The year was 2007 and the competitive balance between teams and amongst players was relatively conserved. Superstars existed in the beautiful game though they were humanly quantifiable. Ricardo Kaka was the consensus best player of the past twelve months and graced the stage in Paris to receive the Ballon d’Or. Earlier that year, he had guided Milan to their second European title of the decade. From the start of the 2006-07 season, Kaka was building the case for his candidacy as the best of a blossoming new generation of footballers. He was flanked by Lionel Messi and future Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. That image was meant to foreshadow the leaders that would be at the forefront for the next decade.
And at the forefront they were. Except that it was not spearheaded by Kaka, but by the two players that stood on his flanks. The following year, it would be the Madeira native – Cristiano Ronaldo – who would be beaming while holding the trophy. This would be the beginning of Ronaldo’s prime and had a career season (winning both the Premier League and the Champions League). Prior to winning his first Ballon d’Or, Manchester United faced Messi’s Barcelona in the semifinals of the preeminent European competition. United and Ronaldo would prevail. In the following seasons, both teams clashed again in the Final. This time around, Barcelona would triumph and Messi would win the first of four consecutive (and five in total) Ballon d’Or trophies.
For today’s generation of fans and players, the Ballon d’Or is more than just the crowning of the player of the year (or whatever subjective criteria that voters and fans use). It is something to boast about. A mantle given to an individual that distinguishes them from the rest of the pack. It also created the divide between football fans. Ronaldo vs. Messi. Manchester United (then Real Madrid and now Juventus) vs. Barcelona. Portugal vs. Argentina. Once a sport between two teams, two badges that players and fans alike were proud to represent transformed to a contest between personalities. Wearing the jersey of your favorite team took second fiddle to donning your favorite player’s name on your back.
With Messi being the 2009 Ballon d’Or, all eyes looked to the 2010 World Cup. The world’s biggest sporting tournament was hijacked by the narrative of Ronaldo v. Messi. The first World Cup with the two best players of the game in their prime. Neither player was able to guide their teams to the promise land. Ronaldo and Portugal lost to Spain in the first stage of the knockout rounds while Messi’s Argentina was a distant second to a quality German side. Messi fans would have had the first laugh with Ronaldo loyalist supported the Nationalelf when they faced Argentina in the last eight. It was a back and forth between the two camps though neither side could claim victory over the other at this stage.
That was the case until the end of the calendar year. Messi reigned supreme over Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or for the next three years making it four on the trot for the diminutive Argentine. And once again, the World Cup rolled around. With Ronaldo succumbing to injury and a shock group stage exit, all eyes panned to Lionel as he rode the wave to what was looking to be the first title with La Albiceleste. The World Cup was his to lose and as it turns out, he had one hand on the trophy before it was snatched away from him. While Gonzalo Higuaín is to blame and Germany ultimately triumphed, 2014 will always be remembered as the year where Messi lost the World Cup.
After four years of dominance, Ronaldo once again forced his way to win the Ballon d’Or that was coupled with Real Madrid’s La Decima. While there was a valid argument against him given the flop that was his World Cup campaign, Ronaldo’s Champions League performances were enough to push him over the top. And he would win it again to take his tally to three, just one behind his rival. Frank Ribery and Manuel Neuer had come close though neither were able to topple the duopoly that continued for several more years. Messi would reply back by leading Barcelona to a European treble His semifinal performances against Bayern may have produced his best goal ever. Leaving Jerome Boateng on the floor counting the number of blades of grass on the pitch, Neuer was left with a stunned look on the face as the ball sank into the back of the net. Five for Messi and the balance of power was once again his.
2016 would be all Cristiano Ronaldo. A third Champions League crown and a long-awaited first title were Portugal sealed his fourth Ballon d’Or in Paris. While it was Eder who was the difference between France and the Portuguese, Ronaldo’s individual and team success could not be denied.
While the two have never been friends, Ronaldo and Messi do not quite have the enmity that was expected from their respective fanbases. When Messi was in tears after missing a penalty in the Copa America final, it was Ronaldo that came to his defense and supported his fellow player in the football fraternity. And this has defined their duality. Not the cutthroat nature that was expected. Not the animosity between Real Madrid and Barcelona that nearly tore apart the Spanish locker-room. But one of respect and admiration between two men who are the greatest to ever grace the sport they both love. When Ronaldo won the FIFA Best Player award in 2017, the camera shifted to Lionel Messi. There was not a hint of jealousy in his face. Just admiration for a player who inspired him to improve his own game. This is what makes this rivalry more exceptional than most. While the two have had their battles for with their club teams and for the status as the G.O.A.T, their respect and regard for one another made us love football. For fans all around the world, they made us stay up all night to see them face one another. The conversation for the greatest ever dominated watercooler talk.
And now the Ballon d’Or has lost the niche that it had during the Messi-Ronaldo era. A night that was once meant to crown football’s best had its results leaked long before Modric took the stage in Paris. He was deserving of winning the mantle this year. The narrative that his campaign ran upon had the backbone of a third straight Champions League title and a dream run to the World Cup Final. All this is fine, though the two best players of the game were not there in person to congratulate the Croat. The presumptive third best player in the game – Neymar Jr. – was live streaming Call of Duty. Messi was also not in the top 3 and finished fifth. A fair argument can be made for him to not come out on top. But it was blasphemous to not have him in the top three.
The duopoly was always going to come to an end. Father time is undefeated and both players have appeared to have lost a step (though they are still a country mile ahead of the rest of the flock). For the likes of Neuer, Ribery, Xavi, Iniesta, and even Modric; their heirs are already playing the game. There is a new generation of professionals that is led by Kylian Mbappe. But for Ronaldo and Messi, there is nobody who can replace them in this lifetime. Sheer domination, the heart of a lion, class, and unparalleled talent. All of these characteristics defined the two. Their decade-long dominance took the most watched sport in the world to new heights. And while their era of supremacy may be coming to an end, their story will forever live on.