the Nazgul and sweeping them all to hell.

Mystery is not a key component of the way Cristiano Ronaldo plays. If Messi is a story about the perfect crime, Ronaldo is a story about someone flipping to the last page of the book containing the story of the perfect crime, chuckling softly to himself, and throwing the book in the trash.

You can see how he does it. He does it by being faster than you. He does it by having quicker reflexes than you. He does it by working harder than you. He does it by wanting it more than you do. He does it by running straight at you and then being smarter than you during the ensuing chaos.

And if we’re talking about young Ronaldo, he does all that, plus a strobe-light flurry of stepovers.

Everything with Ronaldo is as straightforward, flashy, and unmistakable as possible.

His logo is CR7. His initials plus his number. Usually gem-encrusted.

His goal celebration—siu!—is choreographed and identical from one goal to the next, the better to maintain his brand.

He has, as of this writing, 497 million Instagram followers. That’s a real number. The only Instagram account with more followers than Cristiano’s is Instagram’s Instagram account. All his posts are either black-and-white photos of his abs in a sauna, Getty Images–looking shots of him playing soccer, or paid partnerships that show him grinning madly next to a well-lit bottle of shampoo.

The biggest controversy in Messi’s career is one that’s a little weird and hard to parse—this whole tax-evasion scandal in Spain. Don’t look it up. It’s pretty boring. But like Messi himself, it’s at least unexpected.

The biggest scandal in Ronaldo’s career is the most straightforward and disturbing and stereotypically awful controversy a superstar male athlete can be involved in. A woman said that he sexually assaulted her in Las Vegas in 2009.

Also stereotypically for a superstar male athlete, his career seems to have suffered no repercussions from the woman’s account. Various legal cases and investigative news reports slid by over many years without ever bumping his soccer exploits off the front page. And the civil case the woman filed against him was dismissed with prejudice by a judge in Nevada earlier this year, not necessarily because the case itself was so weak, but because of what the judge deemed misbehavior by the plaintiff’s lawyer.

He remains a force on the pitch.

He has slowed down a bit lately, though in fairness he still managed like one goal every two games for a dismal Manchester United team last year. He’s 37.

Both Messi and Ronaldo have come a bit closer to earth, just a little bit, over the past season or so. It happens. But in general, Ronaldo as an athlete is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen.

I read a scene somewhere—I cannot remember where; some novel, I think—in which World War I soldiers debated whether, if they were going to be killed by an artillery shell, they wanted to see the shell coming or not.

Would you rather have a second to know you were about to die—to prepare yourself, even if only for a second? Or would you rather be going about your business, oblivious, and then everything goes dark?

And here’s how athlete dyads affect your brain. Because when I read that, I thought, oh, it’s Messi versus Ronaldo.

Messi is the shell you don’t see coming. You see Ronaldo coming and you know it’s going to hurt.

My favorite Ronaldo World Cup goal—I really had to think about this. That free kick to level the match against Spain in 2018 was pretty epic.

But I think my favorite Ronaldo World Cup goal is the one he scored in 2010 against North Korea. I had to think about it because this goal came in the final minutes of a 7-0 Portugal win. Not the biggest moment. Not the toughest opposition.

Still, it’s just such a fun goal. And it’s the essence of Ronaldo as a soccer player. It’s devastating, hardly any other living person could pull it off, and it’s an act of flagrant showing off.

So OK. Picture Cristiano in the middle of the pitch, breaking toward the North Korean box.

There’s been a scramble in midfield. The Portuguese striker Liédson has knocked the ball behind the North Korean defense, and now Liédson and Ronaldo are also in behind the defense, racing after the ball. They’re being chased by two North Korean defenders. It’s chaos.

The North Korean goalkeeper, Ri Myong-guk, comes charging forward toward the ball and slides down to stop it. The goalkeeper, the ball, and Ronaldo all collide at the edge of the area. Ronaldo’s toe hits the ball first, and it skips up a little in the air, at which point it appears to hit the goalkeeper’s leg. The ball bounces off Ri’s leg and goes boinging up into the air, just as the sliding Ri trips Ronaldo up. Ronaldo jumps to avoid him, and he’s partially successful. He staggers, but gets over Ri.

He kicks his back leg way out behind him, so that there are stills from this goal where he looks like the Flash in mid-sprint.

But now the ball is up too high for him to do anything with it. So as he’s coming down, he ducks his head, which means the ball now falls down on his upper back. He’s still running forward, but he’s bent over and the ball lands on the top of his spine.

Still running forward, he straightens up in such a way that the ball flips up off his back, arcs over his shoulder, maybe grazes the top of his head, and lands at his feet in the perfect position for him to flick it into the open net.

Goal.

And listen to the commentator’s tone. It’s … a little flat. This is not a World Cup final. This is not a match whose outcome is in doubt. Or a game against Germany or Brazil.

Not the highest stakes. But you know what? It’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo was built to win games 7-0. And it’s such a fun goal, in the specific genre of fun that Ronaldo specializes in. The sort of fun where you think, “Well, that’s cheeky.” And then you think, “Well, he can’t possibly pull that off.” And then he pulls it off.

And then he looks at you like yeah, I sure did.

6. Satan, Again

I still have the copy of The Satanic Verses I bought in the sixth grade. I never did read it—sorry, Mrs. McCaughnagy—so I don’t know if there’s anything in it that would help me understand what it feels like to be one of the two most lionized footballers of the 21st century.

Probably not? Probably not exactly what Rushdie was going for.

My own career as a global hero was short-lived (lasting from about 8:13 to approximately 8:19 that one morning) and likewise not very useful in putting me in their shoes.

But I did take the book down from the shelf the other day. It’s a little yellowed now, like Messi’s career at PSG. Also like Ronaldo’s career at Manchester United.

I got out the book. I saw that I had signed my name in the inside front cover—do all kids do that?—in like, super sixth-grade-boy cursive, meaning you can picture the tip of my tongue poking out the corner of my mouth as I tried earnestly, and not very successfully, to make the signature legible.

Anyway, I was paging through this book and I realized that I did read the beginning back in sixth grade. I read, oh, it must have been the first 15 or 20 pages. As soon as I looked at the book, I remembered them clearly.

At the beginning of The Satanic Verses, a plane explodes over London, and these two passengers, two men, are falling from the sky. And the way Rushdie writes about them, they’re just regular human beings, but in this moment, they’re invested with a strange sort of religious significance. One of them may be an angel, one of them may be a devil, but it’s not entirely clear which is which.

And as they fall from the sky, they’re arguing with each other. Or more precisely, they’re singing at each other. They’re having a conversation by singing rival songs.

Rushdie says:

Let’s face it: it was impossible for them to have heard one another, much less conversed and also competed thus in song. Accelerating toward the planet, atmosphere roaring around them. But let’s face this, too: they did.

And so these two guys falling from the stratosphere appear to have gotten caught up in some larger cosmic battle. Their fates are now intertwined. They’re bound together, in some mysterious way, for all time.

I should probably finish the book.

But … do you remember the question we asked earlier? The math folder over the book cover question? The question is, why are we so irresistibly drawn to contrasting pairs of athletes? Why do we need a Peyton Manning to have a Tom Brady? Why do we need Messi and Ronaldo to be bound together for all time?

I think it has to do with what we were talking about before. With legacy.

Yes, that word again.

Remember how we were saying that the problem with the idea of legacy in sports is that it’s often deployed to force stars into this sort of generic model of what a great athlete is supposed to look like?

In other words, the problem with legacy is that it’s homogenizing. It tends to make athletes seem kind of uniform. The difference between them is just by what percentage they deviate from the ideal that was established at a three-way summit between Gatorade, Nike, and ESPN the day the first creature emerged from the sea.

The first creature emerged from the sea and was immediately called “clutch” by seven talking heads on TV, while seven other talking heads pointed out that this mammal had never won a championship.

I think one of the reasons we love these eternal athlete rivalries is that they give us an excuse to talk about differences. To really dive into what makes one star unlike another. And differences are what make things unique, to state the blindingly obvious.

So in a weird way, Messi in a vacuum is just a bunch of stats to put next to Pelé’s stats or Maradona’s stats or whatever. But put Messi next to Ronaldo and now suddenly you get to talk about all the ways Messi stands out. You get to notice that subtlety, that uncanny sense of angles, that quietness, that odd calm he spreads all around him.

And you get to look at Ronaldo and say, oh, he’s a virtuoso, he’s a rock guitar solo in human form, he’s a Greek statue with terrible taste in belt buckles. He thinks the world revolves around him, and all evidence suggests that he’s right.

And maybe neither of those descriptions gets at the true inner life of either player. Maybe neither says anything about what it’s like to be Messi or Ronaldo.

But they do something maybe more important for us. They give us a way to talk about what we feel when we watch them play.

I don’t know what’s going to happen at the men’s World Cup in Qatar this year. Could either of them win it? Sure! Will either of them win it? Probably not! I don’t know. It would be naive for me to say that for one of them to win it wouldn’t change anything about how we tell each of their stories. Of course it would.

But I’m less worried about whether one of them will ever win the World Cup than I am intrigued by the prospect of seeing their differences play out, seeing the cosmic struggle play out, on one last big stage.

So we can see them more clearly by seeing them in the same World Cup, vying for the same trophy, one last time.

So that afterward, we can say: Let’s face it: It was impossible for them to have heard one another, much less conversed and also competed thus in song. But let’s face this, too: they did.

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