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Debatable Merit of 'The Best' Aside, How Much Longer Can Ronaldo, Messi Reign?

Cristiano Ronaldo has been crowned yet again, by FIFA, as 'The Best.' The eyes roll, a yawn wells in the throat and the mind, prodded reluctantly into action, tries to recall anything he actually did this year other than get a five-game ban for shoving a referee in the Spanish Super Cup final. Not that it really matters. His club won the Spanish league and the Champions League and that its key player in both those triumphs was probably Luka Modric doesn’t matter. Ronaldo is Ronaldo, and so when his team does better than Lionel Messi’s, he wins the individual award. That is what politics and marketing demand, and so that is how it is.

Perhaps that’s a touch unfair. Ronaldo does, after all, continue to score goals in industrial quantities and it’s hardly his fault if the startling nature of his goal returns have become familiar. He did score vital goals in both the Champions League quarterfinals and semifinals–eight over the four legs, before another two in the final; and nothing is so prized, so valued in football as being the man who gets the final touch. Ronaldo certainly isn’t an unworthy winner. He’s just a winner who comes with a sigh, a player who has stripped his game back to eye-catching, prize-winning individualistic essentials.

That Messi in the past couple of months has almost single-handedly dragged an ailing Barcelona to the top of La Liga doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that Messi produced a performance of almost unparalleled brilliance even by the standards he and Ronaldo have set to carry Argentina to the World Cup. Once Real Madrid had won the Champions League in June, the awards were Ronaldo’s.

The Best doesn’t matter. The Ballon d’Or doesn’t matter. No individual awards matter other than to those obsessive fans who have only to see Messi earning praise to take to social media in defense of their man (or vice versa; it’s not that Ronaldistas have a monopoly on one-eyed mania). And it matters to Ronaldo, of course.

That’s now a full decade that either Messi or Ronaldo has won The Best or the Ballon d’Or (the awards split in 2015; this is the second time The Best has been awarded). On each occasion other than 2010, whichever of Messi and Ronaldo didn’t win came second. They were second and third in the 2007 Ballon d’Or behind Kaka.

Their dominance seems so natural now, it feels so inevitable that it must be Messi against Ronaldo, that perhaps the claims of others are not taken seriously. Modric, Isco, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos were all arguably just as important to Madrid’s success as Ronaldo was. Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic were all instrumental in Juventus winning Serie A and reaching the Champions League final. Monaco, who won the French league against all odds and got to the Champions League semifinal, may think Kylian Mbappe, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy might have been in with a shout.

Given the award is supposed to recognize all of 2017 (which is absurd and unhelpful, given the natural tendency to privilege performances that win trophies that are handed out in May and June), Kevin De Bruyne’s performances this season should have propelled him into contention. Harry Kane, meanwhile, has outscored Ronaldo in 2017. Neymar, slightly mystifyingly, is the third name on the shortlist, presumably because he helped Brazil qualify impressively for the World Cup and achieved every modern footballer’s dream of becoming the most expensive player in the world.

None of it matters, of course. Even the format of The Best makes clear its fatuousness. Voting is carried out by four different groups: journalists, national team coaches, national team captains and the public. Players, coaches and a sadly large number of journalists are swayed by political concerns; it’s doubtful any member of the public who bothers to vote does so for any reason other than to support their man. This is not a debate about the nature of greatness. And so, necessarily, it becomes a predictable tussle between the two most vaunted players in the world. At least the Ballon d’Or still purports to be about footballing considerations. FIFA's award barely bothers with the pretense.

Perhaps, though, this is the final year when the two will be such obvious candidates. Ronaldo is 32, and even last season he had to be used sparingly by Zinedine Zidane. Messi is 30. His form over the past couple of months has been exceptional, but this surge, apparently fired by frustration with the Barcelona board and pretty much everybody involved with Argentina, came after a lull.

Neymar is looming, even if he spends most weeks performing tricks in a laughably skewed French league. So, too, is Kylian Mbappe, although he, like Neymar, is barely tested at PSG. Success in the Champions League and/or the World Cup could tip things their way. Isco, finally, is beginning to emerge from Ronaldo’s shadow and it’s just about conceivable that by the end of the season he could not merely be Madrid’s key attacking player but could be perceived as such. Success for Manchester City in the Champions League or for Belgium in the World Cup could elevate De Bruyne.

If Messi keeps playing with the verve he is at the moment, he would fully deserve another award, in as much as anybody ever deserves an individual award in a team sport. Or with another Champions League for Madrid or success for Portugal at the World Cup and Ronaldo would almost certainly still be on the short list. But it feels at the moment as though both could be creaking along with their walkers at 80 and still be put up to the vote.

After all, when an award recognizes less footballing achievement than fame, why let retirement put an end to it?

Atletico Madrid forward Kevin Gameiro (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match RC Celta de Vigo vs Club Atletico de Madrid at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on October 22, 2017

Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the Spanish league football match against Eibar at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on October 22, 2017

Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the Spanish league football match against Eibar at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on October 22, 2017

Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the Spanish league football match against Eibar at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on October 22, 2017 (AFP Photo/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the Spanish league football match against Eibar at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on October 22, 2017

Atletico Madrid forward Kevin Gameiro (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match RC Celta de Vigo vs Club Atletico de Madrid at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on October 22, 2017

Atletico Madrid forward Kevin Gameiro (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match RC Celta de Vigo vs Club Atletico de Madrid at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on October 22, 2017 (AFP Photo/MIGUEL RIOPA)

Atletico Madrid forward Kevin Gameiro (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match RC Celta de Vigo vs Club Atletico de Madrid at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on October 22, 2017

Barcelona played their Spanish league match against Las Palmas behind closed doors on October 1

Barcelona played their Spanish league match against Las Palmas behind closed doors on October 1

Barcelona played their Spanish league match against Las Palmas behind closed doors on October 1

Barcelona played their Spanish league match against Las Palmas behind closed doors on October 1 (AFP Photo/Jose Jordan)

Barcelona played their Spanish league match against Las Palmas behind closed doors on October 1

Italy striker Zaza behind Valencia's surprising run in Spain

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 22, 2016 file photo, Italy's Simone Zaza goes for the ball during the Euro 2016 Group E soccer match between Italy and Ireland at the Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, France. Valencia chose to acquire the Italian striker after his loan from Juventus expired last season and he has been crucial in the team's surprising run to the top of the Spanish league. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 22, 2016 file photo, Italy's Simone Zaza goes for the ball during the Euro 2016 Group E soccer match between Italy and Ireland at the Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, France. Valencia chose to acquire the Italian striker after his loan from Juventus expired last season and he has been crucial in the team's surprising run to the top of the Spanish league. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

Valencia's forward Goncalo Guedes celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match against Real Betis October 15, 2017

Valencia's forward Goncalo Guedes celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match against Real Betis October 15, 2017

Valencia's forward Goncalo Guedes celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match against Real Betis October 15, 2017

Valencia's forward Goncalo Guedes celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match against Real Betis October 15, 2017 (AFP Photo/CRISTINA QUICLER )

Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak dives for the ball during their Spanish league match Club against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak dives for the ball during their Spanish league match Club against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Atletico fans hold up their scarves before their Spanish league match against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak dives for the ball during their Spanish league match Club against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak dives for the ball during their Spanish league match Club against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017 (AFP Photo/JAVIER SORIANO)

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during their Spanish league match against Getafe CF in Getafe on October 14, 2017

Barcelona's Luis Suarez celebrates a goal during their Spanish league match against Club Atletico de Madrid in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Barcelona's Luis Suarez celebrates a goal during their Spanish league match against Club Atletico de Madrid in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Barcelona's Luis Suarez celebrates a goal during their Spanish league match against Club Atletico de Madrid in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Barcelona's Luis Suarez celebrates a goal during their Spanish league match against Club Atletico de Madrid in Madrid on October 14, 2017 (AFP Photo/JAVIER SORIANO)

Atletico fans hold up their scarves before their Spanish league match against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Atletico fans hold up their scarves before their Spanish league match against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017

Atletico fans hold up their scarves before their Spanish league match against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on October 14, 2017 (AFP Photo/GABRIEL BOUYS )

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during their Spanish league match against Getafe CF in Getafe on October 14, 2017

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during their Spanish league match against Getafe CF in Getafe on October 14, 2017 (AFP Photo/OSCAR DEL POZO)

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo looks on during their Spanish league match against Getafe CF in Getafe on October 14, 2017

Slovenia’s Jan Oblak is ready and willing to be a fly in England’s ointment | Ed Aarons

Slovenia’s Jan Oblak became the most expensive goalkeeper in the Spanish league when he was signed by Atlético Madrid.

Barcelona to join Catalonia strike, Pique jeered in Madrid

Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, center, celebrates his goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona to join Catalonia strike, Pique jeered in Madrid

Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas is played at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas is played at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, center, celebrates his goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona to Join Strike Over Catalonia's Independence Referendum

Barcelona is joining a strike to protest against the Spanish government's actions in Catalonia's independence vote. None of its professional teams will practice on Tuesday.

Barcelona said on Monday its youth teams also won't train, and the club headquarters will be closed as a reaction to government attempts to stop the referendum. Officials said more than 890 civilians and some 430 members of the police force were injured.

Girona also suspended practice on Tuesday, and Espanyol, the other Catalan club in the Spanish league, will have its players undergo physical activities behind closed doors at its training camp.

Barcelona tried to postpone its home match on Sunday during the referendum but the league denied its request, so it closed Camp Nou to spectators to send a protest message and avoid losing points and being sanctioned. It beat Las Palmas 3-0.

Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said the decision to play behind closed doors was one of the hardest he had to make at the club. He consulted club officials, coaches and players.

''We knew that an empty Camp Nou would send a powerful message,'' he said in a news conference on Monday. ''Everybody would be asking about what was happening in Catalonia. The game was broadcast around the world. It was an extraordinary measure for an extraordinary moment.''

Many club members didn't want the team to play at all on Sunday, but then it would forfeit the three points from the match and risk losing more points from a sanction.

Bartomeu said an empty stadium was the best way to show the club was not pleased with the incidents in Catalonia.

''The news of the suspension would last only one minute,'' Bartomeu said. ''In the end, what we did lasted for 90 minutes.

''This is why Barcelona is more than a club.''

Bartomeu avoided talking about Barcelona's future in the Spanish league if Catalonia declares independence, saying that if that happens the board of directors would discuss the situation.

The Spanish league has already said it will not be easy to make a deal to have the club stay in the league if a unilateral declaration of independence is made by Catalonia.

The majority of voters called for the region's independence, but Spain doesn't recognize the referendum as legit.

One of the main symbols of Catalonia, Barcelona has openly backed the region's rights to hold the referendum.

Defender Gerard Pique, one of the most outspoken players defending the Catalans, was in tears after the game as he talked about confrontations between voters and police. Authorities used batons and fired rubber bullets to clear protesting voters across the northeastern region.

Barcelona's employees on Monday held a 15-minute strike to condemn the violence used by authorities.

Espanyol said it will respect its employees' decision on whether to strike, while Girona said the entire club will be closed.

''The club condemns the violent and repressive actions carried out Sunday in Catalonia and shows its support and solidarity with the country's citizens and institutions,'' Girona said in a statement.

Barcelona's main squad is without some of its top players because they have joined their national teams in the international break.

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More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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Photos of the Day – Oct 2

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates his goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona’s Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia’s independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona game played without fans amid Catalonia vote

Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas is played at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona game played without fans amid Catalonia vote

Spanish national flags are embroidered on shirts of Las Palmas players during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona game played without fans amid Catalonia vote

Supporters wait outside the the Camp Nou stadium ahead of the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas will be played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)