As eyes turned to the first round of the Premier League last week, so too will they look to Spain this weekend as La Liga kicks off. And once again, the debate will rage: is Barcelona’s Leo Messi the greatest player to ever strap on the Adidas f50s?
A certain Portuguese wizard with the last name of Ronaldo is not convinced. Especially when Champions League records are concerned.
Ronaldo has lifted the trophy five times in his career – once with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid. Messi has won it four times, all with Barca. This according to the former marks their difference and by implication his superiority.
“The difference with Messi is that I played for several clubs and won the Champions League with different clubs,” said Ronaldo. “I was top scorer in the Champions League six seasons in a row. There aren’t many players who won five Champions League trophies, so this is why I feel that I can identity myself with this tournament. Messi is an excellent player who will be remembered not just for his Ballon d’Or wins, but also for having improved – like me – year after year.”
There is something a tad disingenuous in these statements and Cristiano is right on many scores. He has provided countless moments of joy to millions around the world, fulfilled the dreams of his home country, displayed a level of sportsmanship that is exemplary and has a stat sheet that shimmers like the World Cup itself.
But is the best? The fans say almost.
When SPORTbible gave readers four options as to who the greatest player of all time is, 26000 of them voted like this: Messi 44 percent, Ronaldo 36, Pele 15 and Maradona 5.
At roughly the same time, Messi – instead of proclaiming his status or even stooping to comment on the debate – chose instead to do a cheeky shoot with Paper magazine. Where he wore his Argentina team shirt and cuddled what else but a goat. See the subtle difference here between his and Cristiano’s style of braggadocio?
But if life has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t put all our faith in polls. Where does the science of mathematics stand on this?
British sports scientist Simon Brundish put it this way to CNN: “While he's alive, there's only Lionel Messi. If you're saying anybody else is the best player in the world, Messi's had a broken leg for a year, or he's dead, or you're lying.”
Supporting Brundish’s claim is one almighty stat. "Currently Messi has a goal or assist every 48 minutes," he says. "Bearing in mind that every game is almost 95 minutes long (when injury time is included) that's two almost every single game.”
He is, in short (as it were), a creator like no other. Sure, some may score more goals but no one comes close when it comes to getting his TEAM home.
Another metric in the Brundish brandish – see what we did there – is known as the Xg-Build. This is how it works. The Xg-Build awards points to every player involved in a goal except for the person who supplied the final pass (assist) and the goalscorer.
We’re talking everyone from the keeper who rolls out a ball to a defender who then passes to a midfielder and so on. You’d think Leo wouldn’t be getting too involved in this sphere, instead hanging about up front to bulge the net or pass to someone who does. Where the glory lies.
Not so, according to Brundish. Using 2017-18 full-season data from football statistics website, Understat, Messi outscores storied playmakers like Hazard, Ozil and Eriksen on the Xg-Build scale. Ronaldo, Salah and Neymar don’t even come close to him on this measure.
So what we’ve got is a player that starts the move to goal, assists those who put them away and scores them. He’s doing practically everything but tipping shots over the bar.
To put the Leo-Cristiano debate to bed for once and for all, David Sumpter – an applied mathematics professor at Sweden’s University of Upsalla – puts it this way. “It is a statistically proven fact over 10 seasons that Ronaldo is a once in a generation player in terms of goal tally. Messi on the other hand, his goal tally equates to a once in a lifetime event. So every 74 years – the average life expectancy – you’ll expect another Messi to come along.”
And here’s the thing: Leo is now 32, it takes him longer to come back from injury and maybe this year is the one he retires. Don’t know what we football fans did to deserve him but the reality is that he has more games behind him than in front and our time together is running out. Enjoy him while you can.