The Last Word: Crunch time for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Reality is about to intrude on their fantasy lives. Each has yet to seize the game's most exalted stage. The World Cup will decide who is best in their generation
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The Independent Football

They represented Planet Earth against an imaginary team of Aliens, long before Sepp Blatter suggested football had an intergalactic dimension. They have been depicted as cartoon superheroes and marketed as corporate chameleons. At last, reality is about to intrude on the fantasy lives of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The affectations and absurdities of the advertising industry, which utilises the power of their personalities and subverts the sanctity of their achievements, will be placed into proper perspective by a World Cup which will decide once and for all the best footballer of their generation.

Messi has the opportunity to make an initial statement in the suitably portentous setting of the Maracana, where Argentina play Bosnia tonight. Ronaldo and Portugal, his one-man team, begin against Germany in Salvador tomorrow evening. Each has yet to seize the game's most exalted stage.

This already has the feel of a talismanic tournament, an antidote to the poison of FIFA's greed, hypocrisy and corruption. Neymar, who bears the burden of 200 million fellow Brazilians on his narrow, angular shoulders, promises to emerge as more than a marketing phenomenon. The street kid who embodies simplesmente feliz, a happy-go-lucky lifestyle, has substance.

World Cups age and elevate, diminish and deify. Spain, the holders, are suddenly in history's shadow. Cameroon's wretched introduction compromised a continent; fear replaced joy, cynicism overwhelmed innocence. Suspicion persists that African football has regressed as its stars have scattered in search of economic security.

Longevity is cherished – Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have now scored in three tournaments – but the modern game militates against assumptions of permanence. Even Ronaldo, a synthesis of thoroughbred racehorse, Olympic sprinter and catwalk model, is not immune to the trauma of untimely injury.

Such is his strength of will and sense of occasion he has driven Real Madrid to the Champions League title, while manifestly unfit. Countless candles have been lit to accelerate the healing process of tendinitis in his knee before he takes up the World Cup place he earned in splendid isolation.

The relative mediocrity of those around him lessens the load to an extent, because no one expects Portugal to progress beyond a potential quarter-final against Argentina, and a seismic meeting with the man who is the Ying, to his Yang.

Ronaldo's impact is theatrical, while Messi's genius is almost automated. Arsène Wenger once likened him to a human computer game, and his reserved nature challenges his nation's notion of what a folk hero should do and be. The blueprint created by Diego Maradona is sacrosanct, but unsustainable for someone wired as intricately as Messi.

Maradona's gaucho swagger and surreal character made him the Hunter S Thompson of footballers. Feared while carrying Argentina to victory in Mexico in 1986, he was loathed after his drug-fuelled implosion in the US in 1994. His piratical presence as Argentina's manager in South Africa in 2010 was compelling, and utterly counter-productive.

Yet he is excused his excesses, in the way I cannot bring myself to condemn him because of the impact he had on me as a young reporter, on a burning afternoon in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium on June 22, 1986. History recalls England were beaten in that quarter-final by the Hand of God, and the Goal of the Century.

That is what it felt like, history. Vivid, evocative, unforgettable. Our lungs were scoured by the polluted, acrid air, but we had seen something unique. Such moments justify the administration of the kiss of life to the bloated carcass of what the World Cup has become.

It is time for Messi to create his own history. A team has been built around him. The world awaits and must not, will not, be disappointed.

England's target is next year

England were done in, in Dunedin. There's no shame in that, because they are a work in progress before next year's World Cup. That is when the stress will be ferocious, and expectation must be answered.

The All Blacks will be assailed by demands to defend their title because, to them, rugby union is not a code but a culture. Victory nourishes the soul and appeases the ancestors. It breeds an intensity that is both spiritual and physical.

England's chances of only their third Test win in New Zealand were duly snuffed out. Stuart Lancaster, a consistently impressive coach despite being referred to as "Steve" on local TV, had further evidence of the potency of human chemistry.

All Black rugby remains a statement of nationhood, in addition to being an indication of sporting prowess. Excellence is ingrained, precision is sustained under pressure. Character may be laudable, but it must be accompanied by the three others Cs which form the vocabulary of elite competition: composure, control and class.

England are flawed, but not far away from the ideal; it was good to hear them reject the clichés which so often accompany a deceptively narrow defeat. Next year's tournament is tantalising, and could be one for the ages.

Fall and fall of Rugby League

World Cups are supposed to leave a legacy. Rugby League's version in 2013 has been unsurprisingly exposed as an irrelevance.

England have no home games scheduled this autumn and next season's proposed Great Britain tour of Australia, a desperately-needed source of credibility, is likely to be postponed until further notice.

Domestically, London Broncos are an embarrassment. The game is busy going nowhere and engaging no one outside its captive audience.

Unworthy criticism of Ali

Moeen Ali is that rarity, a state-educated street cricketer who represents England. He happens to be a Muslim. Criticism of his supposedly overt commitment to his faith, which he insists shields him from the emotional excesses of his sport, is preposterous, unworthy and intellectually incoherent.