Rewind, briefly, to their heyday. It all feels so fresh because it really was not that long ago that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi stood alone at the pinnacle of the global game, the two greatest players of their generation — plenty argue of any generation — with the familiar debate revolving more around which of the pair should trademark the use of the goat emoji.
They stood apart, racking up mind-boggling goal tallies in La Liga — they scored 785 times between them over their respective league careers in Spain — for Real Madrid and Barcelona, teams who jostled for supremacy domestically and ventured deep into the Champions League as a matter of course. Their contributions tended to be celebrated annually with one of those infamously awkward black tied evenings where they sat side by side at the Ballon d’Or ceremony. The dynamic of the occasion became a source of fascination, an analysis of the players’ body language as the watching world scrutinised every sideways glance and flashed smile. Or, for that matter, anything offered up by their partners if they were in attendance.
The slightest flicker of emotion, or hint of a bristle, was seized upon with glee as sure-fire evidence of the ferocity of their on-going competition. Or even an underlying antipathy stoked by their celebrated tete-a-tete. May the best man win. As long as it’s me.
But that was then. This is now.
These days Messi, a Ballon d’Or winner as recently as 2021 when the Portuguese traipsed in sixth, offers only occasional reminders of past glories for Paris Saint-Germain. Admittedly, there were particular financial reasons which saw him sever his ties with Barca last summer, and there was an element of ill luck about his initial forays in France. Perhaps even the best have to be afforded a period of adjustment in new surroundings. But the reality is that so much about his new life in France is unrecognisable from everything we had long since taken for granted.
The skills remain, but the old burst of pace is lacking. The 35-year-old’s first season in Ligue 1 was his first without accumulating 10 league goals since he was a teenager breaking through back in 2006. His star status remains, but he is eclipsed at Parc des Princes by Kylian Mbappe, a new force of nature on the scene. The club’s marketing department may not be complaining too much and personal targets remain primarily the World Cup with Argentina in Qatar and breaking PSG’s Champions League duck — achievements that may yet transform all this into an Indian Summer. But, for now, talk of Messi seems to gravitate towards what he has already achieved in the game, fuelled by memories of him at his swashbuckling best rather than what he might actually deliver still.
The nagging sense persists that his sojourn in France, while lucrative, will otherwise prove to be an uninspiring postscript to a glittering career.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, is unsettled at Manchester United. Where he had hoped to inspire that club’s revival when joining last summer, the homecoming has actually left him dissatisfied. For all that he scored 18 Premier League goals in 30 appearances — a tally he had only bettered once previously in English football — Europa League participation awaits in the season ahead. The grand return was not supposed to be like this.
That United were destined for life outside the Champions League had been a reality since April, but the forward waited until July to push the button on the exit strategy. His agent, Jorge Mendes, has done the rounds over the summer, sounding out interest from those who have qualified for UEFA’s elite competition. Ronaldo, like Messi, clearly still has things he wants to achieve in the game. He feels he has to be playing at the highest level to fulfil them, even as he enters a season when he will turn 38. His appetite is not sated. He can point to being United’s leading scorer last season as evidence that quality remains.
Play to his strengths, he would argue, and he will still deliver.
Except, while plenty of clubs appear to have taken the agent’s meeting, Mendes has been greeted with scepticism where once suitors would have been queuing up across the continent to take his client on. The elite appear warier now of accommodating the forward, at 37, in energetic tactical systems that play to the strengths of the collective rather than any individual, however prolific he remains.
Bayern Munich’s CEO, Oliver Kahn, told Kicker that, while the forward is undoubtedly “one of the greatest”, he would “not be a fit with our philosophy”. The Napoli owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, was speaking about Edinson Cavani when he suggested “signing a goalkeeper at 34, 35, 36 is fine, but signing a striker that age isn’t”, but the logic presumably still applies. Ronaldo’s name cropped up when Chelsea’s new co-controller turned interim sporting director, Todd Boehly, met Mendes in June. Yet it was always hard to see how the player would fit in easily with the aggressive, front-foot pressing approach Thomas Tuchel hopes his side take into the new season. To that end, confirmation yesterday that the London club would not be taking any interest further could hardly be deemed a surprise.
All the talk of the Portuguese’s discontent has fuelled the suspicion this is one of the greats of the game desperately seeking to cling to his status. It must be hard, when you have been virtually without peer, to accept the game might be moving on — however slightly — without you. That the landscape is shifting. He is far from alone in being eager to play on at the level to which he has grown accustomed, and to be unwilling to downgrade personal expectations.
It is a common trait across the greats in all sports. For every Usain Bolt, an athlete who made sprinting seem effortless until the moment he found himself playing catch-up for the first time in four years — prompting his retirement after the 2017 World Championships — there are those who push on in stubborn pursuit of one last triumph. One last goal they simply have to achieve, however unlikely it is ever to be realised. It could all be born of a love of the sport — that has to come into it, too — but one suspects that need to be the best is the real spur behind pushing ageing bodies to the limit.
Every sport has its examples. Roger Federer has been driven by a desire to add to his 20 Grand Slam titles over two years of anti-climax when his career has been severely hampered by knee problems and effectively put on hold. His three-way tussle for supremacy with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was so all-consuming, the central plot line to the men’s tour for years, that it almost comes as a shock to consider that Federer has not won a slam since 2018, or reached a final since 2019. COVID-19 was unkind to tennis. The hiatus of 2020 was horribly untimely for the Swiss.
Federer did become the oldest player to advance to a Wimbledon quarter-final in the Open era in the summer of 2021, the crowd willing a serial winner to revive, but required a third operation in the aftermath and has not played since. He dropped out of the ATP’s ranking list earlier this month for the first time since September 1997, when he was only 16. Now, at 40, he is targeting a comeback in the Laver Cup in Basel later this year, and has spoken of re-joining the tour in 2023 for one last hurrah. One last chance, perhaps, to chip away at the leads extended by Nadal and Djokovic in his absence.
It remains to be seen whether such ambition is realistic.
Serena Williams is another quadragenarian who continues to graft, in her case in pursuit of Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles. Yet it is five years since she secured her 23rd, in Australia, with four finals surrendered in the period since. She picked up a racket competitively for the first time in a year as a wildcard at this summer’s Wimbledon — 12 months on from tearing a hamstring on Centre Court — but, despite heaving to compete and offering a few flashbacks of her bludgeoning best en route, exited in the first round.
Williams is the queen of the comebacks. She underwent knee surgery in 2003 but was back winning titles again within a year. She suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2011. She survived a life-threatening childbirth and a second pulmonary embolism in 2017, and still played on. So if she is struggling, then the writing may be on the wall. “Today I gave all I could do,” she said in the wake of her exit to Harmony Tan, the world No 115. “At some point, you have to be able to be okay with that. And that’s all I can do.”
Tan was two when Williams claimed her first slam in 1999. Plenty of the unforced errors on that Tuesday evening under the roof on the second day of the championships were born of understandable rustiness. But the edge to her game had clearly been blunted. Would she be back?
“That’s a question I can’t answer. Like, I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows where I’ll pop up?”
Perhaps serial champions like Federer and Williams privately wish they could emulate Pete Sampras’ perfect ending. The American bowed out on a high with his 14th major triumph at the 2002 US Open, his script writers excelling themselves. Cricketer Shane Warne came close to matching their excellence five years later. Australia were 3-0 up against England in the 2006-07 Ashes when Warne announced this would be his last series and, fresh from claiming his 700th Test wicket — the first cricketer to achieve that milestone — in front of over 89,000 at his beloved Melbourne Cricket Ground on his penultimate appearance, the world’s greatest leg-spinner duly retired from that format of the game as Australia completed their 5-0 rout in Sydney.
Warne was not quite ready to give up entirely, but his subsequent playing career was reserved for T20 cricket, a shorter format that put less strain on his body. Those present still pinched themselves that they were watching one of the greatest ever to play the game, in the same way fans would flock to see a 40-year-old Federer conjure that effortless forehand one last time. Or pack the gallery to watch Tiger Woods, far from the player he once was, even now.
Thousands pursued him round the course for his final round at the Masters in April, despite the fact he was en route to a second successive 78 — the worst scores he had ever made at Augusta — and a 47th-place finish, 23 shots off the lead. Regardless, the television ratings were up 20 per cent on the previous year, when he had been absent recovering from a life-threatening car crash outside Los Angeles. Woods actually suggested the fact he was back playing competitive golf represented one of the greatest achievements of his career. And, regardless of the fact he had come nowhere close to winning the tournament, the Tiger effect remains real. CBS broadcast the entirety of his walk from the 18th green to Butler cabin live, even with the tournament leaders playing the first green at the time. He remained the story.
The greats will always be a draw, whatever stage their careers have reached. And their legacies are not tarnished by that inevitable downturn in standards. Not in the longer term, anyway.
Do Michael Schumacher devotees linger on the damp squib of his return to Formula One with Mercedes in 2010? A three-year period back on the circuit — his enthusiasm had apparently been rekindled by watching from the outside since his original retirement in 2006 — that yielded a solitary podium finish and only rare glimpses of the old brilliance and aggression out on the track. Or do they prefer to remember the 91 grand prix wins and seven world titles secured when Schumacher was at his peak first time round with Ferrari? He is still rightly regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
The memory drifts back to Ian Botham in his early 1980s pomp, dispatching Australian bowlers around Headingley and Old Trafford, or scattering stumps at Edgbaston, rather than the elder statesman who rather shuffled in off a shortened run and bowled at half the pace once the injuries had caught up with him in his mid-30s. Likewise, we choose to remember Michael Jordan’s storybook career with the Chicago Bulls, and winning the sixth championship with that final shot, and 5.2 seconds left on the clock, rather that his subsequent dalliance with the Washington Wizards.
That return to the court, refusing to accept he had already enjoyed the perfect finale, said more about Jordan, the competitor. The urges had not subsided. But, when looking back, Jordan’s iconic status stems from his days with the Bulls, and he rightly remains utterly cherished by his sport.
The same will be said of Ronaldo. Once he has hung up his boots, those on the outside will hardly notice that the last few years might have been spent relatively frustrated at Juventus or agitating for more in a Manchester United team who have slipped out of contention. The relative ignominy of Thursday night football in the Europa League in the twilight of his career will not resonate amid the five European Cups, three Premier League titles, two Primera Liga triumphs, a pair of Seria A wins, one European Championships and, moreover, the staggering goal tally rattled up in happier times.
People will recall the Portuguese scoring from all angles, spinning himself dizzy in trademark goal celebrations. His legacy is safe. Even those who witnessed him for the first time over his second coming at United will revel in the fact they saw him play live. Each flash of brilliance he summons now will still be seized upon with delight.
Stellar talents retain an allure, even as time takes its toll.
(Top image: Sam Richardson)