Why Michael Jordan's leadership style doesn't work for Messi and Ronaldo

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Why Zlatan 'needed a Steve Kerr' to be like Michael Jordan (1:09)

Herculez Gomez and Jose del Valle respond to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's comments about "The Last Dance." (1:09)

"The Last Dance" captivated the world, confirming Michael Jordan's status alongside Muhammad Ali as the greatest global cultural reference point the U.S. has ever produced. With teams and players locked down, the documentary (you can binge-watch all episodes here) introduced Jordan to a new generation of basketball fans who grew up thinking the Golden State way was the only way, as well as casual observers who can't tell an alley-oop from a loop-de-loop.

The documentary reaffirmed what we knew about Jordan's competitiveness, self-motivational techniques (like magnifying perceived wrongs against him and then righting them) and win-at-all costs mentality. It also offered insight into the dynamics of a successful club and Jordan's relationship with teammates, coaches and the front office.

It also raises a simple question: Does Jordan provide us with a road map to succeed in football, too?

The answer is "yes" when it applies to work ethic, hunger and determination. Any athlete, professional or otherwise, will tell you those qualities move the needle, almost as much as intelligence and athletic ability. Indeed, admiration for Jordan in those departments is pretty much universal.

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But when it comes to team chemistry, it's a different story. At least today, at least in football. The sport's versions of Jordan -- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo -- couldn't act the way he did. In fact, they don't.

The obvious difference is that we're talking two different sports. When you're one of 11 players on the pitch, your influence will be diminished compared to when you represent one-fifth of the team on the court. In basketball, you're involved in every play on both offense and defense. In football, you can be the best player in the world and go long stretches without being significantly involved. (If you've ever had the chance to watch Messi from the stands, you'll have noticed that, at times, he looks like he's taking a Sunday stroll in the park before -- eventually -- bursting into action.)

In high-scoring sports, the influence of luck and randomness is less than in games like football were the only score might be an individual error or a guy hitting a 30-yard screamer he couldn't repeat if he tried each day, every day, for the next decade.

So while it's true that, in terms of their standing in the game, Ronaldo and Messi are in the same GOAT conversation as Diego Maradona and Pele just as Jordan rides the same bus as LeBron James, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain, the fact is that during games their influence is less.

But what about the influence Jordan exerted not just on his teammates, but also the entire organization? You'll note that, once again, stark differences between the sports make a Jordan situation in football a non-starter.

Between Jordan's rookie year of 1984-85 and his departure after the 1997-98 campaign, the Bulls reached the playoffs every single season (including the year he was playing baseball). Before that, they had reached the postseason once in seven years -- and remember, this was when three out of four teams advanced. After he left, the Bulls had to wait another six years to reach the playoffs. In the Jordan Era, they became one of the most recognizable and admired sporting brands in the world. Before and after, they toiled in relative obscurity.

Football doesn't work that way. It didn't take Messi to put Barcelona on the map, just as it didn't take Ronaldo to make Real Madrid relevant. Barca won two league titles and a Champions League in the two seasons before a teenage Messi established himself as a starter. Meanwhile, Real Madrid won the league title in two of the three years before Ronaldo's arrival and two Champions League crowns in the previous decade.

Basketball, like most U.S. sports leagues, is geared toward parity. If you have a franchise player, you typically build a team around him, trading away future draft picks if necessary. Football, on the other hand, has super clubs who know they will remain, if not dominant, relevant (and economically powerful) even if they lose their superstars. It's a function of history, sure, but also the fact that, unlike the NBA, football generally markets club brands ahead of player brands.

Of course, football clubs want to keep their stars happy. Ronaldo and Messi vastly out-earned their teammates, and rightly so, though never to the degree Jordan did. Real Madrid catered to Ronaldo (or what they thought he wanted) over cosmetic things, like when they announced in 2013 that Gareth Bale's then-world record transfer fee was lower than it actually was, so they could still claim Ronaldo was the world's most expensive player. But when it came to coaching appointments -- from the firing of Carlo Ancelotti to the hiring of Rafa Benitez -- at best Ronaldo was an outside consultant.

Messi's influence at Barcelona arguably comes closer to Jordan. We are fed daily stories about how he could single-handedly determine the club's next presidential election in 2021 by backing one candidate over another, how Gerardo "Tata" Martino was appointed as manager in 2013 to appease him and how he desperately wants Neymar back at the Camp Nou. But amid all this, Messi has stayed out of early election campaigning (at least publicly), Martino lasted one season and Neymar remains at PSG.

In short, Messi and Ronaldo are not Michael Jordan.

For a better comparison, you have to go back to the 1980s and Maradona at Napoli. The club had never won a league title before his arrival, won two during his tenure and, after he left, slid into relegation and bankruptcy. That's as close as you're going to get.

When it gets to Jordan's abrasive leadership style, it quickly becomes obvious that such behavior in football would be difficult for even a Messi or a Ronaldo to pull off. You can't imagine Messi telling teammate Gerard Pique he can't eat dinner because he had a bad game. Or trash-talking Ansu Fati to tears. Or punching Frenkie de Jong. Sure, part of it is personality: Messi is low-key and, outwardly at least, the opposite of an Alpha Male. But Ronaldo, for all his evident confidence, self-assurance and prima donna exterior, has never used humiliation as a motivational tool, at least as far as we know.

It's not that bullying or hazing "for the good of the team" doesn't exist in football. Rather, it's rarely the transcendent superstar who leads the way. The one many would cite as a counterargument is, in fact, no such thing. Sure, Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays the part with tweets like this:

"Nice to see The Last Dance. Now you see how it is to play with a Winner. Either you like it or not. If not then dont play the game."

And during his time with the LA Galaxy he developed a rep for verbally smacking his teammates. But Ibrahimovic, at 38, is more akin to the talented old guy who shows up at the Y and talks trash to the younger guys while hustling them with his outside J and low-post junk (the guy who, if he doesn't score, calls his own fouls). Partly due to his itinerant career -- he has moved clubs nine times in 20 seasons -- and partly due to a persona that was more Lone Wolf than Leader of the Pack, Ibrahimovic is no Jordan analogue.

Then there's the fact that we live in a different era, and this applies not just to football but also to Jordan's successors in the NBA. The ubiquity of social media and recording devices, the intensity of scrutiny and the milliseconds that it takes for an incident or scrap of video to go viral -- and be instantly judged and dissected -- make such scenarios nearly impossible.

Prevailing views on how to lead and how to build confidence have also changed. Alex Abrines, who spent three seasons as a backup guard on the Oklahoma City Thunder, told El Pais, "In terms of being demanding, people like Michael or Kobe [Bryant] no longer exist. Basketball has evolved, it's not necessary for anyone to be demanding in that way. Everybody who makes it to the NBA got there because of his talent and his work, and in the end everyone understands that everyone wants what's best for the team."

To paraphrase Niccolo Machiavelli's Prince, it's better to be loved than hated, but it's best of all to be feared.

Jordan's former teammate Jud Buechler says flat-out that most of the Bulls feared him. Perhaps that's the starkest difference between Jordan and the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. In football, superstars are loved and sometimes hated by their teammates, but the game simply isn't conducive to leading by fear. Especially not in this era, regardless the sport.