Written by Harshil Nakum
Can they do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke? The question still remains; it’s just that the players are different now. As Messi and Ronaldo approach the end of their glorious careers, football pundits have already ignited yet another meaningless rivalry. They have compared Haaland and Mbappé to young Ronaldo and Messi. The arguments they present to support this comparison make even Bartomeu’s signings seem more sensible.
During his prime at Old Trafford, Ronaldo played as a Wide Forward or sometimes a Second Striker, assisting the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. Ronaldo had a stage to perform upon and seldom did he disappoint. Tactics favoured more of a playmaker-type role to Ronaldo; he had a good number of assists that season. The Right Wing Forward role suited Ronaldo the best; he continued playing in the same position for his national team and later for Real Madrid. At Santiago Bernabéu, he evolved into one of the greatest marksmen in the history of football.
Lionel Messi had risen through the ranks at La Masia, the Barcelona Academy for young talents. Messi, like Ronaldo, had a phenomenal team. At that time, Barcelona was undoubtedly the best team in Europe, packed with talents we call ‘legends’ today. Messi wasn’t a starter for the first team until he had his phenomenal Ballon d'Or season at Camp Nou. Under Pep Guardiola, Messi became the legend he is today. His playing style always resonated with Barcelona’s way — total football. His actual position cannot be pinpointed; sometimes he played from the deep as an Attacking Midfielder, other times as a Left Wing Forward. During his prime and best seasons, he was best described as a False 9.
On the other hand, Haaland under Dortmund doesn’t have the advantages Ronaldo or Messi had. The Dortmund team doesn’t have the quality Haaland needs, and after the recent exit of Jadon Sancho, it will become even more difficult. Haaland has shown glimpses of his dribbling and playmaking skills, but his physique roars ‘classic striker’ that he would become in the near future. He fits right into the Center Forward position in the Dortmund lineup. His ability to find spaces in opposition defences and scoring screamers has already been identified. However, it is unfair to compare the opportunities in Dortmund to those in Ferguson’s Fearsome United or Pep’s Prime Barcelona. Haaland’s performances with such an average team are surely remarkable. He is undoubtedly the most influential player in Dortmund. However, it’s a different case with Mbappé. PSG is a very good team, and extraordinary forwards like Neymar, Di María, and Mbappé form a lethal attacking trio. Despite having some of the world’s best forwards, they are yet to achieve anything significant on the European level. PSG isn’t anywhere near 2007/08 United or 2009/10 Barcelona, but they are certainly not Dortmund.
Messi and Ronaldo might have fewer goals per season compared to Haaland and Mbappé, as they played in a completely different time and in far more competitive leagues than Ligue 1 and Bundesliga. So, does it mean one can’t declare a winner among these players? Not entirely true. We can surely compare European domination at their respective ages. Messi and Ronaldo were not overshadowed by legends they played with, like Ronaldinho or Rooney, in any way; they dominated Europe impeccably. They won the Ballon d’Or at the ages of 22 and 23, respectively — which is the highest individual award a footballer can achieve. They didn’t stop there. They did it for 10 straight years! The Messi-Ronaldo rivalry is built upon otherworldly skills and not just upon numbers.
Ronaldo and Messi didn’t just run fast and finish effectively, but also demonstrated skills that the footballing world had never witnessed before. Don’t believe me yet? Watch the free-kicks Ronaldo scored during his time at Manchester United and you will easily see the difference. It is not just about scoring a free-kick; it is also about his technique which took him from a ‘talented young player’ to a ‘generational talent.’
Haaland and Mbappé might become the next big thing or even overtake Ronaldo or Messi. Make no mistake; they are undoubtedly some of the best young talents on the planet. But, are they good enough to be compared to gods of the game? Everyone shares a different opinion, but only time can answer the question — can they do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke?