x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Messi or Ronaldo: popularity contest continues

It's clear that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the best players in the world by a distance, but they should show more respect to each other, writes Andrew Cole.

Lionel Messi won the Ballon d'Or award for a record fourth straight time while Cristiano Ronaldo was the runner-up for a third year in a row.
Lionel Messi won the Ballon d'Or award for a record fourth straight time while Cristiano Ronaldo was the runner-up for a third year in a row.

I winced at images of Pep Guardiola ignoring Cristiano Ronaldo when he offered a handshake at the Ballon d'Or awards in Zurich on Monday. It was excruciating. I'm glad he didn't blank me when I offered my hand at the Ryder Cup in October.

Then, he was charm personified. I'd gotten on well with him when he came to Man City in 2005 and we reminisced about games against each other for Manchester United and Barcelona. And I think he appreciated my support when Stuart Pearce told him that he wanted him to play for a trial period. Guardiola, quite rightly, felt he deserved more than a trial.

His wasn't the only snub in Switzerland. Lionel Messi, in his role as Argentina captain, omitted Ronaldo from his votes for the best three players in the world. Ronaldo, the Portugal captain, chose to hand over voting responsibility to teammate Bruno Alves. The Portugal manager, Paulo Bento, did put Messi in third, but Alves chose not to vote for Messi – and put Ronaldo at the top, naturally.

Many Manchester United players would do the same. I've heard them talk about Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher (as Scotland captain) having voted for Ronaldo. It's in part because they played with him, know him, like him and think he's brilliant. But doesn't it also reflect better on them if they say they've played with the best player in the world?

In my eyes, Messi is without question the best. He has that extra magic that's even beyond Ronaldo.

But I can understand why players put Ronaldo over Messi or vice versa. I can't understand it, though, when they don't include one of them in their top three. It seems a bit silly.

In 2001, my teammate Teddy Sheringham was voted PFA Footballer of the Year. It was well known that Teddy and I didn't get on, despite playing up front together. Yet nobody deserved that award more than him and I congratulated him. Our teammate Roy Keane came second. I honestly can't remember which one of the two I voted for. The mature me says Teddy, but I could be as cutting as Guardiola when I played. If I felt slighted, then I blanked people. It doesn't look good on the outside, as I saw on television the other day, but people have their reasons and in top-level sport, you can use them to spur you on, to push yourself farther. It's not always healthy to like your opponent.

I'm not talking about ignoring fans. A few people have said to me how they felt let down when they met me as a player. There are two sides to that. You signed 50 autographs, stop and the 51st person feels let down. And sometimes you just don't feel great or fancy chatting to someone you don't know.

Isn't everyone like that?

It's clear that Messi and Ronaldo are not best friends. They don't need to be, but neither of them came out of the awards well on Monday and both made headlines for negative reasons. They're the best players in the world by a distance, but they should show more respect to each other. Otherwise they look petty.

It hurts the credibility of the voting system, too, because it becomes a popularity contest.

It won't be the first event to suffer from tactical voting, but that doesn't make it right. This goes against the spirit of football, the one Fifa works so hard to promote. Stop laughing at the back.

Players really care about the votes from their peers. Just as Sheringham was delighted in 2001, so Messi will be pleased every year.

Those votes from fellow players, rather than the pen pushers in journalism, matter more to the players.

Iker Casillas, the captain of Spain, didn't vote for Messi either. Ridiculous. He played against him six times last year and knows how good he is. That just stirs the pot of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry.

Do they really despise each other so much, yet put their differences aside when many of them meet in the Spanish national team for the greater good?

The rivalry was something which hampered former Spain teams, but doesn't seem to affect this one. Or is it about supporting your teammates, the ones who support you every week?

The irony is that Messi and Ronaldo have got far more in common than not. They'd probably get on well if they could blow the clouds away.

And they'll probably spend most of the rest of their lives being unveiled as legends at awards ceremonies like the one in Zurich. It might be easier for both to make peace with one another, for mutual respect costs nothing.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of football correspondent Andy Mitten.

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