It’s been an enthralling start to FIFA World Cup 2018 and the opening matches have once again fuelled the great debate about who is the Greatest Of All Time on the biggest stage in football. Ronaldo? Messi? Pele? Maradona? Cruyff? Zidane?

For those of us old enough to remember Pele at his prime, the Brazilian is the romantic choice. The only player to win three World Cups – in 1958, 1962 and 1970 – he was the man who first connected football with the phrase “the beautiful game.” In the only one of his four World Cups he failed to win, when England triumphed in 1966, Pele was unceremoniously kicked out of the tournament. Four years later he crowned his farewell on the greatest stage when he graced the best world cup ever in Brazil’s iconic 4-1 win over Italy.

Lacking the grace of Pele, but matching him for making an impact Diego Maradona also played in four World Cups. Maradona famously carried Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and his second goal in the quarter-finals against England was one of the greatest ever scored. But his first unveiled Diego the cheat, and his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal will always tarnish his reputation, which ended in disgrace at USA 1994 when he was sent home after failing a drugs test.

The Dutch will always herald the genius of Johan Cruyff who epitomised Total Football and famously gifted football the ‘Cruyff turn’ at the 1974 World Cup when he was the undisputed player of the tournament. But he ended up with a runners-up medal when the Netherlands were beaten by hosts Argentina in the Final.

France boast the brilliance of Zinedine Zidane who gloriously led France to victory on home soil in 1998 when the French destroyed Brazil 3-0 in the Final. But Zizou tarnished his reputation when he bowed out in disgrace in the 2006 Final, red carded for head-butting Marco Materazzi before the Italians triumphed on penalties.

What sets Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi apart from the rest is that we have been blessed to witness their incredible heroics in the same era. Never before have we seen two giants of the game go stride for stride in the same tournaments and both are still re-writing history, both in their adopted Spain and at their fourth successive World Cups.

Messi at his best is the closest we have seen to my personal all-time favourite footballer George Best, omitted from this debate because he played for Northern Ireland and consequently never appeared at the World Cup. At just 5’7 (1.7m) the pint-sized Argentine has mesmeric skills on the ball that deservedly made him the first player to win the coveted ballon d’or five times. His rivalry with Cristiano has been extraordinary, with both men smashing so many records that the comparisons are of course inevitable.

Ronaldo famously declared that he was the greatest ever when he drew level with Messi to win his fifth ballon d’or in December. “I don’t see anyone better than me. No player does things I cannot do myself but I see things others can’t do. There’s no more complete player than me. I’m the best player in history — in the good and the bad moments.”

His self-confidence is not universally appreciated, especially by Messi supporters. But let me explain why Cristiano stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best role model in football.

Three years older than Messi, who turns 30 next Sunday, Ronaldo’s longevity confirms his dedication to the game makes him arguably the fittest footballer we have seen. As a human specimen, Cristiano is a freak of nature whom I expect has the desire, the skill and the physique to come back four years from now at his fifth World Cup in Qatar.

When his stunning late free-kick pegged back favorites Spain yesterday to snatch a dramatic 3-3 draw, Ronaldo became the oldest player in World Cup tournament history to score a hat-trick. And he did so with one of his greatest ever goals. Messi was unable to step up and match his rival earlier today when Argentina were held 1-1 by a stirring fightback by minnows Iceland.


Further comparisons will inevitably continue as the rivals continue to strive for glory over the rest of this tournament. And who would bet against either delivering more spellbinding magic that will inspire further debate. But my final contribution that illustrates why Cristiano is the ultimate role model is based on what sets him apart as a truly wonderful human being.

His unconditional devotion to and appreciation of his fans is legendary.

The never ending examples of his charitable donations regularly see him top the charts as the world’s most generous sportsman.

Undeterred by the tax authorities yesterday clawing back £16.4 million in alleged unpaid taxes and a suspended jail sentence, I have no doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo will continue to help worthy causes and show genuine love for his fans. Messi fans could point to similar actions by their hero. But Cristiano has taken his good deeds to another level.

Ronaldo has always gone that extra mile and his refusal to get a tattoo so that he can give blood regularly sums up everything I love about Cristiano. Not to mention that personally I have an aversion to tattoos and will never understand why beautiful human beings deliberately scar their bodies with ink.


GIVING BLOOD: According to the NHS’s Give Blood organisation, donors must wait four months from the date of having their tattoo or body piercing done before they can give blood