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Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: Debunking the myth

Disproving the belief that Messi was born great and that Ronaldo had no natural talent.

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The Myth

It is no exaggeration to say that Ronaldo and Messi have captured the imagination of almost a billion people. Their brilliance is truly mesmerizing and has led to a hyper-analysis of their success. While many truly engaging debates have occurred, some truly bizarre statements have arisen and have annoyingly not faltered. The most popular one is that Ronaldo became great through hard work whereas Messi became great because he was born gifted. Pretty much every single pundit and player on the planet furthers this completely incorrect oversimplification of the success of two of the world’s greatest athletes. In fact, here is a video of Zlatan Ibrahimovic stating this nonchalantly as if it were common knowledge.

This statement that Messi is natural and Ronaldo is a trained product defies both human biology and psychology. To say this simply, both are trained products. In fact, every single person on this planet is a trained product. To say one is born gifted is highly ignorant and is also a good excuse to make when explaining why some people are more successful than you. Let me explain this in more depth.

Why the myth is wrong

First of all, I am not making the claim that some people aren’t born with certain advantages. In fact many athletes are. They are often gifted with a high metabolic rate, a naturally good top speed (which is very hard to improve), and a very good kinesthetic sense. In terms of mental abilities, some people are born with higher analytical abilities than others. But as Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers states, you only need to be smart enough to a certain degree to be as or more successful than a person that is considered a genius. Thus, not only do these capabilities come nowhere near to determining how great someone will be, but they are also qualities that are not exclusive to football. Being fast is applicable to almost every single sport and having good analytical abilities is essential not only for sports, but for life. Looking at these facts alone tells you that it impossible for Messi to have been born with the ability to play football. It also tells you that it is impossible that Ronaldo was born with no natural gifts. In fact, Ronaldo was probably more physically blessed then Messi, as Ronaldo has natural height and top-end pace (however Messi also has advantages with his low center of gravity and inherent agility). But after proving this, the question arises: if you can’t be born to play football, then how did these guys become great?

The answer: practice. More specifically 10,000 hours of practice according to Malcolm Gladwell. According to his studies, if one person spent that much time properly practicing their craft they would have mastered it. The science behind this makes perfect sense. When developing any new skill, it feels awkward for the first several times. This is because the brain is only beginning to create neural networks that link to this skill. The more you practice it, the more neural networks bind together, making the process smoother and quicker. If you spend 10,000 hours creating neural pathways in football skills, you will be able to execute step-overs and finesse shots with ease. It will almost seem like your muscles have memorized the steps for what you need to do. Following this logic, for Messi and Ronaldo to be better than everyone else, they would have to have practiced more than everyone else.

Nonetheless, such thinking is routinely ignored partly because of Ronaldo’s immense physique. They use this as justification for why Ronaldo worked and Messi didn’t. But with Ronaldo’s height and his participation in the Premier League, his physical training made perfect sense as it enhanced his natural gifts of pace and power. However, for Messi, such training would’ve been pointless. He is naturally agile and quick and thus bulking up would’ve merely reduced his ability to play the game. Not only is the discussion of physical training completely different from Ronaldo and Messi, it is important to remember that body building is probably only a fraction of the reason Ronaldo is as good as he is. Having great abs and powerful thighs does not automatically make you a great footballer and thus exposes the fallacy in the argument that Ibrahimovic proposed (that Ronaldo is a trained product). The most important factor in both Messi and Ronaldo’s success is the time they spent practicing skills and the time they spent mastering how to play with a team. They each have spent more time than anyone else working on their craft and it is time to recognize that for both players. Not doing so is an insult to the unbelievable effort and sacrifice it takes to become the best of the best.

(The information present in this article comes from my background knowledge of basic psychology and from what I remember from Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers. I strongly recommend that those who have not heard of this book give it a read).

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