Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have had very different summers.
Yes, both players completed moves away from the clubs at which they finished last season, but the manner of their transfers revealed a divergence between the two, between their headspaces, between how football considers them as they enter the Augusts of their careers.
Messi — perhaps unsurprisingly — has come out of these last couple of months looking considerably better than his former Clasico rival.
When last he played, the Argentine was celebrating a memorable Copa America triumph. An international title was the one thing he lacked, and it seemed everyone but the opponent on the day was cheering him on. The emotion that overcame him at the final whistle at the Maracana showed a remarkably human side of him —s omething rare for a quiet superstar more comfortable simply playing, packing up and going home.
Then there were the tears he shed at his Barcelona exit.
He left the club he’d joined as a teenager with dignity, and when he signed for Paris Saint-Germain a few days later he did so smiling. To their credit, PSG did an excellent job posting pictures of a happy Messi, a relaxed Messi, a Messi enjoying his new city and new teammates.
When the 34-year-old makes his debut Sunday at Reims (1:45 p.m., beIN Sports) he’ll be driving one of the most highly anticipated club matches of all time.
Ronaldo, by contrast, has spent his summer attempting to orchestrate a departure from Juventus. Out of contract at season’s end, it was no secret that he’d be allowed to leave Turin. As it turned out, the Bianconeri were desperate to see him gone. It was never a good fit.
On Friday the Portuguese rejoined Manchester United.
Having won three Premier League titles, the FA Cup, two League Cups and the Champions League with the Red Devils, as well as the Ballon d’Or in 2008, his return should have been celebrated as a sort of feel-good coming-home story. It still will be in some quarters, but it’s a transaction that reeks of cynicism.
Only a day earlier the 36-year-old’s agent was in the French capital, reportedly attempting to unite his client with Messi at PSG. Had Real Madrid been able to secure Parisien forward Kylian Mbappe, there’s a chance the deal would have gone through.
But it’s what happened the day before that really smelled.
Desperate to find somewhere else to play before next week’s transfer deadline, Ronaldo agreed to personal terms with Manchester City. It would have been a betrayal akin to Messi joining Real Madrid, and as late as Thursday evening it looked as though the two players would face each other in the Champions League group stage, what with City and PSG being drawn in the same section.
United rescued that scenario Friday afternoon — an extremely quick piece of business that speaks well to the new transfer regime of John Murtough and Darren Fletcher. Naturally, former manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s fingerprints were all over the deal as well.
The City agreement, however, demonstrated where Ronaldo’s mind is. Yes, football is a business, and expected loyalty is little more than naivete. But once again the football world was reminded of something it already knows: that Ronaldo cares only about himself, even to the point where both Manchester clubs are much the same to him.
As for United, well, their dressing room is about to be upended. Juventus know all about that.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, Messi is about to embark on a new phase of his career. It’s not one he sought, but he has settled well. He’s a footballer very much at peace with himself, with his situation, with his accomplishments. It’s heartening to see. Football wishes him well.
It’s no secret that Messi and Ronaldo have been compared to exhaustion. It’s the luxury of having two all-time greats in the same generation. But what this summer has done is pry some separation between them.
And Messi has come out of it more serenely, more dignified and better.