THE BALL HANGS deliciously in the air about four minutes into the game. A cross from Portugal’s Goncalo Guedes is on its way. Below it, waiting for it, a mad scramble has ensued. Men are pushing for it, shoving each other to deny it. The Portuguese centreback Pepe moves his large frame from the left of the goal-post to the right, shoving his body into the Moroccan player Khalid Boutaib, which later prompts the manager of the Morocco team Herve Renard to say, “I’m not going to say what I think because I don’t want to get in trouble.” But Renard says it anyway: “… look at what [Pepe] does on the corner... it was a foul.”
As the cross comes in, as Pepe collides to the ground, taking a defender down with him, Christiano Ronaldo materialises almost magically. He has effortlessly peeled himself away from the Moroccan defenders. The ball is as though sifting through the crowd in search for Ronaldo, his feet, his frame, maybe even just his head. And he obliges. Ronaldo dives a header past the keeper, his face just inches away from an opponent’s boot.
It is a magical moment so early in the game. Morocco keeps Portugal on its toes for the rest of the match. But Ronaldo’s magic, just that one moment at least for that day, is enough. Portugal qualifies to the next round. Morocco finds itself the first team out of the tournament.
Football is an ugly and a beautiful game. But Ronaldo’s header, even if there was a touch of venality in the goal-post that day, was beautiful. With that header, he now has 85 international goals, the most by any European player ever. He had a total of only four goals in three tournaments earlier. Now, just a week into the Cup, he has four in two games.
There are 736 players at Russia 2018. But we all know which two matter the most. We are not in front of the telly or at a stadium just to watch which team is the world’s best. We are all also here to decide once and for all who between Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is the best. Their legacies rest on this tournament. Two players who grew up halfway across the world from each other have been locked in a decade-long duel. And in a way, our obsession with the two is not just about football. Football may be the way we measure it. But the two—in their mannerisms and differences, both physical and psychological—seem to represent a vital question humans have been asking each other for centuries. What sort is the greater—the physical or the cerebral? The confident or the modest? Is it Ronaldo, the preening Adonis on the football field? The pure physical presence, all muscle and power, who thrills in the big wide spaces of the football field and appears to live life in exaggerated gestures. Or is it Messi, the slighter, more unassuming person? The one who is neither too tall nor too muscular, who, far from preening, appears to want instead to melt into the crowd, but when on the field is clever and perceptive, who thrills in the small tight areas of the ground, and perhaps in life.
The two of them, it appears sometimes, have spent their life trying to convince us who is better. Now, as they approach their years of inevitable decline, perhaps an answer is close. One will succumb and the other succeed. Perhaps both will.
Just a week in, while Messi has been underwhelming, unable to beat newcomers Iceland, Ronaldo has been a sensation. It is not just those four goals Ronaldo has scored. Both Messi and Ronaldo are playing in teams that are far less talented than the clubs they turn in for. But where Messi has not been able to get much support from anyone else in an Argentina jersey, Ronaldo appears to be more successfully egging on his teammates.