Free Book Excerpt: Messi vs. Ronaldo and the Pursuit of USA Money and a Global All-Star Game
From the authors of The Club, a new book called Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era that Remade the World's Game.
Two of my favorite authors, the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, are back with a follow-up to their book The Club. Releasing on Tuesday, November 1, it’s called Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs and the Era That Remade the World’s Game.
I interviewed Robinson and Clegg about the book on my new podcast episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to go for your pods. And here’s an excerpt from Messi vs. Ronaldo about how they turned to promoting themselves in the United States—and just how close we came to a truly global All-Star Game involving Team Messi vs. Team Ronaldo.
Adapted from MESSI VS. RONALDO: One Rivalry, Two GOATS, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. To be published on November 1 by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2022 by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. Reprinted by permission.
In the summer of 2017, the Messi vs. Ronaldo rivalry was set to reach a new frontier: the United States.
That was in large part down to the work of one man. Charlie Stillitano, a gregarious former MLS executive, had spent the previous 15 years selling Europe’s biggest clubs on the American dream. Through his gift for storytelling and his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian food, Stillitano had charmed his way through the boardrooms of European soccer in the early 2000s, working to convince Europe’s biggest clubs that the U.S. market was there for the taking.
Now, with the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, as his business partner, all those years of toil were about to pay off. Stillitano had teed up a Clásico on American soil. All the struggles—securing hotel rooms and drivers and three-star restaurant reservations to send millionaires barnstorming through the U.S.—had produced the most significant match in ICC history.
It had taken some convincing. But when Ross sat down with both Florentino Pérez and Josep Maria Barotmeu, he made them a promise that few others in the world of sports could deliver with any credibility. If they were willing to export Real versus Barcelona, he would make this match like a Super Bowl.
(Guaranteeing Messi and Ronaldo’s presence was a simpler endeavor: Relevent gave them millions of reasons to play ball. Cristiano’s payment merely for showing up accounted for 10 percent of Real’s overall rights fee. Messi’s made up an eye-watering 30 percent of Barça’s.)
As it turned out, a personal matter in Spain made Ronaldo a late scratch from the game. Stillitano gave him every chance to make it there by putting a private jet in Madrid on standby, but the timing never worked out. They had to settle for a Messi-only Clásico to delight the 65,320 fans inside Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, all of whom paid at least $200 a ticket.
Over in Europe another investor was watching. A City of London wheeler-dealer named Robert Bonnier, who had made a dot-com fortune, lost it, and was in the process of building it back up, also thought that the gap in the soccer market was obvious. For all the talk of de facto all-star games during Clásicos and summer exhibitions, his new objective in life was to give soccer an actual all-star game. And instead of a U.S.-style East versus West, or National League versus American League, he saw only one possible format: Team Messi versus Team Ronaldo.
“An all-star game is the last great frontier for football,” says David Piper, the TV producer hired by Bonnier to make it happen.
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The nearest soccer had come was in MLS, where the league handpicked its best players and threw them together to serve as preseason fodder for a major European club. This would be much, much bigger. So around 2014, Bonnier and Piper opened talks with every possible entity on the long list that would need to sign off on such a crazy project.
FIFA and UEFA, who fiercely guard their monopoly on licensing competitive matches in Europe, wouldn’t hop on board easily or cheaply. Neither would the clubs. Pérez demanded €25 million for any Real player to be involved.
Anticipating some raised eyebrows from sponsors as well, Piper worked out that Messi and Friends could wear Adidas while Ronaldo and Co. trotted out in Nike kits. And to assuage concerns over neutral ground, they settled on playing the match at Wembley.
The easiest thing was piquing Messi’s and Ronaldo’s interest. Both camps were intrigued when they heard that the budget for the operation would exceed €100 million, leaving plenty to go directly into their pockets in the form of match fees and bonuses for the winners. Messi and Ronaldo would be finally, explicitly in the business of Messi versus Ronaldo.
Each side even asked if they could have a hand in selecting the teams.
Bonnier and Piper said sure, why not? There was no limit to how much they could tweak the format, because no one had ever tried it before. If they could make the inaugural match in 2017 work, the idea was to grow the project into a biennial event that would look more like a music festival than a friendly match, with bands, laser shows, and maybe even a boxing prize fight to cap off the weekend.
That version of the project collapsed in the end under the sheer weight of the parties involved. The web of competing interests—clubs, regulators, egos—proved too unwieldy to handle. “We were very close,” Piper says ruefully.
But getting as close as they did crystallized something real that was happening on the pitch. Messi and Ronaldo were in a new phase of their careers: they were taking back control of a rivalry that they barely owned anymore. They’d each won every major club trophy available. Now it was time to ask themselves how many more times they could do it. Messi and Ronaldo were no longer building seasons—they were building legacies.
To Ronaldo, there were only two venues that mattered anymore, the Ballon d’Or and the Champions League. On the night in 2014 when Real Madrid became champion of Europe for a 10th time by beating Atlético, Cristiano knew exactly what he needed to do. Though he wasn’t the game’s highest-impact player—that would be his teammate Sergio Ramos, who headed home the 94th-minute goal to send the game into extra-time—Ronaldo seized his moment by scoring a late, meaningless penalty kick to make the score 4–1. After the ball hit the net, he ran to the corner flag, whipped off his shirt, and flexed every muscle in his body like the Incredible Hulk after a thousand burpees. He had no doubts about which picture would be seen around the world the next morning.
He collected his second Champions League trophy and, later that year, his third Ballon d’Or. As it turned out, Cristiano had never been more prepared for anything in his life. Six months before the final, he’d already constructed a special place for the silverware back home in Funchal: a public museum to himself.
Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs and the Era That Remade the World’s Game will be released on Tuesday, November 1.
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