For the two greatest footballers in the world, it’s surprising how little known Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are.
Surely we know all about their exploits on the pitch – the goals scored, the trophies won – and we are greeted by them every day on social media, in adverts and, for the next few weeks, on our TV screens for world Cup. One even added a bonus set of TV interviews to make sure we didn’t forget about it.
But there is a difference between what we think we know about these two behemoths of the beautiful game, and what is done. They have not even reached the plains of retirement and already their myth has begun to overtake their reality.
Messi vs Ronaldo details the incredible impact the two footballing superstars have had on the game
“People think they know this story because we all just lived through this time,” says Joshua Robinson, one of the co-authors of Messi vs Ronaldo: A rivalry, two GOATs and the era that remade the world game.
As Robinson and Jonathan Clegg reveal in their book, a riveting and detailed account of modern football’s great rivalry that spanned two years, that assumption is very wrong.
“When we started writing the book, we assumed that Ronaldo’s origin myth about him playing in that mind-blowing friendly against Manchester United [Sir Alex] Ferguson, then the deal is done. We assumed that was how it happened,” says Clegg.
“We found out that was not the case, that everything had been prearranged, that the agreement had even been signed, or that the handshake had taken place, before the friendly had venue.
“It was football folklore at that time, it was established history. To find out it was wrong, we then realized – OK, how many other myths deserve further investigation?
“When you start digging into the accepted wisdom about them, you realize that’s not exactly what it was.”
The book busted the myth of how Manchester United signed Cristiano Ronaldo
Robinson and Clegg are both reporters for the Wall Street Journal and this is their second title, after their first bestselling book. The club sought to put the origins of the Premier League under the microscope.
Having had front-row seats for the duration of the Messi-Ronaldo era, there are few better placed to tackle the game’s latest seismic power struggle.
Revelations about how a red card at Fratton Park against Portsmouth in 2007 was key to making Cristiano Ronaldo the goalscoring monster we know today, with Barcelona turning down a 2021 LaLiga offer despite the explicit understanding that she would allow them to keep. Messi, the pair have unearthed a treasure trove of gold nuggets.
But as Robinson and Clegg point out, this story is much more important than that of two individuals.
“You can’t really pull them out of that era without looking at all the ripple effects – down to the Super League, which for us is clearly linked to super club spending on Messi and Ronaldo,” Robinson says.
Take for example the discovery that Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, once tried to turn the club into a theme park, such was the need for extra income to satiate Ronaldo and an ever-growing wage bill.
“I remember being on a zoom call when we were talking to the person who told us this story,” Clegg says. ‘Honestly, both of our jaws were like Boom… on the floor. It was just like, ‘Wait what? What was he going to do?
Authors Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg insist the pair’s impact was felt from afar
“You get that very rarely, but we were like we transcribed exactly what we got, and it goes straight into the book.
Robinson adds: “I remember that call ended and immediately we called each other, and it was just, ‘Can you believe that? Did you hear correctly?”.
Of course, to help them navigate the madness, there was a series of contacts. The competitive nature between Messi and Ronaldo and their opposing camps is such that extracting details from one side would invariably prompt the other to post part of a story as well.
But the couple discovered that one of their most helpful sources was a bit unconventional.
“I think one of our best sources was actually dead,” admits Clegg.
“Johan Cruyff’s columns were a veritable treasure trove of Barcelona history. We realized that each development Cruyff had somehow chronicled and given its own weird and unique take on the time.
One of the best sources the couple had for their book was the old columns of Johan Cruyff (left)
“As we were telling the story, we realized that the Cruyff was actually a character in the story. It’s impossible to tell a story about Barcelona without Cruyff and in a way even now his influence is feel in the way this team plays, its influence is felt in the corridors of power in Barcelona, even in the boardroom, in the dugout.
“A lot of times he was just going to weigh in on his column and the people at the club were shaking when they read that stuff because he was usually extremely critical,” added Robinson.
“And amazingly accurate, too! replies Clegg. “Any signing he planned would fail. He highlighted the danger of giving Messi too much power. He was just surprisingly prescient in a lot of the stuff he wrote.
Cruyff, like everyone else, also had his own opinions on the Messi vs Ronaldo debate. But is it possible to arrive at a definitive answer on who is greatest to grace the game?
Messi versus Ronaldo is now available to purchase
‘Even in the writing of all this, our documents had the prefix Messinaldo, because for us they were just one character. I think we’re not the only ones who see it that way,” Robinson says.
“We spoke to the guy who is the director of the Ballon d’Or and he said, even during this period, where they were sweeping the award every year, for voters they became almost a character because they shaped the time, and for as long as there was no one else at their level – in their stratosphere in fact.
‘It’s pretty much the same way as Roger [Federer] or Rafa [Nadal]Where [Novak] Djokovic. You know it all comes down to personal preference,” says Clegg.
“It depends on your view of the world. Do you naturally prefer and side with natural genius? Or are you on the side of the tough guy, the grafter, the person who has to work for everything they got?
“Even now, in every football article, the comments section invariably boils down to a Messi-Ronaldo debate. Because that’s just one of the big unanswered ones.
Messi vs Ronaldo: A rivalry, two GOATs and the era that reshaped the world game by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. Published by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, November 10, 2022. Click here to buy now.