Many would argue that the Champions League has eclipsed the international game as the pinnacle of world football in the modern era, with a host of players prioritising their clubs over stepping out for their countries.
With the iconic footballing names of yesteryear all forging their reputations in their national colours, the top players of today have an ideal platform to follow suit at next summer’s World Cup.
The top stars to ever play the beautiful game, such as Pelé and Diego Maradona, are remembered predominantly for what they achieved in 1970 and 1986 for Brazil and Argentina, not their triumphs for Santos or Napoli.
Today’s game has Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the undoubted top two players in the world game, but their incredible feats for Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona take precedence over their performances for their nations.
Both have been at the sport’s pinnacle for some years now, and are certainly the top players of a generation. However, for either Ronaldo or Messi to cement their spot in history and take their place alongside the Pelé’s and Maradona’s of this world, achievement on the global stage is necessary.
Both will be present in Brazil next summer after playing their part in the qualification process. Argentina qualified automatically, while Portugal had to go through the arduous play-offs to seal their spot.
With the Iberian nation handed a potential banana-skin fixture against Sweden, with Zlatan Ibrahimović fighting for potentially his last chance to play at a World Cup, Ronaldo’s considerable abilities were needed. The Real Madrid man did not let his country down.
A winning goal late in a tense first leg gave Portugal a slender 1-0 lead in Lisbon, while a memorable hat-trick completing the job in the return leg in Scandinavia. While Zlatan will be missed at the World Cup, the event would not be the same had Ronaldo not performed miracles to get his nation there.
Messi and Ronaldo, so used to their personal battle at club level, will now have a new battlefield, with both striving to prove themselves as the world’s best and inspire their respective nations to an historic triumph in Brazil.
With this year’s Ballon d’Or in mind, Ronaldo has taken a massive positive step in wrestling the prestigious accolade away from his arch nemesis over the last week.
The Barcelona star has retained the moniker of world’s best player for three consecutive years, and is looking to make it a groundbreaking fourth. However, Ronaldo looks more likely now to have a successful claim for the Ballon d’Or than he has at any point in the last 36 months.
With Messi injured and not living up his monumentally high standards this season, talk of the Argentine’s powers diminishing has been whispered in dark corners. The Barca man even suffered a media-coined ‘goal drought’, not scoring in four consecutive games.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo has been taking no prisoners and is the sole reason that the Santiago Bernabéu side are not further behind the Catalans in the La Liga title race.
An astonishing 16 goals in the league compared to Messi’s eight show that Ronaldo is the man in form in Spain. In the Champions League it has been much the same, with the Madridista hitting eight goals to the Blaugrana man’s six.
The real battle for footballing immortality looks set to take place between Messi and Ronaldo in Brazil next summer, but in the build-up the Portuguese attacker has every chance of ending his rival’s personal dominance with a potential Ballon d’Or victory.