Ronaldo grabs glory among football elite

Between them, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo have claimed the title of world’s greatest footballer for seven years running. Is their unrelenting dominance down to natural talent or simple graft?

One is a diminutive Argentinian who glides through games with mesmeric grace. The other is a chiselled, six-foot Portuguese with Herculean prowess. One is modest and media-shy, while the other revels in fame and boasts a country’s worth of Facebook followers. Together, they pose a question that bitterly divides the football world: who is better, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

This week, football’s top national managers, captains and journalists came together to declare Ronaldo the best — in 2014 at least. They have awarded him the Ballon d’Or, football’s top individual prize, ahead of his career-long rival.

The award will not satisfy ardent Messi fans, who say it is a scandal that he came second. Yet both players have phenomenal ability, and casual fans and sports scientists alike struggle to explain the secret of their footballing genius. Is it a matter of hard work and sheer drive, or is their talent innate? Could any one of us become the next Ronaldo?

According to the author Malcolm Gladwell's ‘10,000 hour rule’, greatness is something almost anyone can achieve through hard work. He argued that what distinguishes the best people in any field is that they have all devoted around 10,000 hours to honing their skills in practice. Yet this theory has many critics, who note that there is a big difference between being simply very good at something and being a supreme talent.

Many sports scientists say genes are the key. They speak of a ‘big bang of body types’ in recent years, an explosion of diversity in humanity’s physical characteristics. Those who naturally have certain body shapes now dominate their sports.

Female gymnasts are getting shorter and top boxers tend to have longer arms. Height makes a huge difference in basketball. A young American male between six foot and six foot two inches has a five in a million chance of playing NBA level basketball, yet a seven-foot man has a one in six chance.

Nurturing nature

In modern sport almost every top athlete has access to nutritionists, masseurs and top coaches. Yet a few athletes tower above their peers. As tennis player Rafael Nadal admitted of his great rival, the exceptional Roger Federer, ‘his DNA seems to be perfectly adapted for tennis’. Some people are simply destined for sporting greatness, some say.

Yet while genes are undoubtedly important, no one has yet identified which of our 23,000 determine ability. Ronaldo and Messi could never reach such heights without rigorous training and have expert guidance on what aspects of the game they should work on. Sporting ability is a complex cocktail. But many would argue that — given the right conditions — anyone can become an excellent athlete.

You Decide

  1. Is greatness in sport more a matter of nature or of nurture?
  2. ‘It is a harmful lie that anyone can achieve anything if they put their mind to it.’ Do you agree?


  1. Choose your favourite sport or hobby and note down how many hours you spend doing it each week. Now calculate how many years it would take you to do 10,000 hours. Do you think you could achieve it?
  2. Write a story about those people who have devoted their lives to one sport or activity for decades and how it might make them feel about the world.

Some People Say...

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

A Schopenhauer

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I focus on being good at one thing?
No! Studies have shown that specialisation can be counter-productive, especially at an early age. The skills gained in an activity can help you think differently about how to approach other things. This also applies to sport, where the balance improved by gymnastics can improve a tennis player, for example.
But what’s the point in trying if it all comes down to genes?
Every person develops differently. If you are passionate about a sport or a musical instrument but are not making as much progress as you would like, do not be disheartened. Obviously very few people will rise to be the best in their field, but the people who are the best almost always work as much for enjoyment as for competition.

Word Watch

If Ronaldo’s 102 million Facebook followers made up a single country, it would be the twelfth biggest in the world, bigger than the Philippines but smaller than Mexico.
Ballon d’Or
Ronaldo has now won the award three times and Messi four times. The last time another player won the award was in 2008.
Very good
Gladwell slightly misrepresents an earlier psychology study which found that 10,000 hours of practise was likely to make someone an ‘expert’, rather than exceptional, at a subject.
Geneticist David Epstein compares our genes to a recipe book which in theory 'provides directions for the creation of the body … but if one page is moved, altered, or torn out, then some of the other 22,999 pages may suddenly contain new instructions’.

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