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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo,who is 31, has expressed an interest in playing soccer until he’s 41, (Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo,who is 31, has expressed an interest in playing soccer until he’s 41, (Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)

Kelly: Barcelona vs. Madrid Saturday is more than a game - it’s a turning point Add to ...

Three weeks ago, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo re-signed what was already the biggest deal in global team sports. Between salary and bonuses, he’ll be paid somewhere in the range of $75-million a year.

Ronaldo is 31. The new contract will take him to 36 – an age at which most players who aren’t goal keepers have retired. It is very unusual for a man in Ronaldo’s position – forward – to maintain anything close to top form at that point.

Ronaldo may be different. Among the many obsessive ways he cares for his body, he’s said to do 3,000 sit-ups a day. There may be no better-conditioned athlete in the world.

Nonetheless, a few foreheads wrinkled when Ronaldo laid out the timeline for the remainder of his career.

“It is not my last contract,” he said. “I want to keep going until I’m 41.”

Real would probably keep signing him until he’s 81. At the moment, he is the most electric player in the world. He sells shirts by the pallet. When you have Real’s aspiration – to be both the biggest and the best, every year, forever – $75-million for this unique attention magnet is a bargain.

Nonetheless, Ronaldo could sense the hesitation. Few stars are so motivated by a contrary spirit. When you begin to think he’s flagging, that’s when he starts to sprint again.

A few days later, Real played crosstown rivals Atletico in what would be their last encounter at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. (Atletico is moving in a few months.) It was something of an occasion.

Ronaldo scored all three goals in the game. After the second, he jogged over to the sideline, bent to one knee, put his hand on his chin and looked thoughtfully into a camera for a long time. Every pro likes to talk about “the haters,” but none has more of them than Ronaldo. That’s who he was looking at.

“Those people will want to watch this game again,” Ronaldo’s teammate, Marcelo, said of the performance.

On Saturday, Ronaldo & Co. face Barcelona in the season’s first Clasico. It’s a funny moment in the greatest rivalry in sport.

Best known for chaos – transfers in and out, coaches being fired, fans going berserk at this or that change – Real has been eerily steady of late. The new manager, Zinedine Zidane, is so calm on the sideline, he is his own wax statue. The club’s spent months buttressing its core by re-signing key players to long-term contracts. Ronaldo was the final and richest piece. Performance is consistently high. The team hasn’t lost a game in the league for nine months. There are no tabloid stories of locker-room insurrection (which have been regular features for years regardless of whether they’re winning).

It’s all very un-Real.

Perhaps Real has switched personalities – Face/Off style – with Barcelona.

A lockstep march into the brilliant light of the future has been the defining hallmark of Barca squads for more than a decade. It’s all become a little patchy in the last little while.

Last weekend, Barcelona finished 1-1 against Real Sociedad.

“It’s not often I can say this as a Barca player, but we have to be pleased with the draw,” defender Gerard Pique said.

Barcelona now trails Real by six points in La Liga. It is only December, but it’s conceivable that a loss on Saturday could put the league out of reach. That would make it seem like an awful long time until May.

When we speak of Barca now, we’re really talking about its forward line, which on paper may be the best in history.

Lionel Messi continues his high standard statistically, but there is a spring missing from his step. He looks tired. The new beard and suddenly weird hair make him look like a man allowing himself to go to seed. He always looked younger than his years. He suddenly looks older than 29.

Messi’s had a fair bit of trouble recently. Quitting and unquitting his national team. Narrowly avoiding jail on a tax charge. A return of his mystery illnesses. Falling decisively behind Ronaldo in their subjective best-ever competition. All that grind is starting to show.

A Spanish prosecutor has asked that Messi’s striking partner, Neymar, be put in prison for two years for tax evasion (a lot of that going around, apparently). The only guy who looks truly happy in his work is reformed cannibal Luis Suarez.

Led by those three, Barcelona is scoring, but the team is not dominating. Maybe this has something to do with Pique’s dark comments about the squad lacking “the right attitude.”

It’s mildly alarming because at Barcelona, the correct attitude is meant to be baked into the cake. That’s the whole mystique – raised together like wolves, generations leading generations, all for one and so on and so forth.

Could that finally be coming apart under worldly pressures? That is the most alluring allegory we’ll be watching Saturday.

Unlike Real, Barcelona is not given to panic moves, but it faces the same enormous duress. Manager Luis Enrique has his laurelled career as a Barcelona player to shield him, but losing on Saturday puts him up on the plank. Who knows yet how long a walk he’d have?

And then there are those persistent rumours of Messi leaving Spain.

The player himself could have decisively shot them down at any time, but he hasn’t. Instead, he slips around the idea. It was left to Enrique to unconvincingly scupper the latest ones – Messi to Manchester City.

“I don’t know. I have no idea,” Enrique said when asked about it.

He doesn’t know about the rumour or he doesn’t know if Messi might leave? It’s a rather crucial point.

This is why these two teams are so big – because they are constantly on a knife’s edge. Week after week. And none bigger than this weekend. Ronaldo rules the world right now. Real looks on a historic run of quality. That can all end in 90 minutes.

Mes que un club, they say at Barcelona – which applies to both teams involved here.

As a result, on Saturday, it’s also mes que un match.

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