It is an odd business being a footballer costing the best part of £60m trotting out in the chorus line.
Manchester United’s British record signing Angel Di Maria is not alone in having to make do with a walk-on part in the Ronaldo-Messi headliner at Old Trafford on Tuesday. The Premier League’s most lethal finisher, Sergio Aguero, gets to carry the water.
Has a contest between nations ever been cast as a heavyweight title fight in quite this way? The game has produced an abundance of great players down the years but never in an era of such forensic, wraparound scrutiny. Even on the team bus Lionel Messi finds himself the unwitting star of the ubiquitous selfie, dads lifting kids into the air to compose the ultimate snap.
So Argentina, notionally the home side, versus Portugal is less about assessing progress of two teams under new management in the post-World Cup period as weighing the merits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi in the endless quest to determine which of these timeless gods is the ultimate footballer and thus the best player in the world.
Ronaldo, making his second appearance at Old Trafford since his departure for Real Madrid in 2009, would appear to have his nose in front as the pair face each other for the 20th time. The rise of Madrid to the summit of the European club game for the 10th time, la decima, last season thanks to Ronaldo’s goals makes him the form horse for many.
He was on target again on Friday with the only goal in Portugal’s victory over Armenia, the strike making him the top scorer in European Championship history on 23, the same number he has netted for Madrid this season in just 17 matches.
In the international setting neither player has the stellar support at their disposal at Madrid and Barcelona, though Argentina come closer than Portugal in keeping Messi in the manner to which he is accustomed.
And it is on this stage that Messi still has something to prove if he is ever to escape comparisons with Diego Maradona. That tension has complex roots to do with shifting cultural and political attitudes in Argentina, Maradona forever a symbol of an older age, Messi the torch bearer for the country’s younger generation seeking to put distance between the present and former regimes.
He came close in Brazil to emulating Maradona’s World Cup victory, losing out to Germany in the final, but did not hold the audience spellbound as he has so many times for Barcelona, despite being voted the tournament’s best player, if not to universal approval.
The case against Messi, if there is such a thing, rests on his inability to lift more modest team-mates to his level, as Maradona did unforgettably in 1986. Playing for a peak Barcelona, Messi was the foremost point of a golden triangle with Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
With those three in tandem, Barcelona took the game beyond all rivals for a spell, setting standards of possession and execution we had not seen before. Messi tucked the Ballon d’Or away four times consecutively from 2009 as a result.
Either side of Messi’s golden period, Ronaldo claimed the prestige pot and as the holder arguably justifies his ranking half a notch above his rival.
In many ways it is a daft argument rooted in our attachment to hierarchies. They are very different players. Why the need to place one above another? Ronaldo is the uber athlete, all pace and power and lethal in front of goal. Messi relies on subtlety and touch. He insinuates his way through gaps rather than blasts past obstacles and is every bit the finisher Ronaldo is.
It has the makings of quite a night.