The latest Ballon d’Or reminded us that the world is waiting for a new generation to take on the role of “World’s Greatest Footballer”. That Ronaldo and Messi were – once more – shoe-ins, despite the latter having an indifferent year, tells us that we are lacking successors to these giants of the game.
For the past four seasons, these two characters have dominated the first two placings in the Ballon d’Or. Indeed, look at the last seven years of player awards, including the European Footballer of the Year, which morphed into the current FIFA-run exercise in 2010.
2008: Ronaldo – Messi; 2009: Messi – Ronaldo; 2010: Messi – Iniesta; 2011: Messi – Ronaldo; 2012: Messi – Ronaldo; 2013: Ronaldo – Messi; 2014: Ronaldo – Messi
It’s doubtful that two players have been so dominant for so long in the history of the game. Certainly, when players like Pele, Maradona and Cruyff were at their best, they were certainly not matched by anyone as closely as Ronaldo and Messi have. Their careers have peaked at the same time to create what many people will look back on as a golden age, albeit one that will be characterised by greed, excess and the marginalisation of much of European football.
Between 1962 and 1970, if you asked anyone “who is the greatest player in the World?”, they would have said “Pele!”. Ask today and you will get a divided answer between CR7 and Messi, although it does look like Ronaldo is now eclipsing the little Argentinian.
There have been times when we have not had a suitable and genuine resident for the gold medal podium. We’ve seen workmanlike technicians reach the zenith, but never will they be mentioned in the same breath as the triumvirate of Pele, Cruyff and Maradona. Just consider the successors to Cruyff as European Footballer of the Year: Blokhin, Beckenbauer, Simonsen, Keegan, Rummenigge and Rossi. All fine players, but only Der Kaiser would feature in an all-time squad.
Then we had the era of Platini, which led on to the age of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. Then we’ve had an assortment of excellent players who were of their time and at the top of the game, but no way comparable to the greats. Products of the system, you might say.
The truth is, people like Pele and Maradona don’t come along very often. Ronaldo and Messi are, to use a well-worn phrase, “modern greats”. They now belong in the same club as Pele, Cruyff, Eusebio, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Van Basten, Platini, Best, Puskas and Di Stefano.
What is reassuring is that, some years ago, football folk feared for the future emergence of virtuoso talents like Ronaldo and Messi. We live in an age where the team is invariably greater than the sum of its parts – Germany 2014 demonstrated that – their goalkeeper was short-listed for the Ballon d’Or.
The next Ronaldo or Messi will almost certainly not come from North-Rhine Westphalia or Bavaria. He’s more likely to emerge from the back streets of Buenos Aires or a Brazilian favela. We’re waiting, but in the meantime, where are the heirs?