They dominated an entire decade and kept the international football universe spellbound with their mesmerising displays of bewitching football that made lesser mortals on the pitch look like clumsy robotic droids. C’est magnifique, breathtaking, mind-boggling, superb, otherworldly – the superfluous expletives flow in an endless stream of consciousness.
With no less than 11 of the 12 Ballon d’Ors shared between them since 2008, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo stunned, enthralled and delighted football buffs the world over. Still alive and kicking, literally, this is undeniably the magical duo who during their joint ascension generated an intriguing and compelling rivalry created as much out of the need to be the best in the world and outshine the other as much as out of the irresistible mutual admiration they invariably held for each other. In an international arena with an ever growing pantheon of aspiring demi gods and wannabes, this is the stuff that’s the genesis of legends.
As these near-immortal idols continue their duel to dazzle their adoring fans, the fine sand in the hourglass is fast becoming a trickle. The duo have begun to dribble into the twilight of their glitttering careers at 32 and 35 years of age, respectively. The end of an era is drawing to an end. Yes, no doubt they will both still be around dancing on their feet but the rhythm would be considerably slower and the solo demonstrations less. The world indeed took them for granted, only to be genuinely concerned later whether there would be life after their final exodus when that day eventually and unavoidably comes. What would be life be like without them in the world of football?
For what had seemed to be a long time, it didn’t seem likely or appear that there would be others even remotely endowed with the same quintessential talent and hutzpah that these two have been so bountifully blessed with that would stand head and shoulders above all others. Until this season, that is. There is, finally and unexpectedly, a real opportunity that we could be witnessing the advent and dawning of another bold new era that would be the nexus to the next generation of another pair of equally scintillating luminaries.
Our gaze must now shift coordinates northwards from Spain and Italy to Germany and France.
The recent Champions League encounter between Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain was both riveting and intriguing. Both sides are known to play some of the best attacking football on the continent and the goals tally were expected to be on a rapid vertical ascent. Hearts were pounding thunderously as the adrenaline continued to hit the veins as the tussle escalated into a frenzy on both ends of the pitch. They were all there, the key players on both sides who continuously feature in the headlines daily. Neymar, the incredibly talented domino with his innate ability to entertain on the pitch and confound his opponents with his nimble footwork and dazzling raids. Jadon Sancho with his capricious dribbling and mercurial moves. Both immediately catch the eye yet both are stars whose twinkles are still dimmed by the vibrant sparkles of their more luminous teammates, Erling Braut Haaland and Kylian Mbappe.
The razzle dazzle came unmistakably from Erling Haaland who stole the show at the Westfalenstadion. The former RB Salzburg point man rifled home two goals to give Dortmund a 2-1 advantage heading into the second leg of the tie. His predatory slide for the first goal of the match and the subsequent RPG he launched off his left foot from outside the box for his second goal effectively sealed the outcome in this first leg of the tie for Borussia Dortmund. Kylian Mbappe, the other young sensation stirring up a storm in the media, still had a say in the match despite the evening being on a more subdued tone for him. His exquisite flick to Neymar provided the assist for the latter’s strike of the day to console PSG.
Mbappe and Haaland are now clearly emerging as the game’s new icons marked for mega stardom to follow in the footsteps of Messi and Ronaldo. Their productivity in front of goal is simply stupendous. In 24 games this season, 21- year old Mbappe scored a total of 20 goals and 8 assists in Ligue 1 and Champions League football. The even younger 19-year old Haaland, featuring for RB Salzburg and now Borussia Dortmund, netted 24 league goals and a further 11 in the Champions League. The only others deserving equal attention and mention in their age bracket are Timo Werner and Jadon Sancho.
Mbappe Is pinged at 0.91 goals per game, compared to Messi and Ronaldo at 1.05 and 1.01 respectively (Understat), while Haaland’s current output of 2.38 goals per game clearly eclipses those numbers. However, Frenchman Mbappe makes up ground on Haaland with 0.33 assists per 90.
Haaland’s superb, eclectic finishing definitely evokes comparisons to Ronaldo while Mbappe’s sublime creativity is clearly reminiscent of Messi. The ultimate tests for both the young up and rising superstars will be consistency and longevity. Can both consistently without fail or fuss produce the insane numbers year in and year out as are to be expected of them if they are to step into the shoes of two of the most highly venerated, greatest footballers of all time? Only time can tell.
If they can, then surely this coming decade is assuredly theirs.