International football is over until next year, and as if to celebrate that fact, club football returns with arguably its biggest game. On Saturday evening, Barcelona travel to Real Madrid for the first Clásico of the season, and with three points separating the two teams at the top of the table, it's going to be an important one. Mind you, with the history and animosity, even the irrelevant ones tend to matter.
Over the last six-and-a-bit years, however, ever since Real Madrid dumped 80 million pound coins on the Old Trafford forecourt, this game has been more than just the biggest club game of the season. It's also become the focal point of the 21st century's most enduring, irritating footballing argument. An argument that makes "Is Carrick actually good?" look like a minor difference of opinion; it makes "Are heat maps literally a war crime?" look like the flip of a coin. It is, of course, Messi vs. Ronaldo.
The nature of football means that most individual rivalries — be they real, media-created, or some combination of the two — are necessarily passive-aggressive things, proxy wars fought throughout the calendar. Ronaldo throws down a challenge by scoring two goals on Saturday lunchtime; Messi strikes back with three on Sunday evening. They race to goal totals, they race to records, they race with grim inevitability towards the first and second places in the Ballon d'Or voting. All that at the expense of La Liga's poor defenders.
It's only natural, then, that when they do run into each other directly, it's quite a big deal. But after six years and 22 Clásicos, it's also quite a tired deal. By this point there can't be a single football fan in the universe who hasn't thought the argument through to its fullest extent, and decided who they like best, who they think is best, who they think smells best, who they'd most like to make some miraculous move to their preferred club and who they'd most like to sit down with for an intimate meal, a couple of drinks and a wide-ranging chat about collectible card games, season two of True Detective, and the state of the world economy.
There's a certain amount of ingratitude baked into this, of course: It's quite rare to have two players so obviously superior to the rest of the game at the same time, and to have them occasionally in direct competition is a privilege. But hey, human beings get bored easily, and need new questions. So it's lucky, then, that this Saturday might just mark the beginning of the end of this era.
All footballing arguments have their edges removed by time. Arguing over who is better is an urgent, pressing business; arguing about who was better is something more relaxed, more academic. We know that Ronaldo, who turns 31 in February, is approaching the transition from is to was in terms of being one of the best in the world, for entropy will claim us all. But he might also be shifting from the present to the past in terms of being a Real Madrid player.
Perhaps this is an unjustified and baseless inference, but there's a definite air of "job done" surrounding Ronaldo this season. We've had a persistent drip of stories that suggest he may be moving on sooner rather than later: That whisper into Laurent Blanc's ear; his apparent contempt for Rafa Benítez; the suggestions that Madrid's power brokers are more concerned with Gareth Bale and the future than Ronaldo and the present. He's already ticked off every goal-scoring record the club had to offer, he's picked up his third Golden Balloon and he's also released a film that wasn't just dreadful but oddly valedictory, like a man seeking to set the terms of his legacy. That's the act of somebody who can feel the years in their knees. Oh, and nobody from Madrid went to the premiere.
As for Messi, well, at only 28 he'll be going for a little while yet. But unusually for him, he's been injured this last month and a half. Even more unusually — on the basis that being without the best player in the world should be some kind of setback — Barcelona don't appear to have missed him all that much. Though they lost their first league game immediately following his injury, 2-1 away at Sevilla, but have won the other seven and scored 20 goals in the process. Such are the joys of having Neymar and Luis Suárez to soften any injury blow; the Brazilian in particular has been sensational in his senior colleague's absence.
All of which means that this weekend, while we will probably be seeing Ronaldo vs. Messi XXIII: All Hail Eris, we might also be seeing a Real Madrid team in the process of consciously uncoupling from one half of the argument, and a Barcelona team that has been getting by just fine without the other. You almost wonder if Luis Enrique is tempted to leave Messi on the bench: Risky, of course, and probably stupid, but just imagine the visceral pleasure that would come from being able to bring Messi on as a late substitute with the game already won. As well walk over to Benítez's technical area, unzip, and piss on his shoes.
Those of you lucky enough to be able to ignore the Messi vs. Ronaldo nonsense will, presumably, just have a normal Clásico experience, and can enjoy what will hopefully be a good game. But this time around the rest of us, who spend our time being pulled hither and yon by the waves of hype and celebrity, who can barely keep our heads above the roiling seas of narrative, might get to join you. Just a game of football, between two really good teams who really don't like each other ... even writing that sentence was strangely relaxing. Let's just hope that nobody ruins this by trying to set up Neymar vs. James Rodríguez ...