With cultural icon David Bowie’s passing today, it makes sense to recall his best moments and muse on his otherworldly impact on music. Upon hearing the news, I immediately began re-listening to many of his old albums and reading obituaries and essays on Bowie’s greatness. This is all well and good, to remember a legend fondly. But it makes me wish I had appreciated him a little more over the last several years.
I wonder if the same thing is happening with now five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. You may know that no other player in history has even four of those (due to the Euro-centric nature of the award until 1995, all-timers like Pele and Maradona weren’t eligible), but are we really able to accurately comprehend Messi’s unprecedented brilliance on a daily basis? Are we capable of fully understanding the historical aspect of what he’s doing? Like with any consistently great performer, over time we become numb to that feeling we first had watching him play.
Of course, it has become difficult to discuss Messi’s superhuman play without referencing the great rivalry of our time between the two players that have won the last eight Ballon d’Ors. After Cristiano Ronaldo had taken the trophy back-to-back in 2013 and ‘14, he now sits two behind Messi again with three. Both players have readily admitted that the rivalry has pushed them to be even greater heights, so now the pressure is back on Ronaldo to reach the pinnacle yet again.
I’m not sure how long we will have the pleasure of watching this Messi-Ronaldo duopoly. If you’ve been following soccer since 2007, when Kaka was the last non-Messi/Ronaldo winner, maybe it has started to feel like they will always be on top. Rationally, we know this won’t happen. Age slows down even the best of the best. Ronaldo is about to turn 31 and this season has shown that his athleticism has dipped ever so slightly. How long can he continue to be an outlier alongside Leo?
Neymar will undoubtedly have a say in all this. The young Brazilian doesn’t seem to be bumping his head on the ceiling any time soon. At the age of 23, he’s a Ballon d’Or finalist for the first time. In 2007, both Messi and Ronaldo reached their first top 3 at the ages of 20 and 22, respectively. Neymar isn’t far off their pace. When Messi and Ronaldo finally relinquish their vice grip on the Best Player Alive belt, Neymar is likely the next recipient. Can Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard, or someone else be the Ronaldo to his Messi?
And yet, we need to caution ourselves from anointing the next generation before they earn it. As fans, we’re always looking for the Next Big Thing, and many times we don’t enjoy the greatness right under our nose. It’s a crime if we don’t recognize it until after it’s over. I realized two things today: 1) That I should’ve been listening to more Bowie, and 2) I should constantly be in awe of both what Messi (and Ronaldo) have already achieved and their regular genius in the present-day.