By Ras Wadada
After 10 days of non-stop action, none of the 29 games contested so far have failed to deliver a goal, serving up 71 to date, and despite the many twists and turns, the continuing debate as to who is the best footballer on Planet Earth takes centre stage alongside the Video Assistant Referee at Russia 2018.
The unending comparison between the game’s two best known and most accomplished players continues to engage the attention of the world like no other rivalry of the ‘Beautiful Game’ in recent times and prior to the kick-off of Russia 2018 expectations were high among the inhabitants of the Universe for both demi-gods. These two iconic figures of the sport, in the eyes of many, entered the 21st Edition of the premier sporting spectacle – the World Cup – with very little to show, for all they are worth, after competing in three consecutive tournaments and being in the twilight of their careers and possibly the last chance to win the most coveted prize in sport, a lot is expected, if not delivered.
There is no doubt that the hopes of Portugal and Argentina rest on the shoulders of Cristiano ‘CR7’ Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, respectively, and while the former has shone brilliantly so far the latter has failed miserably to the point of his team being on the verge of elimination. The obvious reason being that Portugal is a team led and inspired by a confidently focused captain Ronaldo as opposed to Argentina which adds up to a pressured Messi and 10 splintered players under the direction of a coach who seems totally out of control in getting things organized.
The 33-yearold Ronaldo is currently brimming with confidence after converting all four goals for Portugal’s 3-3 tie with Spain and 1-0 win over Iran and surely, now, must be eying the ‘Golden Boot’ award as well as feeling he could lead his country all the way to an unprecedented championship. His team feeds off his confidence and will to conquer. Already he has surpassed his World Cup tally of three before the start of Russia 2018 and has also broken the record for the all-time leading scorer of Europe in International football surpassing, by one, the 84 booted home by the late Hungarian, Ferenc Puskas, in his 85-match career between 1945 and 1956. CR7’s exploits have also made him a member of an elite company of players who have scored in four different World Cup finals, joining Pele of Brazil and Germany’s Uwe Seeler and MIraslov Klose
Messi, the ‘Golden Ball’ winner at 2014, on the contrary is yet to find the back of the net although he squandered a golden opportunity to open his account from the penalty spot and give Argentina an opening win. Instead, his soft effort was denied by the Icelandic keeper moving to his right and in the second encounter against Croatia he continued to be a mere shadow of the greatness with which he is usually associated and the Argentines were brushed aside 3-0.
The greatness and wizardry of Messi, who turns 31 today, cannot be denied, but bowing out of the World Cup at the Group stage without a goal or a win would be most embarrassing and surely would tilt the odds in favor of his counterpart, as to who is better. He has proven in the past that he can rebound with a bang from the brink of being eliminated as was testimony in his hat-trick that propelled Argentina to a 17th finals appearance when it looked like they would not qualify.
There is no comparison with his rival, who is superior, when it comes to physical and mental toughness, but given the opportunities Ronaldo gets, in the attacking third, he can be equally clinical. Messi would not serve Argentina any good receiving the ball around the center of the pitch and forget him coming deep to help the defense. For him to be effective and best serve the team he must play on the right and receive the ball around or inside the area where he can be very inventive and explosive.
The Coach and the rest of the Argentine cast must play to his strengths if they want to advance or they will be sent packing as early as the 2002 unit, though history seems to be on their side to move on to the second round. In all four previous meetings at the World Cup finals Argentina have prevailed over the Super Eagles, the last one in Brazil ended 3-2 with a double from Messi though on that occasion Nigeria did go on to the KO stage despite the loss. This time it is a ‘must win’ for either side to have any chance of advancing, as well as Iceland losing to Croatia in the final two matches of Group D, on Tuesday coming.
Ronaldo, whose greatness in scoring goals cannot be ignored also, is faced with a less demanding task in his final Group B match, since a draw with Iran, tomorrow, will assure Portugal a place in the second round and provide the opportunity for ‘CR7’ to add to his aggregation of four so far.
I have no difficulty in acknowledging the greatness and impact of both players in their era of the “Beautiful Game”, but to utter that either is anywhere close to being the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) is laughable if not ridiculous.