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Can Atletico exact revenge on Real?

50-50 Challenge
Read
 By Marc Stein

Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi, a rivalry matched only by Magic vs. Bird

Michael Jordan has never really known the feeling.

His Airness never quite tasted that sense of supremacy, of true steel-cage triumph after confronting and outdueling your perceived equal, that likely awaits Cristiano Ronaldo on Monday.

Nor, frankly, has LeBron James.

That's because neither MJ nor LJ, at their respective peaks, ever found themselves matched against an individual rival from the same talent stratosphere. Throughout their careers, no matter how the NBA's Most Valuable Player voting might have played out in any one season, Jordan and James pretty much always ranked as the instantaneous answer to the question: Who is the world's best basketball player?

Not so in the football universe. For a good half-decade now and maybe longer, Planet Beautiful Game has been gripped by the same either/or question that, no matter how times or ways we pose it, has no truly right answer.

Ronaldo? Or Lionel Messi?

Opinions on the matter are passionate, occasionally profane and always plentiful. Yet there's no way you can reflexively pick one of these otherworldly titans of the game over the other and definitively claim you've won the argument.

Ronaldo and Messi is a rivalry too close to call and unique compared to almost any other in sport.

Which has to make the hoisting of FIFA's Ballon d'Or trophy, widely forecasted to happen on Monday in Zurich for the third time in Cristiano's life after four such triumphs for Messi, feel so incredibly sweet.

As an NBA legend who has been in a very similar position would tell you.

"Oh, yeah," Magic Johnson says. "I always measured myself against Larry Bird. I loved beating him. And I hated losing to him. And these two have that same thing going."

When the ESPN FC boys asked me to weigh in on Ronaldo's expected Ballon d'Or coronation through the lens of a hardwood perspective, I was inevitably moved to ring Magic and ask him what we presume to be one of the few soccer questions he's ever fielded. Reason being: I've been making the same connection in my head for ages and couldn't wait to hear whether the Magic Man himself had given this any thought.

We live it in our household every weekend. This is what happens when you're raising a Ronaldo-obsessed youngster -- see the picture of the door to my 11-year-old's room further down the page -- who can't resist relaying regular updates from what CR7 and Mister Messi have just done in their respective "Can You Top This?" club matches.

Perhaps the closest parallel to Ronaldo and Messi is the rivalry between Bird and Magic.

In a lot of ways, it feels like Magic and Larry all over again.

It's a mano a mano struggle that obviously can't match Earvin "Magic" Johnson versus Larry Joe Bird for all the social significance those two lugged onto the floor every night. (Drop everything as soon as we're done here to go watch the delicious HBO documentary, "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals," if you need a refresher course.) Yet these are two more inseparable gladiators who lord over a team sport -- they're even trapped in the same league -- whose every accomplishment is measured against those of the other guy.

"I marked it down on my calendar every year," Magic says. "The two regular-season games against Boston and, of course, I wanted to play them in the Finals every year. You checked the box score in the morning to see what he did. And I know he checked our box score to see what I did. Larry motivated me to be a better player every day."

You suspect it's the same for Ronaldo and Leo, who only enhance the Magic and Larry comparisons with the Real versus Barca tensions they carry everywhere they go, so reminiscent of the Lakers-Celtics friction we all gleefully soaked up throughout the 1980s.

Magic did stress in our chat that he also sees plenty of familiar-looking excellence and drama in the Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao dynamic. But Floyd and Manny, like the John McEnroe/Bjorn Borg or Martina Navratilova/Chris Evert comparisons foremost in my own tennis-obsessed brain, hail from an individual sport.

They'll also have to actually step into the same ring someday before they can get anywhere near this conversation. Ronaldo and Messi, by contrast, are already there.

It often seems as though they're playing a sport unto themselves, with skill sets so unique that we're not even sure any longer how to label them positionally. And they shall remain in that league of their own even if the voters, as they ironically often do in the NBA, focus on team success and decree that the Ballon d'Or winner in a World Cup year has to come from the country that won the World Cup.

Don't enter unless you're Cristiano Ronaldo? Welcome to the Stein household.

No basketball awards vote of consequence ever takes place without a heavy emphasis on team success, as evidenced by the fact that the NBA hasn't seen an MVP from a team with fewer than 50 wins since Houston's Moses Malone in 1982. So maybe we shouldn't be terribly surprised if Manuel Neuer, Germany's goalkeeper supreme, finds a way to overcome the long odds goalkeepers have always faced in this race and trumps them both. After all, Neuer was indeed the standout keeper in a World Cup full of them, and a huge difference-maker for the eventual champions.

Yet the instinct here remains that Ronaldo, still the bookies' Ballon d'Or favorite, did enough winning in the Champions League to mute such concerns. Given that this is the highest individual honor you can snare in this 11-vs.-11 world, you are moved to ask: Does Ronaldo deserve to be punished because he was cursed to be surrounded by a thoroughly ordinary Portuguese side that realistically should have lost to Israel (twice!) in World Cup qualifying?

Docking him points on those grounds would seem overly harsh. Especially when you stack up Ronaldo's calendar year against his forever foil.

Some will undoubtedly remember 2014 as the year Messi finally delivered on the World Cup stage, but Ronaldo and his Real pals were routinely rampant, winning four trophies while its superstar was scoring 61 goals in 61 competitive games for club and country.

Now if you don't want to strain yourself trying to choose between their respective 2014s, that's fine. Just sit back and enjoy the show. No matter what happens on the FIFA dais, I think we can all agree that this pair is treating us to the greatest rivalry between active footballers that the sport has ever witnessed.

And maybe even the closest thing to Magic versus Larry that we've seen in the nearly three decades since their last vintage L.A./Boston Finals clash way back in 1987.

Says no less an authority than Magic Johnson himself: "They would be the two."

ESPN FC guest contributor Marc Stein became an ESPN.com senior NBA writer in Sept. 2002. He provides NBA news, information and commentary via numerous ESPN platforms, including frequent appearances on SportsCenter and ESPN Radio, and has an extensive background as a soccer reporter. He ‎covered the 1994 World Cup, both the men's and women's U.S. national teams at the 2000 Summer Olympics and co-hosts the weekly Soccer Today show ‎every Sunday on ESPN Radio (103.3 FM) in Dallas.‎

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