By George Simms
When Erling Haaland told reporters that Kylian Mbappe’s hat trick against Barcelona gave him ‘free motivation’, the football world’s collective mouth began to salivate. This was an official declaration of war, a global announcement that these two are on the fast track to become football’s next great rivalry. And there’s nothing sports fans love more than a nice rivalry to blow heavily out of proportion and create violent divisions among the respective fanbases.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have provided us with football’s biggest rivalry for over a decade. Two of the greatest to ever kick a football, they’ve played for two of the best teams in the world, at the same time, in the same league. The narrative wrote itself.
So, when Mbappe’s hat trick put Messi’s Barcelona to the sword on a night the Argentinian was largely absent, more and more voices started to murmur about a changing of the footballing superstar guard. The following evening, when Haaland scored twice and set up another to beat a Sevilla side known for one of the meanest defences in Europe and Ronaldo’s pedestrian Juventus side sloppily lost to Porto, those voices started to get louder and louder.
Mbappe and Haaland have 28 UCL goals between them since the start of last season, Messi and CR7 have 15. No other player in history has started their UCL careers as prolifically as the young duo. Mbappe scored in a victorious World Cup Final at 18, Haaland still averages more than a goal a game since joining Borussia Dortmund over a year ago. They are both, without question, freaks of nature with incredibly bright futures ahead of them.
Yet Mbappe and Haaland are 22 and 20 respectively. Of course, beginnings are inherently laced with more excitement than endings. We look at the young upstarts, fresh faced and full of the bullish confidence of youth, and the sky is the limit in terms of their potential. Their futures are full of ‘ifs’, and Messi and Ronaldo’s respective pasts seem increasingly full of ‘whens’.
For example, if Mbappe scores 40 goals a season for the next 15 years, without exception, he’ll have scored six goals less than Cristiano Ronaldo currently has. If Haaland scores 42 a season over the same time period, he will overtake Messi’s scoring record. If they complete blockbuster moves, we may get to watch them play each other on a regular basis, like we have with Messi and Ronaldo in Spain.
These are, very obviously, massive ifs. Especially when Messi and Ronaldo are currently top scorers in their respective leagues. Ronaldo is carrying a seriously sub-par Juventus side to a Seria A title challenge and Messi is tasked with keeping some semblance of normality on the pitch at Barcelona whilst chaos reigns behind the scenes. They may not quite be the players they were throughout their 20s, but what they’re doing still really belies belief.
I don’t doubt that Haaland and Mbappe may provide the baying masses with their next great rivalry to agonise and fight over. It’s an incredibly exciting prospect for all football fans that Messi and Ronaldo may not leave a gaping, unfillable hole in the sport.
But that rivalry hasn’t quite blossomed and most importantly, the pair who have collected 11 of the last 12 Ballon d’Ors are not finished yet. Whilst Haaland is already widely, and rightly, recognised as one of the best strikers in football, he’s still only really been on the scene for 18 months. Mbappe will have to leave PSG to really be challenged on a weekly basis and reach the peak of his potential.
Messi won his first Ballon d’Or at 22, Ronaldo’s came aged 23. When he won his fifth in 2017, Ronaldo was 31. Messi was 32 when he won his sixth. This is what Mbappe and Haaland have to compete with. They are laying the foundations for spectacular careers that may well numb the pain of losing Messi and Ronaldo on our screens, but they’re both due big transfers and a lot more big performances in big stadiums before they should really be mentioned in the same breath as our two modern day ’GOATs’.
Haaland and Mbappe both seem to have their heads screwed on; they love football and their family and that’s about it. They’re two of the quickest players in world football and crucially, both of their brains seem to be a long way ahead of their feet. There’s every chance at least one of them produces a career which could emulate the quality of Messi or Ronaldo.
In Paris and Dortmund we may well be watching greatness in the making, but we can’t ignore that in Barcelona and Turin, there may well still be five more years apiece of guaranteed greatness to revel in. There’s a lot of life in the old dogs yet. Just enjoy it while we can.
Image: mo640 via Creative Commons