THE MOST notable consequence of Barcelona’s defeat against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus’ capitulation at the hands of Porto was the fact that, for the first time in several years, the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals won’t be graced by either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
These are rock gods in football boots, saintly figures from a stained glass window, sportsmen who are more likely to do God’s work than any investment banker. They have defined the game over the past 15 years, benchmarked it, dominated it. But their time is almost done – as canonised as they might be, their status has to give way to the ageing process.
Some 47 years ago, Jack Taylor of Wolverhampton refereed the 1974 World Cup final. It was England’s only representation in the Munich summer of Total Football – and didn’t we just know it? Taylor’s every move was remarked upon by the men behind the microphone, as if it was the burly official from the black country who was winning the FIFA World Cup. Similarly, the constant commentary on Messi and Ronaldo was not only tedious, it also seemed to ignore the fact their teams were being ousted by stronger opponents. As in Munich in 1974, the true narrative was getting lost.
Barcelona played well in the second leg, but they still lost 5-2 on aggregate, a full three goals worse off than PSG. The French team received grudging credit for winning comfortably, the prospect of “spectacular comeback part two” was never on the cards. Those hoping for a Spielberg blockbuster to rival that 2017 evening in the Camp Nou that all but destroyed PSG coach Unai Emery, were disappointed. Meanwhile, over in Turin, CR7 was unable to produce the sort of display his career has been built on – the decisive goal in a monumental tie, enabling him to show off his torso and sculptured hairline.
There’s no doubt we have been living in a special time for elite European football and it is rare to have simultaneously witnessed the exploits of two spectacularly special players. In so many ways, their presence in each other’s golden time has spurred each other on, especially when they were playing the same league. It has been difficult for any rival to their crown to make his mark – witness Neymar’s inability to step-up from promising South American kid in Europe to the pinnacle of the sport. He’s 29 now, it is not going to happen.
Nobody wants to admit this era is coming to a close. European football is structured in such a way that it now demands glittering idols – even if they do not emerge, the publicity bandwagon and media will make sure the thrones of Messi and CR7 are filled, even if their successors will lack the sheer natural brilliance, profile and phenomenal goalscoring ability. That’s why there’s so much expectation placed at the door of Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Kylian Mbappé.
The marketing men and the sponsors will want superstars to ensure the football machine maintains momentum. The end of Messi and Ronaldo is not just a question of the passing of talented individuals, it is also a business event. La Liga, for example, sold itself on the dynamic between the two players for some years. Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Italy in 2018 and something went with him. Certainly Real mourned him and Messi had Spain to himself while his employer appeared terrified of losing him. Now that fear could soon become a reality.
FIFA will hope that the pair can remain in situ for a while longer in order to squeeze one last World Cup out of them, while this year’s deferred Euros will surely be their final hurrah on European soil.
Barcelona without Messi would be a killer blow to a club in crisis mode at the moment, while Cristiano Ronaldo looks to be starting his wind-down at Juve. It will surely be a bigger blow for Barca at this stage.
It’s understandable that pundits and commentators want these two all-time greats to carry on enthralling them for years to come, but we’ve certainly had value for money and two long, constellation-like career. There has been no George Best-type implosion, no inevitable end game like Diego Maradona or Paul Gascoigne. Consistency has been their game and the goals from both have flowed like a waterfall.
But, as George Harrison wrote, all things must pass. Barcelona and Juventus were beaten by better teams who deserved their places in the last eight of the Champions League. Let’s celebrate that and not use the occasion to try and explain it away as a Barca and Juve NOT winning rather than solid wins for PSG and Porto.