For the world’s two greatest footballers, it is surprising how little is actually known about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Granted, we know all about their feats on the pitch – the goals scored, the trophies won – and we are greeted by them every day on social media, in adverts and, for the next few weeks, our TV screens during the World Cup. One has even thrown in a bonus round of television interviews to ensure we haven’t forgotten about him.
But there is a difference between what we think we know about these two behemoths of the beautiful game, and what is fact. They have not even reached the plains of retirement and already their myth has begun to outgrow their reality.
‘People think they know this story because we’ve all just lived through this era,’ says Joshua Robinson, one of the co-authors of Messi vs Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game.
As Robinson and Jonathan Clegg reveal in their book, a fascinatingly detailed account on modern football’s great rivalry two years in the making, that assumption is very much mislaid.
‘When we started writing the book, we assumed that Ronaldo origin myth about him playing in that friendly against Manchester United and wowing [Sir Alex] Ferguson, and then the deal is done. We assumed that was how it went down,’ says Clegg.
‘We found out that was not the case, that the whole thing had been arranged beforehand, that the deal was even signed, or the handshake happened, before the friendly took place.
‘That was football folklore at that point, that was established history. To find out it was wrong, we then realised – OK, how many of the other myths deserve greater scrutiny?
‘When you start digging into the accepted wisdom about them, you realise that it’s not exactly what it was.’
Robinson and Clegg are both reporters for the Wall Street Journal and this is their second title, after their wholly successful first book The Club sought to put the origins of the Premier League under the microscope.
Having had front row seats for the duration of the Messi-Ronaldo era, there are few better placed to tackle the game’s latest seismic power-struggle.
From revelations on how a red card at Fratton Park against Portsmouth in 2007 was the key to turning Cristiano Ronaldo into the goalscoring freak we know today, to Barcelona turning down a LaLiga proposal in 2021 despite the explicit understanding it would allow them to keep hold of Messi, the pair have extracted a treasure trove of golden nuggets.
But as Robinson and Clegg point out, this story is much bigger than just two individuals.
‘You can’t really take them out of this era without looking at all the ripple effects – all the way to the Super League, which for us is clearly linked to the super clubs spending on Messi and Ronaldo,’ says Robinson.
Take for instance the discovery that Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president, once attempted to turn the club into a theme park, such was the need for extra income to satiate Ronaldo and an ever-growing wage bill.
‘I remember being on a zoom call when we were speaking to the person who gave us that story,’ says Clegg. ‘Honestly both our jaws were both like Boom… on the floor. It was just like: ‘Wait what? He was going to do what?’
‘You get this very rarely but we were like let’s just transcribe exactly what we got, and it’s going straight in the book.
Robinson adds: ‘I remember that call ending and immediately we called each other, and it was just: “Can you believe that? Did you hear that right?”.’
Of course, helping them navigate the madness were a series of contacts. Such is the competitive nature between Messi and Ronaldo and their opposing camps that extracting details from one side would invariably provoke the other to come out with some part of a story, too.
But the pair found that one of their most useful sources was a touch unconventional.
‘I think one of our best sources was actually dead,’ admits Clegg.
‘Johan Cruyff’s columns were an absolute gold mine of Barcelona history. We realised that every development, Cruyff had sort of chronicled and given his own weird, unique fire take at the time.
‘As we were telling the story we realised that the Cruyff was actually a character in the story. It’s impossible to tell a story about Barcelona without Cruyff and in a way, even now his influence is felt in the way that team plays. His influence is felt in the corridors of power at Barcelona to in the boardroom, in the dugout.
‘He often he would just weigh in from his column and people at the club would tremble reading this stuff because he was usually extremely critical,’ Robinson adds.
‘And astonishingly accurate, as well!’ replies Clegg. ‘Any signing that he slated would flop. He highlighted the danger of giving Messi too much power. He was just astonishingly prescient in a lot of the stuff he wrote.’
Cruyff, like everyone, had his own opinions on the Messi vs Ronaldo debate, too. But is it possible to come to a definitive answer on which is the greatest to grace the game?
‘Even in the writing of it all, our documents were had the prefix Messinaldo, because to us they were just one character. I think we’re not the only people who see it that way,’ says Robinson.
‘We spoke to the guy who is the director of the Ballon d’Or and he said, even over that period, where they were sweeping up the award every year, to voters they became almost one character because they shaped the era, and for so long there was just no one else at their level – in their stratosphere really.
‘It’s like in much the same way that Roger [Federer] or Rafa [Nadal], or [Novak] Djokovic. You know it all depends on your personal preference,’ says Clegg.
‘It comes down to your world view. Do you naturally prefer and side with the natural genius? Or do you side with the striver, the grafter, the person who has to work for everything they’ve gotten?
‘Even now, in every single football article the comments section of it invariably boils down to a Messi-Ronaldo debate. Because it’s just one of the great unanswerables.’
Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. Published by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, on 10th November 2022.