The Problem With Pantheons: Football’s Reductive Fascination

With hair spiked and narcissistic boot inscription glittering, Cristiano Ronaldo will emerge from the Bernebeau tunnel to the sort of fanfare once reserved solely for Michael Jackson and The Beatles. A group of smiling Japanese tourists tucked away in a corner will enjoy 10 seconds of celebrity, as their “We Love Cristiano” poster greets the eyes of watchers around the world. A stadium of fans will rise together to cheer one-half of modern football’s most overwrought conundrum.

Several seconds later a shorter, less assuming young man will make his entrance. This time, though, the screams of tourists in the stands will be drowned out by the whistles of 80,000 Merengues. In Madrid, they’ve never quite taken to Lionel Messi.

Then statistics will appear on the television. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 26 goals in all competitions this season (including internationals). Messi betters that record by three. Just one goal on Sunday would tip the balance for either player, though. Goals in the Classico tend to take on a significance that transcends the numerical.

“Who is the best in the world?” Jose Mourinho asked in 2010. “There are two options, Cristiano? Messi?” Such is the footballing public’s almost unanimous consensus. They are the figureheads of Europe’s two best teams; it is natural that choice comes down to them and them alone.

Choosing between them has sparked intense wrangling.

In a cyber powered footballing forum dominated by Michael Cox devotees and facilitated by new-fangled Opta technology, the argument blossomed from pub-table banter into global controversy. It will never be resolved and, really, no one wants it to be. “Sports Entertainment,” as Rory Smith dubbed it in  The Blizzard, feeds off of such dull yet  addictive melodrama.

Everyone has to have their say, and the contrasting characters only enhance the interest, because it’s not just Ronaldo vs. Messi. It’s Nike vs. Adidas, Madrid vs. Barca, Dribbling vs. Passing, Hubris vs. Humility.

Above all, it’s silly. It’s silly to spend hours contrasting footballing geniuses and exploring cliched ideologies. Our efforts to construct a footballing pantheon has gone too far.

Trawling through Twitter on a Sunday afternoon can be a harrowing experience. Ronaldo or Messi, Ronaldo and Messi, Ronaldo >Messi, no Messi > Ronaldo u cunt! – it’s as wearing as it is reductive. Discussions of the two most talented players of this generation degenerate into smear campaigns. Messi can’t head. Ronaldo can’t pass.

By its very nature as a team sport, football makes it impossible to compare individual with any accuracy. Football isn’t tennis. Messi and Ronaldo don’t make each other better in the way McEnroe and Borg did. Their successes and failures do not spring from individual talent alone, and therefore their progress isn’t spurred by individual competition.

Messi and Ronaldo’s biannual confrontations throw the stupidity of this supposed rivalry into sharp relief. The 180 minutes of play are decisive to each year’s Ballon D’or, but the two contestants never come within even a yard of each other. Stuck up at either end, their physical isolation reflects their figurative one – distant from each other, but from the rest, too.

And then the pseudo-historians rear their heads: the so-called scholars of the game endowed with the grave responsibility to define eras and construct pantheons. Messi can’t just be the best player in the world — he must be placed exactly among the long retired greats. Messi is short. Maradona is short. Messi is Argentinian. Maradona is Argentinian. Messi is left-footed. Maradona is left-footed.

During its otherwise impeccable coverage of the 2010 World Cup, ESPN US dedicated five-minutes of air time to a detailed examination of the similarities between Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. The message was quite simple: if Messi wins the World Cup, he will match El Diego in the race to become the shortest, most talented Argentinian of all time.

That analysis leaves out a crucial fact: in South Africa, Messi faced-an obastacle that never confronted Maradona in Mexico — El Diego the manager.

The analysis also neglects to mention that Maradona the footballer competed against different players in a different era, that Argentina ’86 never fielded Martin Demichelis, and that the current Argentina side bears no resemblance to the team that won the World Cup.

The obsession with pantheons adds up to ahistorical sporting analysis. It is impossible to compare Maradona and Messi -not because the two individuals have no similarities, but because their surroundings offer a wealth of contrast. It is not football’s prerogative to pluck players from one spot and paste them into the next in a perpetual hunt for a definite answer — or the answer most suited to the current line of argument.

Not that the impossibility of making accurate historical comparisons has ever deterred the questing masses.

Debate and argumentation make football tick in the empty days between matches. Fans salivate over the artificial drama that football coverage constantly produces, and that pantheons epitomize. These manufactured story lines distract from a beauty that deserves to remain unadulterated, piling pointless pressure on the greatest players.

Creating pantheons is the footballing equivalent of masturbation. An insubstantial exercise in pleasurable self-indulgence designed to make-up for the temporary absence of something real. Perhaps, though, this is football’s 21st century fate. In a culture of over-saturation, pantheons fit in nicely – inspiring blogs, books and endless articles. They are social networking staples and scouting report cliches.

And, in the build-up to a potentially decisive La Liga clash this weekend, they are the center of attention. This week the candidates for the 2011 Fifa Ballon D’or were announced, football’s best and brightest releasing the names of the three men competing for top spot in this year’s pantheon. Ronaldo, Messi and Xavi Hernandez will vie for first.

It’s nice to know that, amidst all the insanity, some reason prevails. Prudence is one of Zlatan Ibrahamovich’s more underrated characteristics. “In my head, I am the strongest of all,” the Swede said an interview on Monday. “I certainly don’t need the Ballon D’or to prove that I am number one.” While the commentators argue and tweeters rant, somewhere in Milan a rather tall man with an unfortunate haircut will be laughing. Ibrahamovich, mirror in hand, won’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why talk of others when Zlatan is so near?

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