On on 29 August, the Stade Auguste Delaune wore a festive atmosphere. The home stadium of the French Ligue 1 club Reims was buzzing, and not necessarily because the fans were eager to see their team. Lionel Messi was coming to town, leading a Paris Saint Germaine (PSG) team that seemed a throwback to Real Madrid’s peak-Galactico era of the early 2000s. Messi didn’t start the match, as manager Mauricio Pochettino felt his Argentine compatriot was short on match fitness. But when he did come on as a second half substitute, in place of Neymar, at the 66th minute, the entire stadium cheered. The home and away fans were in the presence of the GOAT, and they were thankful for his royal presence. They were just happy to see the unreal sight of the six-time Ballon’d’Or winner playing in the French league.
On social media, the buzz of excitement was reserved for Messi’s perennial competitor, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ever since Manchester United announced his return to the club on 28 August, 11 years after he’d left for Real Madrid, the club’s fans are in jubilation mode. While some have claimed that the club have ‘won the transfer window’, others are just happy to re-live the magic the Portuguese spun at Old Trafford over three incredible seasons. Between 2006-2209, he scored 91 goals for United, winning three back-to-back Premier Leagues, as well as the Champions League in 2008.
In the twilight of their careers, the two footballers who have dominated the game for over a decade, have now entered the final, and slightly strange, of their rivalry. Despite their decorated careers, both feel that they have unfinished agendas, and with PSG and United, they seek a final flourish, a golden coda. This can basically be boiled down to winning the Champions League one final time. Even though Messi and Ronaldo have won football’s greatest prize nine times between them (Messi 4, Ronaldo 5), it has been a while since they last tasted success in the tournament. Messi last won it in 2015, and Ronaldo in 2018. A final, triumphant lift of the trophy with the big ears would serve as a satisfying end for both footballers.
While the two players’ aims are in little doubt, what’s more curious is what exactly the two clubs are hoping to accomplish with the signings, apart from merchandise sales and monetised social media traffic that is. But even all that money won’t cover the fact that both superstars come with astronomical wages, especially at a time when even superclubs like these two are in poor financial shape. Messi will cost PSG $41 million a year for the two years of his contract (including bonuses). Ronaldo meanwhile, will reportedly make £20 million a year at United. Although this means that he’s taking a £6 million a year paycut from his current Juventus contract, this would still make him the highest paid Premier League player.
PSG and Messi are arguably a better fit right now. Both club and player have a burning desire to win the Champions League, so in that context they’re perfectly in sync. The 34-year-old is still on top of his game, having inspired Argentina to win the Copa America in July. Last season, despite the doldrums and disaffection at Barcelona, he still finished with a remarkable 38 goals in all competitions. Having left Barcelona a diminished force, PSG are better suited for Messi to strut his stuff.
It mustn’t be forgotten that this year PSG have also strengthened in key areas. Gini Wijnaldum from Liverpool in midfield, Achraf Hakimi from Inter Milan at right back, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma from AC Milan and Sergio Ramos at centre-back from Real Madrid are all excellent buys. With Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gueye and Winjaldum in midfield and a ridiculous array of attacking riches in Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Angel Di María, PSG now have all the necessary pieces in place to finally win Europe.
With Ronaldo and United it’s a less straightforward arrangement. CR7’s move to United seems to be a purely sentimental piece of business. Tactically, no one is really sure where Ronaldo fits into the squad. The fleet-footed trickster of 2008 is long gone, and the modern Ronaldo, for all his continuing goal-scoring feats, is a strangely static figure. The modern game is predicated on intense pressing without the ball, and to add to that, United’s game under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is entirely dependent on fast counter-attacks. Ronaldo fits into neither tactical plan.
Where he could work would be at the cutting edge of the attack, as the sole striker. But United already have another veteran, Edinson Cavani, in fine form at that position. Where does Ronaldo’s purchase leave United’s own home-grown forwards Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood? Where does the other big money signing, Jadon Sancho, fit into all this? Remember, Juventus had signed Ronaldo three years ago to help win the Champions League. That went nowhere, and despite him scoring 101 goals, Juventus actually went backwards from an all-conquering team to an also-ran. Ronaldo hadn’t been a part of Solskjaer’s plans until cross-town rivals Manchester City threatened to buy him. As many have pointed out, this may have been a sly ploy by City to saddle United with a white elephant. We have been here before, remember Alexis Sanchez?