Football’s greatest individual duel has come to be viewed through the prism of its most prestigious individual award over the past eight years.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s personal rivalry is illustrated best by the number of times they have held the Ballon d’Or aloft.
It is the defining image of their professional strife and on Monday Ronaldo added another picture to the reel.
Four fingers shown to indicate how many times he has now been crowned the best player in world football, there was no ceremony for the victor to showcase their prize this year, but the image of Ronaldo clutching dear the 2016 Ballon d’Ornonetheless circulated within moments of the announcement.
Having won both the Champions League with Real Madrid and Euro 2016 with Portugal, few could feasibly argue that the 31-year-old was not a worthy winner. A golden ball to cap a golden year.
Some might point to Luis Suarez’s achievements over 2016, or Antoine Griezmann’s performances for both Atletico Madrid and France, as a case to the contrary, but Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or win was reward for how he has achieved greatness just as much as it was for achieving greatness itself.
Now into the twilight of his career, Ronaldo should be in decline. In many ways he is.
He no longer runs as fast or for as long as he once did, games are taking more of a toll, injuries are lasting that little bit longer. But despite all this Ronaldo has found a way to stay at the forefront of world football. A way to remain the best.
Faced with his own mortality, Ronaldo adapted his game. He is now a master of maximisation, only expending his energy where there is likely to be a reward.
As a complete forward he plays the percentages, preserving himself while simultaneously imposing himself with as much impact as possible.
Compare the Portuguese to the spindly, erratic winger he was upon breaking through at Manchester United to what he is now and his transition becomes obvious.
Intelligence is a trait of Ronaldo’s that often goes unrecognised, simply because there is so much more to marvel at.
Yet, make no mistake, the Real Madrid number seven is as smart as they come in football. He wouldn’t have been able to adapt and evolve in the way he has otherwise.
Ronaldo’s sustained supremacy in spite of his slide into thirty-somethingdom is at odds with so many stars before him who have faded at the same stage of their careers.
Take Kaka, for instance, the last player other than Messi or Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or.
At 34 the Brazilian is a few years older than either of his contemporaries, but hasn’t been considered among the very best for a long time.
In fact, Kaka’s 2007 Ballon d’Or proved to be something of a watershed, with his career on the decline from that point on. He now plays for Orlando City in MLS.
Ronaldinho is another example of a glittering talent who scaled the highest heights only to fall as quickly as he had risen. By the time he left Barcelona to join AC Milan in 2008 he was as good as finished.
Andriy Shevchenko, winner of the 2004 Ballon d’Or, failed to sustain his supremacy beyond his 30th birthday.
Even Messi has faded as the one-man match winner he once was.
He too has adapted his game, becoming more of a playmaker over the past year or so, dropping deeper to provide the pass rather than getting on the end of it, but there are signs of the Argentine slowing down in a way not even Ronaldo has yet.
2016 may well go down as the year the Messi and Ronaldo duopoly was finally broken.
The Barcelona and Real Madrid duo still occupied the top two spots in the Ballon d’Or voting, but for the first time in nearly a decade there was a genuine discussion to be had over who the best in the world truly is.
Suggestions of others, like Luis Suarez or Antoine Griezmann, are no longer so farfetched, so outrageous.
Yet, regardless of whether the Ballon d’Or is once again a close contest or not, Ronaldo deserves the acclaim for what he achieved in 2016.
His year was about more than just European glory for club and country. His year was a tale of intelligence, adaptability and doing what it takes to stay at the top.