How Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi became superstars on and off the pitch

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Two of the greatest football players who ever lived sat awkwardly in a Swiss opera house wondering why they had bothered to show up. There was floppy-haired Lionel Messi in a dark suit draped over his narrow shoulders. And there was Cristiano Ronaldo with diamond studs in his ears and wearing a tuxedo, although the event was expressly not black tie. None of them wanted to be there. None of them were allowed to leave.

The reason they slumped like punished school children was the empty seat between them.

At their first-ever FIFA World Player Gala – an annual celebration of dazzling skill, relentless drive and uncomfortable banter – both Messi and Ronaldo were voted in not enough the best men’s player of 2007. Instead, that honor had gone to a Brazilian playmaker named Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, or Kaká for short, who was now on stage to collect his trophy. He was older than Messi and Ronaldo, and for them he was also worse at football.

At least two other people in the velvet seats of the opera house that night agreed.

One was a former Portuguese nightclub promoter named Jorge Mendes, who transformed himself into a slick-haired football agent moving Iberian and South American players across Europe as casually as he juggled his many cell phones. Putting Ronaldo on this stage was a key part of his master plan to make his client the richest athlete on the planet.

What no one could predict in Zurich that night was that the guys who finished second and third were about to turn football into an individual sport.

The other Jorge in the room was even more outraged. That would be Jorge Messi, father of Lionel, who still spent much of his time in their hometown of Rosario, Argentina. It had been just seven years since he took his sobbing son on a flight to Spain in hopes of impressing some FC Barcelona coaches. Now the former steelworks supervisor was also an agent – with a client who shared his last name – fumbling in the sport’s toughest business.

That night, they all learned a vital lesson. Award shows like this had never counted for much in football before. The trophies that mattered were the ones handed out on the field, at the end of a fight, with everyone wearing shorts, not designer suits. But that was about to change. The game they grew up with had never seen a significant rivalry between two soloists. What no one could predict in Zurich that night was that the guys who finished second and third were about to turn football into an individual sport. Award shows would become their unlikely battleground, as soon as Messi and Ronaldo could start winning them.

Yet Messi, Ronaldo and the Jorges could not forget that this event, with potential long-term effects on transfer fees and sponsorship deals, was unfolding like Sepp Blatter’s personal cocktail party. Long before it was discovered that he was paying himself tens of millions of dollars in illicit bonuses – that is, while he was still enjoying these bonuses – the long-serving FIFA President concocted the awards ceremony as another way to surround yourself with football legends and supermodels.

And this year, for the first time, the gala was broadcast live, in its entirety, with Blatter playing his favorite footballer role that wasn’t centre-forward: emcee center stage. Next to him were two Swiss television personalities whose job it was to keep the proceedings going and repeat Blatter in French, English and German. But to hand over the evening’s top prize, the FIFA president needed more clout. He called on none other than football’s most prolific goalscorer and striker of all time, three-time World Cup winner Pele. It was the FIFA equivalent of the Grammys with Paul McCartney.

[Ronaldo] discovered something even more embarrassing than showing up to this event and losing: showing up to this event and being forced to hand over his trophy to Messi.

The organization that Blatter had built from a small football tournament promoter to a global marketing and television rights behemoth was based on around half a billion dollars in cash at the time. In its day-to-day operations, FIFA was more like a medium-sized record company or insurance company than a sports body. And like any self-respecting record company, it held a vital interest in making its own stars.

The problem was that in the mid-2000s, football’s skies were a bit darker than usual. The four men who had shared all the awards from 1996 to 2005 were now in their twilight years. Age and weight had caught up with Real Madrid Galacticos—Zinedine Zidane, Luís Figo and Brazilian Ronaldo. Two-time winner Ronaldinho, meanwhile, barely found time to play games for Barcelona in between all-night beach parties. Things were so thin at the top of football’s food chain that in 2006 the accolade for the world’s most exciting top talent went to Fabio Cannavaro. He was a defender.

Now it was Kaká’s turn. The clean-lined, middle-class kid from Sao Paulo ruled the AC Milan midfield with an easy grace that belied the nightmare he faced. Kaká, a freshly created European champion, had been the golden boy before Cristiano was the golden boy and long before Leo had finished growing to five-foot-seven.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the crucial moment. I have some practice opening envelopes,” Blatter said, without the slightest irony. “Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the FIFA World Player 2007, of this gala here in Zurich, is Kakaaaa.”

Kaka stood up. Pelé, a man who had shilled for everyone from American Express to Viagra, proudly supported his compatriot. Messi and Ronaldo remained on the bench.

To make matters worse for the sulky pair, they had been through the same exercise two weeks earlier in Paris at the Ballon d’Or, a separate Player of the Year award that would later be unified with the FIFA award. The element of surprise has therefore been somewhat reduced. “To be honest, I kinda expected it,” Kaká said. “I won the Champions League and was the competition’s top scorer… That’s the key. You have to play on a winning team.

For an entire era in the game’s history, one man or another has won football’s highest individual prize every year.

Not that Messi and Ronaldo played for pubs. Messi, 20, had broken into the starting line-up at Barcelona under former Dutch great Frank Rijkaard, who was doing his best to work out what position this dribbler Argentine really belonged to. And Ronaldo, 22, was a real star in Manchester. United, where his manager, Alex Ferguson, had spent four years toughening him up to become the most complete striker in the game.

Messi and Ronaldo were already world-class, with Champions League and Premier League winners’ medals on home soil. Still, Kaká garnered more votes than the two put together. As a final indignity to the losers, Blatter invited them onto the stage to pose for pictures. Pelé handed each of them a small trophy, smaller than Kaká’s, only to realize that he had mixed them up.

Somehow, he had given the second place award to Ronaldo and the third place trophy to Messi. Blatter had to step in, moving between football geniuses to make sure everyone was holding the right gear. “Second, second for Lionel,” said one of the other two entertainers on stage, with the sort of generic European accent that populates world football. “Could you please change it?”

For a moment, Ronaldo came as close as he could get to feeling embarrassed. He had discovered something even more embarrassing than showing up to this event and losing: showing up to this event and being forced to hand over his trophy to Messi. They traded second and third place as Ronaldo hoped the opera would open up and swallow him whole. When that didn’t happen, he endured one last blow. “You tried, you tried,” one of the hosts said as the crowd laughed. “But you failed.”

He also failed to smile. Ronaldo and Messi were forced to stay on stage until the end of the show until an orchestra played them with ‘The Impossible Dream’ from the musical Man from La Mancha. They hadn’t come to the opera for the Broadway numbers. And they certainly hadn’t come not to win.

In the end, that wasn’t a problem for a long time. By the time someone not named Ronaldo or Messi would win the next award, it would be 2018, 11 years later. No matter what Kaká said about winning teams, that award was the ultimate yardstick for individual achievement in the world’s favorite team sport – and the award Messi and Ronaldo cared about most.

It was also the rare arena where they could be compared regardless of teammates or circumstances. Here’s a live measure of the all-time greatness, Messi or Ronaldo, Ronaldo or Messi. For an entire era in the game’s history, one man or another would win football’s highest individual prize every year – a decade defined by their personal duels, staggering numbers and the wreckage they left behind them.

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Extract of Messi vs Ronaldo: A rivalry, two GOATs and the era that reshaped the world game by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, published November 1 by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2022 by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. Reprinted with permission.

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