BRUSSELS - It’s hard to feel sorry for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portugal and Real Madrid striker is tall, movie-star handsome and possessed with a swaggering soccer talent that’s made him fabulously wealthy at the age of 26.
Ronaldo however lives under a shadow. Its name is Lionel Messi.
On Monday night the diminutive Argentine, nicknamed the “flea,” won world soccer’s player of the year award for the third successive year, a rare achievement that underscores Messi’s domination of the game and once-again relegated Ronaldo to second best.
Soccer’s great and good gathered in Zurich to enthrone the Barcelona star as one of the sports all-time legends.
“Great players could play in any generation. Lionel Messi could play in the 1950s and the present day, as could Di Stefano, Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, because they are all great players,” proclaimed Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson. “Messi without question fits into that category.”
Born in Rosario, Argentina, Messi was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at the age of 11, but his precocious skills were quickly spotted by Barcelona who took him to Spain and paid for treatment. At 17 he made his debut in the Spanish league and in 2008 he came second behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the world player of the year rankings.
Since then Messi has won every year, with Ronaldo second in 2009 and 2011. Inspired by Messi, Barcelona has won five Spanish titles since 2005 along with three European Champions’ Leagues and two World Club Cups. In contrast, since Ronaldo joined in 2009, Barca’s archrival Real has added just one Spanish Cup to their silverware.
The Portuguese star did not bother showing up for the ceremony in Zurich since Messi victory seemed so certain. He already hears the Argentine’s name often, when opposition fans regularly taut him by chanting it at matches.
Ronaldo — who was named after former US President Ronald Reagan, his father’s favorite actor — hasn’t let it get to him too often on the pitch. He was top goal scorer in Spain last season, and leads the goal table this season, ahead of Messi.
Perhaps the biggest winners in this great soccer rivalry are Spanish soccer fans, who get to see the world’s best players every week – some consolation in a country mired deep in economic gloom.