Which Spanish Athlete right now is in the finest form: Rafa, Leo or CR7?

James Simpson II
May 22, 2018 · 10 min read

Comprehension can be a tricky thing sometimes. A misleading joke at that.

One minute you think you’ve got it figured out, then you realize three minutes later that you don’t. However, in order to fully grasp the importance of something, one must see why it’s important in the first place.

Look no further then to this famous Spanish saying…A buen entendedor, pocas palabras bastan.

English Translation: To someone with good understanding, only a few words are necessary.

The basic premise of that aphorism is that any intellectual, self-aware, high IQ individual should be able to understand something remarkable and without having to do much explaining, if they had the fortune of witnessing it.

Well, I’m pretty sure the entire country of Spain has a firm understanding of three of its tantalizing figures in pro athletes Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

This spring, sports fans throughout Spain have had a closeup view of all three wonders in their elements. While Nadal is originally from Spain (he’s from the island of Mallorca), Messi (Argentina) and Ronaldo (Portugal) are technically not, however they both have played in Spain for two of the most prestigious soccer clubs in the world, in Barcelona and Real Madrid, for the majority of their careers, so the association with the country is well-established. With the World Cup looming in June for both Argentina and Portugal’s stars, expect fiestas to be thrown left and right across the Iberian Peninsula basking in jubilation.

The beautiful country of Spain.

This spring especially, has treated the world of athletics but in particular Spanish sports fans to some pretty breathtaking material. No athlete internationally or in America in 2018 (maybe LeBron James) has put his team on his back week after week the way Lionel Messi has. By the eyes of many experts, the 2018 Barcelona side is nowhere near at the level of past great Barca teams when they displayed more fluidity, dynamism, creativity and were more aesthetically appealing to watch. This version of the Spanish giant are more prone to win a 1–0 or 2–1 match, instead of a more overwhelming score of 4–1 or 5–0. It’s widely recognized that this squad is lacking a sense of burst and elusiveness on the outside, are more practical and careful than ever before, prioritize controlling possession and playing keep away, take there chances when they come and rely on the heroics of the Argentinian maybe more than any other season of his career.

Other than the shocking quarterfinal loss to Roma in the Champions League in March — where Messi wasn’t able to deliver the goods when his club needed him the most — he and his group have been utterly flawless, especially in the last couple of months. Barcelona completed the domestic double (won La Liga and Copa del Rey) for the eighth time in club history, submitted a 43-match unbeaten streak of 34 wins and 9 draws (longest in La Liga history) and came two matches away from becoming the first club in La Liga history (since the league expanded to playing 20-plus games in domestic play) to finish the season undefeated (Barca recorded 28 wins, 9 draws and 1 loss for the campaign), until they were recently knocked off by Levante 5–4, in a game Messi did not play due to him receiving rest for a friendly match against a South African club last week.

Messi celebrates after scoring a goal against Real Madrid on May 6.

Messi has had his hands in all of it. At age 30, 2018 is shaping up to be one of his three or four best seasons, mainly because the club seems to be more dependent on his play more than ever before. He’s nailing timely, game-saving direct free kicks to pull out wins like the one he produced in the first half against Atletico Madrid in a crucial 1–0 victory at Camp Nou on March 4 in a game where Barca came into the game with a five-point lead in league standings. With the win, the Blaugranes all but sure wrapped up another league title.

Try March 31 in the away match versus Sevilla. You know what happened. With Sevilla up 2–0 with just about three minutes left in the second half, star teammate Luis Suarez scored, then Messi (who came off the bench at the 58th minute mark) came to save the day with a darting strike at the top left corner of the box with two minutes left in regular time that eventually finished at a 2–2 draw to keep Barca’s unbeaten streak going.

Even the game-tying goal versus Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 match in the second half off an passing error was back-breaking for Chelsea players and their fans. The all-time goal scorer in Spanish League history has been breaking wills and hearts of opposing fans and clubs all season, and it shows statistically as well.

His 34 goals clinched him both his fifth career Pichichi Trophy (leading goal scorer during a La Liga season) and European Golden Shoe award (top goal scorer across all leagues in Europe). His 12 assists were tied for the most in La Liga this season, will likely win La Liga Player of the Year and once again is in the running for the always esteemed Ballon d’Or trophy.

If there’s one player that has a chance to overshadow what Messi has done this year, it’s his longtime rival, Cristiano Ronaldo. (BTW: That El Clásico match a few weeks ago at Camp Nou was absolutely tremendous and had everything we love about that rivalry. There’s a reason Barca-Real is the greatest fútbol rivalry in European history.)

While Messi and Barcelona have comfortably grabbed hold of the title of “Best Spanish Club in the World”, Ronaldo and Real Madrid are aiming to secure the thrown as the “Number 1 Club in Europe” by winning the Champions League for the third straight year and fourth time in five years. When you think about it, the current five-year run Real Madrid is on (2014–2018) where they have the chance to obtain a fourth European Cup (won in 2014, 2016 and 2017) in a five-year span in a period where the quality, skill, depth and talent in Europe is more premier and first-rate than its ever been, how can one not think this is one of professional sports greatest runs.

If Real are able to defeat Liverpool this Saturday in the Champions League final, with Ronaldo at the helm as the ring leader of this group, he will have to be embraced as “The Best Player on a Sports Dynasty” the same way the likes of Michael Jordan was with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s (six titles in eight years), Joe Montana was with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s (four Super Bowl titles in nine years), Magic Johnson was with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s (five titles and eight Finals appearances in 10 years) and Tom Brady still is with the New England Patriots in the 2000s and 2010s (five Lombardi trophies in eight Super Bowl appearances). CR7 would be in that discussion with a win over Mohamed Salah and Liverpool, and would elevate his stance as one of the most outstanding athletes in team sports history.

With a fifth European Cup title, Ronaldo will be in rarefied air with the one-and-only Michael Jordan.

Yet, it’s the level the Portuguese striker has played at since February that’s got viewers totally beside themselves. Through his first 19 La Liga games this season, Ronaldo netted only four goals. He was firing shots at a high rate per game and missing at a high rate, with a handful of his misses being wild, errant and miscalculated shots. Viewers and experts couldn’t interpret if he was pressing too much or if the years and mileage on his 33-year-old body was starting to take a toll. Or maybe it was a mixture of all those mentioned but either way, El hombre’s game was off.

And then, the shift mode turned on inside of the forward and he started scoring like some terrorizing maniac with the sole intention to debunk any notion that he was finished. He ramped up his game in Spanish play and went three steps higher in the Champions League, where he’s raked in a tournament-high 15 goals in 12 games (he is on course to finish as the top goal scorer in a Champions League season for the sixth time in his career), including an impressive, challenging run to the final where he led Real past the French champions (PSG) in the round of 16, the Italian champions (Juventus) in the quarterfinals and German champions (Bayern Munich) in the semifinals.

Ronaldo in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich.

With his main competitor going out in unexpected fashion in the Champions League quarterfinals and heavily criticized for coming up small in a game his club needed him to summon something supernatural — especially towards the end — Ronaldo was the complete opposite.

The big moments is what he lives for and in the second leg against Juventus with the score all even at 3–3 on aggregate goals, Ronaldo stepped up to drill a penalty kick in extra time to advance his troops past Juve 4–3 on aggregate. An animated Ronaldo ran off and removed his jersey in front of the home crowd as if he was saying, “There’s no way I was missing that. Not on my watch.”

Even more incredible was the unreal bicycle kick goal Ronaldo converted in the first leg against the Serie A winners, which had millions of mouths literally dropping across the globe and twitter heads going berserk. On top of that, he even received a standing ovation from the Italian crowd. How rare of a site was that from the rival fanbase in a game with so much at stake?

That goal might have been “The Goal” of Cristiano Ronaldo’s amazing career.

He also became the Champions League all-time goal scorer this spring as well. Ronaldo’s second half surge had him end with 26 goals in La Liga (second behind Messi), currently has 44 goals scored in all competitions (tied for second with Salah and behind Messi’s 45) and is in prime position to steal away a record sixth Ballon d’Or, which at one point during the middle of the season was an afterthought.

Ronaldo’s buddy and Real Madrid fan, Rafael Nadal, seems to be doing pretty swell these days, especially now that the tennis tour has swung over into the European clay-court season, the Spaniard’s personal home away from home. Every year in the spring in early April, right as clay-court play gets underway — no matter what kind of form he’s in — things always seem to come together physically, mentally and tennis wise for Nadal. Once he steps on the dirt, the opposition pretty much knows a defeat is likely to come. When playing on clay, Nadal is known to mash his opponents pretty much into oblivion, giving them seamlessly no hope of winning against him.

Well, it’s May and the 10-time French Open champion has been doing exactly that through the European scene. The two month (April and May) clay heavy stretch consists of vital ATP Tour tournaments that go in the order of Monte Carlo, the Barcelona Open, Madrid and Rome, with three of the four (Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome) as Masters 1000 events. Not only did he win three of the four tournaments (Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome) but he got hotter than he’s ever gotten before on his favorite surface. Nadal set a record by winning 50 straight sets on clay, an Open Era record for the most consecutive sets won on a single surface, breaking John McEnroe’s previous mark of 49 straight sets won on carpet in 1984. The streak dates back to the start of last year’s French Open win and what’s even crazier is that not one set went into a tiebreaker.

Nadal celebrates after winning his 11th Barcelona Open in April.

The streak was stopped by Austria’s Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open, as was also his 21-match clay-winning streak. It’s not just the wins that the 16-time grand slam winner keeps piling up on the rigid and arduous courts but it’s the unabating consistency he’s doing it at. There’s no let up ever on the slow surface for Nadal, playing every point seemingly as if it’s more important than the last. That level of ferocity is just too much for his opponents, on a surface where it’s easier to get physically worn down on. Not Nadal. He’ll be out there all day if it was up to him. Barring injury, an 11th title at Roland Garros this summer is all but assured for the 31-year-old.

If I had to rank which of the three are in springtime’s finest form at this instant, my order would look like this:

1. Messi

2. Nadal

3. Ronaldo

…but it’s certainly up for discussion amongst sports fans.

For natives in the country of Spain, particularly in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona and at the island of Mallorca, the celebration of these brilliant aces should never dissolve, only enlarge over time.

This Spanish saying sums up the triad…La direfencia entro lo posible y lo imposible esta’ en la determinacion de una persona.

English Translation: The difference between the possible and the impossible lies in the determination of a person.

During this tropical, humid time of the calendar year, Spain can’t be represented better.

James Simpson II

Written by

Sports Journalist, Columnist and Author. Totally dig sports, pop culture and history. https://twitter.com/JamesSimpsonII

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