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Cesc Fabregas says Lionel Messi is better because he isn't

Saturday 23rd June 2018

Hypothetical situation. Your partner comes home from work in a foul mood and doesn't want to talk. Eventually, you tease out the problem. The main rival at work has been given the promotion your partner desperately wanted. Maybe the rival deserved the promotion; maybe not. Regardless, seeking to provide emotional support, you do what any caring individual would: rake the rival over the coals. You say the worst, most heinous things that come to mind about this person, most of them blatantly untrue, and the nicest, most positive about your partner with similar disregard for accuracy. The difference between you and Cesc Fabregas is you don't do this on a global television feed in front of millions when you're being paid to provide honest, insightful analysis.

On Thursday, Fabregas sat in an ITV studio with Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and former Argentine international, Pablo Zabaleta. The quartet dissected La Albiceleste's embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Croatia. When asked, Zabaleta admitted both Lionel Messi and the entire Argentina squad had been poor. Cesc? Not so much. Then he piled on in print for the BBC.

Yes, [Ronaldo] is playing well, but if you really look at what he has done, he has scored one penalty, one free-kick, one goal from a corner and one with a shot that David de Gea should have saved. You cannot say that he and Portugal have shown great combinations or tiki-taka football to score great goals. You have to give him credit, of course, but his goals have come from set-pieces, penalties or mistakes.

Reading that analysis, I have to wonder if Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have been giving Cesc tips on rhetoric, because that statement bends the truth with greater swerve than either Messi or Ronaldo could ever hope to produce with a football.

To start, Cesc states fact. Ronaldo has scored from a penalty, a free-kick, a corner, and an egregious, wholly uncharacteristic error by David de Gea. The lie is produced by omitting comparative data. Observe.

Goal Ronaldo Messi
Penalty  Scored to take an early lead v Spain Poorly taken, was saved by Hannes Por Halldorsson, who is also a film director
[I don't know what that signifies]
Free Kick Scored at the death to rescue a point v Spain Missed one late, among others, v Iceland that would have broken the deadlock
Corner He was in the box to head home the winner in the fourth minute against Morocco Is rarely involved, neither in the box nor taking. Not even when working a short corner. Typically he's on the far side of the pitch.
GK Error Yes, De Gea should have saved the ball even though it bounced just in front of him, which I've heard tell is the most difficult stop for any keeper. Plus, tell me Messi has waved off every such goal he's been gifted in his career. Meanwhile, Danijel Subasic spilt one that Enzo Perez shot wide. Enzo Perez is not Messi, but still. Nigel Farage would have scored that. Well, probably. But Boris Johnson definitely.

So then, when holding both players to the same light, it is discovered that in two cases, Ronaldo took chances that Messi could not. In a third, Messi, the most prolific scorer in La Liga history, is inexplicably absent from situations which are advantageous to scoring. Finally, in the fourth, Messi wasn't afforded the same opportunity, although a teammate was. When their opportunities are otherwise equal, it's a stretch to argue Ronaldo is overrated because one ball bounced to someone other than Messi. The Portuguese legend would still have three goals more than his Argentine rival.

For me, the difference between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi comes down to who is the better commander in the field. If there's an objective way to compare apples and oranges, I suspect we'd find Messi and Ronaldo are near equals in terms of talent. They are different players. Ronaldo has the advantage in the box and the air. Messi is peerless with the ball at his feet. They play different styles that suit different teams. Despite Cesc's "tiki-taka" comment, the twice-banished Cule has learned at Chelsea there are other successful strategies. Any can work with the right leaders. Right now, Ronaldo is miles ahead in that department whereas Messi has some demons to exorcise.

That became evident two years ago. After an injured Ronaldo draped himself all over Fernando Santos in the technical area to exhort his team to a European Cup, Messi again failed to score in a Copa America final against Chile, then quit international football following, get this, a missed penalty in the shootout. Perhaps the greatest compliment you can give any person, let alone an athlete, is to say there is no quit in them.

Julien Laurens has an interesting article on ESPN. The French journalist interviewed several Portuguese players, asking what it was like to play with Ronaldo. The consensus was he was both supportive and demanding. He expects everyone around him to work as hard as he does. He leads by example as well as with skill. He commands respect. In contrast, both Carlos Tevez and Paolo Dybala have remarked publicly on the difficulties Messi presents as a teammate. 

On television and in his column, Fabregas struck a similar theme to other observers, including Diego Simeone, Edgardo Bauza and Mario Kempes, regarding Argentina. 

They look like a broken team.

Indeed, they do. But Messi must be held more accountable for that than any other player, not for his skill, but rather his captaincy. Like the manager, it is the captain's job to lead the team, forge unity and purpose. At this moment in time, Portugal have it. Argentina do not. Cesc Fabregas is Lionel Messi's former teammate and longtime friend. Loyalty is admirable. Some hard truth might serve the Maestro better.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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