Until recently, the list of association football's greatest players has been lengthy but linear. In other words, the world's most popular game has witnessed its share of greatness at all points throughout its history, with the geographically and stylistically disparate dots forming a straight line in time -- from Alfredo Di Stefano to Pele, from Pele to Johan Cruyff and from Cruyff to Diego Maradona.
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In the current day, however, a number of transcendent talents have emerged simultaneously, suggesting a new golden era is dawning. Two players -- Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina, and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Portugal -- have already risen to greatness. A third, Barcelona's new Brazilian import Neymar, appears to be on track after leading the Seleçao to a stirring triumph over Spain in this year's FIFA Confederations Cup.
Over the next year, all three will challenge for glory at the highest levels of both the club and international game. With their combination of skills, talents and enormous potential, and with historically strong opponents awaiting them, the coming year could become a classic period of the modern game.
The Established Rivals
The 2012 FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala, held in January 2013 in Zurich, served as the latest setting for the unfolding and ever-escalating rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo. Messi claimed more than 41 percent of the vote. Ronaldo, who was the last player not named Messi to win the award (in 2008) received less than 24 percent.
And so Messi, still only 25 at the time, won the award for the fourth straight time, a record that cemented his position as the world's best player and a legend in his own time. BBC Sport Phil McNulty wondered aloud whether Messi was already the best player ever. Meanwhile, the The Telegraph's Paul Hayward left no doubt that Messi had no equal:
Xavi is the world's best metronomic passer. There are other good ones but Xavi is the best. Iniesta is the best roving midfielder. Starting on the left, he floats and drifts with lethal cunning. At gliding pace he lacerates defences and sets up colleagues. Ronaldo, whose talent is more spectacular, more obviously ingenious, is also No. 1 in his class of elusive sprinters.
But Messi has no category in which to be better than all the rest. He is his own genre. No rival can match his array of skills or claim to be a lesser version of him. This is what elevates him to the level of genius.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Messi's teammates said that the diminutive Argentinean is already the best of all time. Speaking at a press conference shortly after the gala (h/t Goal.com), Barcelona forward Pedro said: "I have shared many years and seasons with him here; I have won many titles by his side and it is a great joy to havegained a new Ballon d'Or. He is the best player ever."
Messi himself reacted with humility that bordered on sheepishness. "To tell you the truth this is really quite unbelievable," Messi said, per The Guardian. "The fourth award that I have had is just too great for words."
But Messi's unbelievable 2012 -- in which he scored a world-record 91 goals -- was worthy of the acclaim. It also provided ample reason to snub a player of Ronaldo's caliber. The Portuguese was a phenomenon as well, scoring 60 goals in all competitions during 2011-12 as Real Madrid wrestled the La Liga title from Barcelona.
Indeed, Ronaldo, 28, likely would be in the advanced stages of building his own case as one of the best players of all time if not for Messi's contemporary presence. Having won league titles in two of the world's best leagues and the UEFA Champions League title with Manchester United in 2008, Ronaldo already boasts a sterling resume.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, whose club bought Ronaldo for a world-record £80 million transfer fee in 2009 (a figure in the $120 millions), believes Ronaldo is the best in the world -- and potentially the best ever.