CRISTIANO RONALDO and Lionel Messi have dominated the “best player in the world” debate for years.
But if Ronaldo leads Portugal to Euro 2016 glory tonight, it could trigger a changing of the guard.
Don’t get me wrong. Whatever happens in Paris, neither player is going to drop off the face of the planet.
Aged 31, Ronaldo looks like he has plenty of good years left in him.
Messi, who is just 29, is in the same boat.
But after Barcelona star Leo’s retiral from international football, I reckon Ronaldo could follow suit if Portugal do the business tonight.
Whether they will or not is another thing altogether. But let’s just imagine for a second that they find it within themselves.
For the Real Madrid man, it would be a new high point in a glittering career, the taste of international success he has always craved.
The Portuguese icon has a colossal ego. There’s no getting away from that.
Bowing out of international football after helping his country to its first major honour would appeal to him, especially since Messi hasn’t managed it with Argentina.
And if Ronaldo clears off ahead of the World Cup in 2018, the stage will be set for a new leading man to claim the limelight.
For most neutrals, me included, Messi will always come out on top against Ronaldo.
The latter’s critics – and there are plenty – reckon his attitude goes against him.
By contrast, the Argentine ace has been squeaky-clean on the field.
His conviction in Spain for tax fraud last week has hinted that all may not be quite as it seems behind the scenes
Along with Argentina’s defeat to Chile in the Final of the Copa America, it must have played a big part in his decision to concentrate on club football.
And with Ronaldo on the brink of the greatest achievement of his own career, it looks like their long-running personal battle could be about to start winding down.
So is anybody ready to step up to their level? The truth is I’m not convinced there is.
Gareth Bale is a world-class player. He has proved that for Real Madrid and for Wales at the Euros.
At 26 years old, there is still room for improvement, and he will be well in the fight for Ballons d’Or in years to come.
But can he emulate Messi and Ronaldo? I don’t think so.
Can Luis Suarez? Can Robert Lewandowski? Can Sergio Aguero? No chance.
For me, the only current player with worldwide profile who has the potential to join Ronaldo and Messi as one of the all-time greats is Neymar.
He’s skilful, he’s deadly, he’s increasingly street smart and he’s still only 24.
I think he’s good enough to be Barcelona’s post-Messi talisman when the time comes.
I think he’s good enough to lead his country to World Cup glory in two years, in six years, and maybe even in both.
Time will tell on that front, but the history books have already been written for Messi and Ronaldo.
Both have been at it for years, both will continue for years to come. They have earned their place at football’s top table.
Nothing, not even defeat tonight for Cristiano and Portugal, will change that.