As someone who has made an attempt to weigh in on the Messi-Ronaldo comparison, reading Brian Phillips’ piece on the same subject leads me to feelings of writing inadequacy. Phillips’ article is really good. You should take a look even if you aren’t into soccer. After reading it, I feel like Donovan in the same room with Bob Dylan. Here is the conclusion:
In other words, poor Cristiano is on the wrong side of some powerful cultural forces. Given an improbably magical player with an improbably likable personality who, oh, by the way, happens to play for the most beloved and stylish team on the planet, fans are going to resist thinking he could have a rival at all, regardless of what happens on the pitch. You want to feel — I do, anyway — that no one could possibly be in Messi's league. And so, in the same way that Real Madrid has been transformed over the past few years into a sort of negative index of Barcelona's greatness, Ronaldo has become the designated hate object whose preordained role is to not be as good as Messi. In some weird way, discounting his talent means taking a stand against arrogance, pointlessly flashy play, and the soullessness of soccer mercenaries.9
And that sucks, both because it's mildly hypocritical — Barcelona has bought its share of mercenaries — and because Ronaldo himself is both a tremendously fun and a tremendously effective player whom fans ought to be able to enjoy. Even his outsize villainousness, which often makes him seem like a cross between Apollo Creed and mid-'80s Billy Zabka, adds something kind of wonderful. Give him his due. He's won a pile of trophies, broken some seriously impressive records, and frequently carried a Madrid team that's been pieced together out of mismatched parts. No, he's not as good as Messi, but he's closer than most of us let on. Over the long run, having a credible rival at the top of the game would make Messi seem better, not worse. And if they're ever going to form the dichotomy they seem designed for, it would be nice if the rest of us were prepared to notice.
I’m not sure if Europeans are quite as prone to the “if you’re not first, your last” fallacy, but that is also an element working against Ronaldo. Being the second-best player in the world is nothing to sneeze at, but because Ronaldo plays roughly the same position as Messi in the same league for a rival team, he is always going to be measured against Messi. Thus, it seems like he is coming in second in a league of two rather than second in a league of thousands. If one is inclined to engage in black-and-white thinking, then if Messi is white, Ronaldo has to be black.