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fading greats Are we reaching the end of the era dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Despite their genius, these Fabergé eggs with kevlar shells cannot shine forever

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Cristiano Ronaldo (L) of Juventus FC is challenged by Lionel Messi of Barcelona. (Photo by Nicol� Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Cristiano Ronaldo (L) of Juventus FC is challenged by Lionel Messi of Barcelona. (Photo by Nicol� Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Cristiano Ronaldo (L) of Juventus FC is challenged by Lionel Messi of Barcelona. (Photo by Nicol� Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Though the magic continues to blaze like Cassiopeia, still the supernova of their genius cannot burn on forever.

Even the unforgettable fire ignited by the sporting lives of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo must ebb and expire.

The arias soar on - they step out again this week under the Champions League footlights, their La Scala, approaching the absurd milestone of a combined 1,500 career goals - but for how much longer can they hold the highest note?

Caruso, Pavarotti, all mortal men, eventually find the uppermost terrain of the scale beyond their reach.

Ronaldo turned 36 nine days ago (older, for heaven's sake, than the Anfield Methuselah, James Milner), though with a typically virile CR7 exclamation mark, he swam across that Rubicon like an insatiable whale in pursuit of krill.

His two goals against Roma last weekend brought his goal tally since he turned 30 to 300.

Rather than reading on, stop for a moment and reflect upon that authentically jaw-dropping statistic.

Imagine Ronaldo had never scored a single goal in his teen years or his 20s; erase his entire Manchester United back catalogue along with his all-conquering first 2,300 days as the White Knight of Madrid.

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Only once since 2008 has an ‘outsider’ won the Ballon d’Or.

Only once since 2008 has an ‘outsider’ won the Ballon d’Or.

Only once since 2008 has an ‘outsider’ won the Ballon d’Or.

And, still, with what's leftover from his antique years, his golden autumn, the Portuguese would comfortably trump the lifetime goals tally of a striker as prolific and great as Harry Kane.

Desire

Ronaldo, the taps of his desire still turned to maximum, had scored 23 goals in the 25 games before last night's Serie A date with Napoli. Little wonder he cannot pass a mirror without admiring his glowing reflection.

Messi, the impish poet of the Pampas, a creature born to enchant, long ago made matchwood of the notion that an athlete's advance into his fourth decade must be a landmark of sharp decline.

His sixth Ballon d'Or arrived as a 32-year-old in 2019; he eclipsed Pele's record for goals with one club with his 644th Barca strike three days before Christmas; he eased past Ronaldo with his 34th La Liga hat-trick 14 months ago.

A measure of his powers of endurance. Messi made his first-team debut at the Nou Camp before Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, before Twitter was born, before George W Bush began his second term in the White House.

The New York Giants Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells liked to peddle the theory that the greatest ability is availability.

Over the course of their supremacy, Messi and Ronaldo have hardly ever presented a sick note. Though they have been in the cross hairs of every tough, cynical, borderline psychotic enforcer on planet football, they play just about every week.

Fabergé eggs with Kevlar shells.

But it is neither the numbers (skyscraping though the statistics surely are), nor the otherworldly powers of endurance that truly set them apart.

Raid the data banks of the old game and nothing contained there glints as brilliantly as Messi's storehouse of treasure.

In the corridors of wonder, not even the best of Pele or Di Stefano, or even the untamed genius of his recently fallen countryman, Maradona, fills as many gilded frames.

Messi's career is a postcard from the halls of divinity.

As with peak era Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, Messi amazes so often that you almost feel cheated if, on any given night, he fails to amaze.

It is true that life in Catalonia has soured, that the end of the affair - the one where for Messi and Barca it was always February 14th, where they were conjoined by Cupid's arrow, where they seemed indivisible, indistinguishable, one - looms on the summer horizon.

That, no matter what Messi might achieve in the November of his career in Manchester or Paris or London, will signal the end of an era.

Yet, in the mind's eye, the Argentine will strut forever beneath the lights of the Nou Camp bullring, a tiny, light-footed matador, toying with the snorting beasts who would take him down, poised to thrust his sword one more time.

If Ronaldo is a voracious, powerful, force of nature, Messi is a high-wire dancer: balanced, fearless, weightless, waltzing on cushions of air, hovering above the mortal circus.

Picture him cavorting and slaloming, slicing through wormholes, his choreography beyond the speed of thought, his mind conjuring pictures beyond normal bandwidths.

A sunburst of fearless joy, making people happy.

But this bewitching Broadway show, the one jointly starring a bejewelled, bronzed Madeiran and an impish, sad-faced South American, cannot endure indefinitely.

Messi's next birthday in June will bring their combined age to 70.

It might not be this week or this year, but, relatively shortly, these Ciceros of the coliseum will deliver their final lyrical flourish, a parting State of the Union address.

Their reign has been unprecedented in consistency and, in the digital and social-media age, pyrotechnic impact: Only once since 2008 (Luka Modric gate-crashing their private party in 2018) has a third party lifted the Ballon d'Or.

Wonder

On Tuesday, Barca meet PSG, although, sadly, Messi won't be duelling with old Barca compadre Neymar, who's injured. Still, it could be his last ever European night at the Nou Camp.

A day later, Ronaldo goes back to his native land as Juve's round-of-16 tie takes them to Porto.

Whatever else you are doing - not that there is much to do in these accursed times - set it aside and tune in to these masters at work.

Because the hourglass is emptying on an age of wonder.

Soon, the last grain of magic will have slipped away, their empire will diminish, and auras dwindle, and the story of Messi and Ronaldo will reach its final cover.

Nobody who cares about sport will willingly turn their gaze from the journey through the closing chapters of the greatest football story ever told.

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