We didn’t need the award to tell us what we already knew. We haven’t needed the award in years.
On Monday, FIFA’s unpronounceable and grammatically pained The Best awards crowned Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best player of 2017. Well, actually, he was the best player from November 2016 through to right about now. But never mind that.
He’s also not yet the unanimous player of the year. Yet. From 2010 through 2015, the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year were melded into one award. But last year, FIFA’s new regime decided it no longer wanted to pay the French magazine France Football for the rights to the Ballon d’Or and the prizes separated again, with the World Player of the Year rebranded as The Best — to encompass several other awards as well.
The Ballon d’Or is supposed to be handed out sometime before the end of the year. Ronaldo will likely win that as well, because the prize hasn’t been split in many years. And his Real Madrid won both La Liga and the Champions League last season — the latter for a third time in four years and a second in a row. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Argentina, meanwhile, won nothing of note.
And the way we’ve separated those two is by counting the prizes. Never mind that Messi’s Argentina lost the World Cup and two Copa America finals in three consecutive summers either in extra time or on penalties; Ronaldo has now three out of the last four years for his Champions League success with Real, and his European Championship with Portugal. The silverware has counted as a sorting mechanism of sorts.
So, assuming Ronaldo also takes another Ballon d’Or, both he and Messi will have five unanimous world player of the year awards. No other man has even three of both. Only the Brazilian Ronaldo has two.
And that’s about all the words we’ll waste on these increasingly farcical awards, the self-important black-tie events that somehow seek to superimpose order on social media debates by letting hundreds of partisan voters (national team coaches and captains and some journalists) settle an unwinnable dispute over whether Messi or Ronaldo is better.
Because these awards miss the point.
We don’t need them to see that Messi and Ronaldo, or Ronaldo and Messi, are the two best soccer players we’ve ever had. At this point, only nostalgia, melancholy and stubbornness would compel you to make a case for Pele and Diego Maradona. Because even if you corrected their skill and ability for the same age Ronaldo and Messi played in — with enormous advances in technique, equipment and sports science — you’d have to concede that Pele never played his club soccer outside of the Western Hemisphere. While the Brazilian league was a great deal stronger in his day, and the Copa Libertadores meant more than it does now, the best competition then, as now, wasn’t in South America. And Maradona’s self-destructive streak was such that his prime was truncated to somewhere between six and eight years, depending on how you count.
Neither Messi nor Ronaldo has won a World Cup — the lone argument against them. But Messi has led a fairly forgettable Argentina to a final and Ronaldo willed a pedestrian Portugal to a Euro title. Whereas Pele and Maradona both played with all-time great and excellent supporting casts, respectively. The argument doesn’t hold up.
Ronaldo and Messi have both accomplished more, and been the world’s best for longer, than Pele and Maradona did.
And collectively, they have now swept the world player of the year awards for a stunning 10 consecutive seasons — again, assuming Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or coronation.
But then the trouble with individual awards in a team sport where every player is as reliant on his teammates as even the best soccer player is, is that there’s no fair, or even logical, way of adjudicating it. How do you measure a soccer player’s worth over another? You can’t. All you can observe is transcendence. And Messi and Ronaldo have both floated above their peers for a decade or so.
Who you ultimately choose as the best in any given one of those 10 years is a matter of preference. Do you like to see the sheer athletic shock of Ronaldo, with his big swooping runs and bombastic finishes, followed by his theatrical celebrations? He’s the brute instrument, carefully calibrated nonetheless. Or would you rather watch Messi’s tiny intricacy, dribbling about until he winds up with a little dink into the net? Messi is the Swiss watch, with every little part working just so.
How do you choose? You don’t. You can’t. It comes down to taste. So, instead, you resort to counting team prizes.
And all that’s left to do is agree that no matter how many more of these prizes they pile up, they are both the best. Wait. Sorry. I believe it’s now capitalized as The Best.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.