What separates genius from the good and even brilliant is the ability of a person to evolve with the passing of time, not just to mature, but to create anew, and still be inspirational,to remain a clear cut above the rest.
In top flight football , as in other elite sports, the threatening awareness of mortality, the ease with which a player can go from his peak to a swift decline, from valued asset to beyond sell-by date, is only too common, sometimes with tragic consequences on the personal front.
Among the greats one thinks of George Best, Ronaldinho, and Diego Maradona among those who squandered their talent and cut short their careers by losing the desire for discipline, for improvement, for relevance, for regeneration.
Contrast their relatively short professional period of rise and fall with the more than ten years that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have not only continued to break every key statistic in the game, but also give football fans around the world continuing unrivalled entertainment and joy with their dazzling uniqueness. On Sunday, in El Clasico, they will once again be the global focus of the biggest football club show of the year. And no true football fan can afford to miss the event.
And they have kept themselves up there, among the pantheon of football gods, each in his way measuring his ability to carve out a new role with his respective team and delivering on it in way that retains the respect and admiration of a succession of managers, colleagues, and fans.
At Barca, Messi began as a number 7, in a junior support role for Ronaldinho (when the Brazilian was the star) , evolved into a ‘false’ 9 under Guardiola before assuming a less defined and free-range role, as playmaker and goal scorer.
At Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo arrived as easily the best Manchester United player. He found find himself having to cope with the legacy of Di Stefano. Fans did not warm to his narcissism but delighted in his work ethos, physicality, the speed with which he covered the entire playing field, cheeky step overs, and goal scoring ability.
In recent days we saw Messi, aged 30, let down by a team that has lost its collective sense of identity dating from the Cruyff era and urgently in need of renewal , and Cristiano , aged 32, confirming his evolved role as a striker in a team that has strength in depth to provide generous support.
If Messi was unable to lift his team in a quarter final of the Champions League , and Cristiano was, it is because the Argentine has doggedly refused to rest all season, while Cristiano, wisely and tactfully handled by Zidane, has paced himself. Even if you a genius, rest matters when you reach a certain age.