Exactly eight years ago last weekend was the first, and only, time I saw Cristiano Ronaldo in the flesh.
It was an experience I will never forget... and not for reasons that the world’s greatest footballer would appreciate, either.
The day was November 18, 2006, and Sheffield United were searching for just their second win of the Premiership season - at home to Manchester United, no less, the eventual champions.
Ronaldo was still something of an unknown quantity back then, but he was unplayable. Rob Kozluk and Derek Geary, United’s full backs that day, probably still have nightmares about the Portuguese, convulsing at the thought of another stepover before waking up in relief.
(Geary, in fact, took matters into his own hands by sending Ronaldo flying into Bramall Lane’s advertising hoardings, perhaps hoping it would provide some temporary respite. Of course, it did not).
Ronaldo, back then, was still a fresh-faced, 21-year-old trickster. Eight years later he is arguably the most complete player of them all.
That match at Bramall Lane is perhaps best remembered for Ronaldo’s inexplicable two-yard miss in the dying moments of the Manchester side’s 2-1 victory. That the effort, ballooned over Paddy Kenny’s goal from Ryan Giggs’ pass, overshadowed a stunning individual performance is something of a travesty. After all, Ronaldo’s own highlights package in that game stretches to almost six minutes on YouTube.
Why mention this now? Well on Tuesday - eight years to the day since his display, and Wayne Rooney’s double, inspired victory over a spirited, if not limited, Blades side - Ronaldo was back at Old Trafford for his homecoming, a showpiece friendly against Argentina in Greater Manchester.
Although why the promoters bothered to label the game as Portugal v Argentina is beyond me. This otherwise-meaningless clash meant one thing: Barca v Madrid. LM10 v CR7. Batman v Superman.
Messi against Ronaldo.
Whether your idea of a superhero - if it is indeed Batman, someone like James Bond or one of many from The Incredibles - they all share similar characteristics. They are above humans, capable of far-superior feats of skill, courage and, inevitably, triumph and success.
So, like in the upcoming movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (out in 2016, for those interested), it was inevitable that the two phenomenons could not just carry on alongside each other, happily co-existing in a different stratosphere to the rest of us mere mortals.
Inevitably they would be pitched against each other, some kind of fantasy Top Trumps battle which easily trumps any other top stars.
Who is the most talented? Impossible to tell. The most popular, globally? Splitting hairs. And the most valuable? Good luck!
In reality, the two are incomparable. Not quite chalk and cheese, admittedly, but very different players. Ronaldo is all-action, a phenomenon of strength and speed. Last season, he was clocked at 24.38mph against La Liga champions Atletico Madrid. For context, Usain Bolt reached 27mph in his world-record 100m win.
Messi is no slouch, either, but when the ball isn’t at his feet, he gives off the impression that he simply couldn’t care less. Against Atletico last season, he covered just 6.8km in the entire game. Xavi almost covered 12, and even goalkeeper Pinto recorded 5.3km.
Messi appears to be playing almost on standby at times, drifting through games just waiting to explode - often with devastating effect. Call it conserving energy, call it lazy, call it what you will... but it works.
As much as Messi and Ronaldo are polar opposites, however, they are probably closer to each other as people than each would like - or care to admit. After all, who else can understand the pressure on Ronaldo to perform at the top level, in peak condition, every week? You or I couldn’t. But Messi can.
And who could begin to imagine the weight of a club, a region, and a nation on your shoulders, as Messi carries with Barcelona, Catalonia and Argentina? Not many. But Ronaldo, I’d guess, could have a pretty good stab at it.
Messi and Ronaldo are human. They are not superheroes - but they are probably the closest thing we have.
After all, superheroes go on forever. They adapt, they evolve and, in the case of Lex Luther against Spiderman, they die and magically come back to life. Messi and Ronaldo are human, as much as they are not timeless - their powers will wane, others will evolve and the game will move on.
Unlike heroes of yesteryear like Puskas, Finney, Pele et al, however, their talents will stand the test of time - the next generation will know all about their phenomenal achievements, which may or may never be matched.
But will we have appreciated them as we should? Modern society has a habit of judging things only comparatively to others. So the Arctic Monkeys are good, say some, but they’ll never be as good as the Beatles.Brian Lara? No Viv Richards. Last night’s Indian? Not a patch on last week’s pizza.
Instead - and here’s a revolutionary idea - why not appreciate things in their own right? Our children, and their children, will grow up with their own heroes, but the likes of Messi and Ronaldo will be almost as accessible. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology every piece of breathtaking skill and wondergoal will resonate through the ages.
Ronaldo’s brute strength, speed and athleticism will become a blueprint for future footballers. Many will marvel at Messi’s remarkable low centre of gravity, and ability to make something happen out of nothing.And we will be able to say that we saw it first hand. Almost.
We won’t know how good they were until they’re gone. So before they exist only in the wide eyes of youngsters and the YouTube clips of yesteryear, let’s appreciate them while we still can.