The penthouse suite at the top of world football is not big enough to accommodate both global giants, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The sign on the door says: “All welcome who are addicted to winning,” but in reality, no matter how hard Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Yaya Touré and Neymar try to kick the door down, Ronaldo and Messi are the only ones slugging it out for the key.
At Old Trafford in Manchester on Tuesday night, Portugal take on Argentina in a friendly encounter that will be a lot less about which country will win than about whether Ronaldo can get the better of Messi, or the other way around.
Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez may as well be well-paid spectators to the Messi and Ronaldo Show. You can never watch a Portugal versus Argentina game as just another game. It is impossible — much like Real Madrid against Barcelona clashes are seldom about the three points. And for that we have a lot to be thankful.
Maybe posthumously, or once they have both hung up their boots, will we ever fully appreciate how enormous their rivalry has been for the advancement of the sport.
Over time, sport has given us Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus — but rarely anything this sumptuous in a team environment.
This battle is also fought off the field and in dressing rooms — as we are led to believe with Ronaldo’s alleged profane nickname for Messi (That Motherf……) coming to the surface, which adds spice to an already steamy serving.
The wonder now is whether matters will reach Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane proportions — a rivalry so heated that the walk through the tunnel from the dressing room to the pitch before a match between Arsenal and Manchester United seemed to last an eternity.
We are drawn to these gods of football because we see ourselves in their qualities. Our personalities, struggles, flaws, joys and disappointments can be characterised by which side of the Messi-Ronaldo divide we fall.
If you have been told at any point in your life that it would take extraordinary measures for you to achieve your dreams because of some predetermined defect or shortcoming (like stunted growth), but stubbornly went ahead in your pursuit, you are likely to be a Messi admirer.
But if you strive for perfection and your life is a journey towards an ideal, you are most likely to be partial to the preening World Player of the Year.
Ronaldo, 29, is as close to a perfect athletic specimen as you are going to get. A Castrol Edge study showed the Portuguese player jumped higher than the average basketball player from a standing start and is just a few milliseconds slower than a professional 100m sprinter.
Messi, 27, almost plays to prove doubters wrong and, even if there are not too many left after 410 career goals, a number that changes by the day, he loses no desire to scale the highest peaks. Defenders’ legs to him are merely drill cones, but the four-time Ballon D’Or winner is not immune to criticism.
Often the public stoning from dissenters is about the quality of his teammates at Barcelona, the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, whose dedicated roles have been to carve openings when Messi cannot cleave through. This view grossly undermines Messi’s genius.
Ronaldo is said to have racked up his 450 career goals “on his own”, which is a bizarre assertion that pushes the work of Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso’s combination in Real Madrid’s midfield and Paul Scholes at Manchester United too far towards the periphery.
He is also the one that allegedly carries the team. But how much carrying Ronaldo actually does at Real Madrid, with the muscle of Modric, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos to rely on, is highly debatable.
However, Portugal do need him to take on the opposition’s 11 men virtually on his own — which explains why they have tripped up at every major tournament since Euro 2004. His countrymen simply do not have the engine to get Ronaldo’s Bridgestone wheels burning.
As promising as midfielder William Carvalho is, he is no match for Javier Mascherano’s bite and Ronaldo does not have Aguero to share ideas with up front like Messi does.
At the World Cup in Brazil, Portugal’s inability to get out of the group stages was blamed on Ronaldo freezing on the biggest stage — a chronic knee injury notwithstanding. Messi was branded “not Maradona” after Argentina failed to lift the trophy in the final against Germany.
No matter how much they achieve, we put them under a wider-lens microscope. Messi is tied with Raúl atop the all-time Uefa Champions League top goal-scorers list on 71, and Ronaldo is one goal shy, but the obsession now is over on who will eventually surpass the record.
The partisan goggles we wear put us in danger of missing one of sport’s greatest rivalries. For one night, let us just enjoy the show.