In an age of metrics and audience engagement, some see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the lowest of low-hanging fruit. They are box-office talents because they generally turn the incredible into routine. Most of us understand and appreciate them. Perhaps not equally, but with a massive underlying respect for what they do in the football sphere, and they rightly generate more conversation than just about anybody in sport.
But there's a part of that conversation that is dark, vicious and puerile. One that is based on one-upmanship, loathing and vitriol, that weaponizes statistics and trophy hauls, private lives and photo shoots as if keeping score in an imaginary game of "mine's bigger than yours" where the two -- or, better yet, their feats -- become surrogates for their fans.
This isn't a knock on those who care a little too much. It's simply the price you pay for the things that make it great. Passion, tribalism, release from the quotidian ennui by allowing a bunch of people you've likely never met play a game to determine your mood: team sports is all of the above. We all know (or should know) the etymology of the word "fan" from fanatic, a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.
We've all been there. Nothing new. Fans talk smack. For many, it's part of the ritual. But we've moved into a slightly different territory with the perpetual Cristiano Ronaldo/Lionel Messi debate. Among the most passionate (often vicious and/or paranoid too) commenters are folks who don't appear to be supporters of the teams for which they play or, in Ronaldo's case, have played, whether at club or international level, at least according to basic timeline snooping. And this is where we enter, at least in football, a situation that's unprecedented and uncharted.
The likes of Pele, Diego Maradona or Johan Cruyff were idolized and were global superstars too, but it was usually through the lens of the teams for which they played. As popular as Maradona was, it's not as if a gaggle of Barcelona supporters became Napoli fans when he moved to Serie A. Pele is identified with arguably the greatest World Cup team ever (Brazil 1970), a hugely iconic Brazilian club (Santos) and the New York Cosmos, with all the 1970s hype that represented. Cruyff was the centrepiece of Rinus Michels' "Total Football" at Ajax and the Dutch national side, before moving to the Camp Nou and becoming intrinsically linked with the Barca brand (a relationship that would only grow once he became manager).
I'm not sure the same applies to Messi and Ronaldo, at least as far as this particular subsection of supporters, who seem thoroughly obsessed with them, is concerned. Messi has spent 18 years at Barcelona, winning everything there is to win at club level and yet he hasn't taken over the club brand the way Maradona did in Naples or Pele with Brazil and Santos, or even Cruyff with Ajax and Barca. You can make a similar point about Ronaldo in his nine seasons at Real Madrid.
Part of this may be that the game has globalized and changed. Superstars are now brands of their own to a degree that they weren't in the past and sponsors market the individual as much as (if not more) than the team. In that sense, we're going down the NBA route: Wherever LeBron goes, eyeballs and dollars follow.
Part of it may be that while it's still a team game (arguably now more than ever before), the way many experience it has changed. There were no highlights appearing in real time on social media in previous eras; if you wanted to watch Maradona or Cruyff, you had to sit through entire games. There were no Facebook-friendly memes outlining their goal-scoring exploits and ready to be shared. And there was no Instagram. All of this lends itself to the celebration of the individual more than ever before, particularly among a certain global cohort.
Part of it may also be that communication has changed. As has been pointed out before, social media allows anybody with a smartphone to be his own publisher or media entity. Equally, there is more mistrust and questioning of legacy media in a multichannel landscape than ever before. Pele and Cruyff were before my time and I was a kid during the Maradona era, but looking at past coverage I get the distinct impression that whatever the "expert" on TV or in the paper said was gospel to most.
As mass audiences have learned to think more critically, and as the game has expanded to parts of the world where there are fewer legacy media institutions, that deference has waned. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the most frequent themes in the Messi/Cristiano "Trollosphere" (after putting down the other in the most vicious way) is pointing out how the media is responsible for underappreciating one side and relentlessly hyping the other.
Of course, it's a vast conspiracy.
The other element setting this apart is that there is a natural rivalry. One is the yin to the other's yang. While we've had great sporting rivalries in the past -- think Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, or Roger Federer vs. Rafa Nadal -- it's exceedingly rare to have two legitimate GOAT candidates in the same era. And none have reached the heights of acrimony among fans of the individuals. (Let's face it: Roger is such a nice guy that you'd feel pretty bad about yourself if you were a Federer superfan and not emulating your hero's unbreakable niceness.)
For many, there is a natural tendency to take sides, and this may be augmented by the fact that these are very visual, non-verbal superstars. Pele, Maradona and Cruyff were fun to watch, but they were also often interesting and entertaining to hear. Messi and Ronaldo interviews are as much fun as a trip to the dentist. It's not necessarily because they're less intelligent or interesting than their predecessors, it's just that we live in a world where athlete messaging is all about visuals and image first. (That and the fact that many athletes figured out long ago that saying nothing is generally in their interest in a commercial and sporting sense.)
In fact, both are helped in their visual messaging by the fact that they look more like cartoon characters than normal people. Messi is small. Ronaldo looks like a Greek statue come to life. Put them in their Sunday best suits and they still look like Messi and Ronaldo. Stick Pele or Cruyff in business attire and they look like guys you might see on Wall Street. (Maradona, of course, is different because he's Maradona ...)
This branding helps explain their marketing success. It's easy to "get them" in the same way it's easy to get a Hollywood blockbuster with lots of explosions rather than some brilliant but dialogue-driven indie film. It's why one sells easily around the world and the other often gets lost in translation.
So put all the ingredients together. You have two superstars who hardly ever speak, who look like X-Men and who achieve supernaturally great things on the football pitch. It gives you licence to project not just your love and admiration upon them, but whatever qualities you want to attribute to them. Doting father? Hard-working, self-made superstar? Righter of the world's wrongs? Almost anything flies, and the only reason I say almost is that even Ronaldo's biggest acolytes would struggle to describe him as humble and understated. (They'd point out, correctly, that to paraphrase Kid Rock, it ain't bragging if you back it up ...)
Maybe all of this is at the heart of why a minority -- and it is very much a minority -- of Ronaldo and Messi superfans behave like this. Or maybe it's just the simple fact that turning every man, woman and child on Earth with a smartphone into a media outlet has simply given a platform to a dark side of human nature that was always there.
In the meantime, at the risk of sounding naive, let's take heart in the fact that most of us genuinely appreciate existing in an era with two of the greatest sportsmen in history who, if anything, drive each other to new heights year after year.