For the better part of the last decade, there were only two names in the world of soccer worthy of being included in the conversation about the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. They have both created legacies that put them near, if not at the pinnacle of the sport they have dedicated their lives to.
The rivalry the two players have enjoyed over the years has contributed even more to their mystique. Pele was undeniably the best player in the world during his prime. Same goes with Maradona. Yet, when we speak about the greatest soccer players of the last decade, their names cannot be separated. Depending who you ask, it’s either the diminutive Argentinian, Lionel Messi or the Portuguese Adonis, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Whether you are a Messi or Ronaldo fan, there is an enormous amount of respect for the careers of both players to question their greatness. Undeniably, once Messi and Ronaldo retire, their names will be etched in soccer lore among the greatest to have ever played the game.
As they share the period and the limelight they are playing in, Messi and Ronaldo also ironically share something else. Neither has won the World Cup with their respective nations. The names of the greatest players of all time have always been closely associated with the World Cup glory. Maradona in ’86 or Pele in ’58, ’62 and ’70.
Both Messi and Ronaldo fall short in this category. They have never hoisted the World Cup trophy.
As the 2018 World Cup in Russia has progressed to the Knockout Stage of the tournament, we have once again come to an all-familiar storyline. Argentina and Portugal have been eliminated in the Knockout Phase, sending both Messi and Ronaldo home.
Another chance wasted, to tick off the last checkmark on their career to-do list. Can they really be considered the greatest ever, if they have never conquered the most important competition in soccer?
I will start with Cristiano Ronaldo, after all, he is two years older than Messi.
Cristiano Ronaldo was born in Sao Pedro, Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, to a mother, who worked as a cook and a father, who was a municipal gardener and a kit-man at the local football club. As a child, Ronaldo played for an amateur team Andorinha, where his father worked.
Later on, he moved to Nacional, where he was first noticed by the Sporting Lisbon scouts at the age of 12 and was offered a 3-day trial with the club. Ronaldo moved to Lisbon with his mother in order to join the Sporting Lisbon youth academy. At the age of 14, Ronaldo was already deemed talented enough to pursue a career in soccer. In order to do that, he dropped out of school to focus on soccer. What followed was a meteoric rise, as Ronaldo at age of 16 was already playing with Sporting first team squad and started to attract the attention of the biggest clubs in Europe.
In 2003, at the age of 17, Ronaldo was playing a friendly match vs Manchester United which Sporting won 3-1, mostly due to Ronaldo’s fantastic play on the wing. United’s manager Alex Ferguson, at the urging of his players, quickly pulled the trigger and purchased Ronaldo from Sporting for a then-record sum of 12.24 million GBP for a teen. Ronaldo’s career was off to a hot start.
On the other hand, Lionel Messi was born in Rosario, Argentina to a father, who was a factory manager and a mother, who worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop. Messi started playing football at the age of 6, at his favorite local club, Newell’s Old Boys.
During his six years at Newell’s Old Boys, Messi was the member of the famous “The Machine of ’87” youth squad, for which he scored more than 500 goals. At the age of 10, his future soccer career was threatened as he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency.
Due to the collapse of the Argentine economy, neither Messi’s family nor his club was able to afford his growth hormone treatments, which led his family to arrange a meet with Barcelona and relocate to Spain to further Messi’s treatments and development.
Once his growth hormone treatments were completed at the age of 14, he was able to finally join Barcelona’s youth system full-time, where he became a part of their “Baby Dream Team”, their greatest youth generation of players which included the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique. During his first season in the “Baby Dream Team”, he was the top scorer, scoring 36 goals in 30 games for the club.
At the end of the season, he and his teammates received offers to leave Barcelona for England (Messi was approached by Arsenal). Messi decided to stay in Barcelona, while his teammates both left. This was the beginning of Messi’s professional career at Barcelona.
Growth and Dominance
Needless to say, both Ronaldo and Messi have made the best of their chances to make an impact on the teams that they were playing for.
Ronaldo immediately established himself as a first-team regular at Manchester United as a teenager. Playing for a perennial contender was extremely challenging, as Ronaldo was still growing as a player and physically. His first three seasons at Man Utd were productive but unspectacular, as his role grew each year.
Ronaldo exploded in 2006/2007 season, and never looked back. His last 3 years at Manchester United, he scored 91 goals, and won everything that could be won in England, as well as his first UEFA Champions League title.
A record move to Real Madrid followed, putting the rivalry with Lionel Messi in the front view, as he has joined Barcelona’s arch rival. In the following 9 seasons at Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo was absolutely on fire smashing club and competition records left and right. He finished his Real Madrid career as the club’s greatest scorer and most accomplished player.
Messi’s road to stardom and relevance was a bit different. In his fourth year with Barcelona, Messi was making waves through club’s youth setups, reserve squads and used the depleted state of the first team during the international break to join the first team squad. He quickly caught the eye of senior players and then-coach Frank Rijkaard.
At age 16, he made a debut for the Barcelona senior squad in a game versus Jose Mourinho’s Porto side. He quickly impressed the coaching staff with his performance. Still, Messi still spent the following two seasons gathering playing experience playing for Barcelona B, while splitting practices with the Barcelona first-team squad.
He finally broke into the first team squad at the age of 18. Barcelona was starting to decline under Frank Rijkaard and a new generation of players was rising in its place. During 2006/2007 season, Messi at the age of 19 started establishing himself as one of the best players in the world and he never looked back.
Since then, he has become a Barcelona legend, club’s greatest goalscorer and the best player to ever wear Barcelona jersey.
Records, Records, Records
Ronaldo and Messi’s dominance of the world soccer can easily be illustrated by looking at their trophy cases and career statistics.
During his career, Cristiano Ronaldo has:
- Scored 573 goals in 763 games for the club
- 2 seasons of scoring 60 or more goals, 6 seasons of scoring 50 or more goals, 9 seasons of scoring 40 or more goals
- Won 2 Premier League titles, 2 La Liga titles, 5 Champions League titles (a record by a single player)
- Won the Ballon d’Or 5 times (the annual award for the best soccer player in the world)
- Champions League Top Scorer with 120 goals
- Most La Liga Hattricks – 34
- Most Champions League Hattricks – 7
Far from lagging behind, Messi’s accomplishments have been as impressive:
- Scored 563 goals in 669 games for the club
- A season of scoring 70 or more goals, 2 seasons of scoring 60 or more goals, 5 seasons of scoring 50 or more goals, 9 seasons of scoring 40 or more goals
- Won 9 La Liga titles and 4 Champions League titles
- Won the Ballon d’Or 5 times
- Most Champions League Hattricks – 7
- Top Goalscorer in a Single Club Season – 73 goals
- Top Goalscorer of La Liga – 383 goals
- Top Assist Provider of La Liga – 149 assists
The statistical dominance that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have displayed in the last decade has been unprecedented in the world of soccer. In the age, of a more modern, physical and defensively-oriented play, both have managed to smash the record-books and establish themselves, as the kings of the sport.
The Dreaded World Cup
When it comes to soccer’s biggest stage, the World Cup, both Messi and Ronaldo have a lot to long for. The World Cup hasn’t been kind to either of them, although it might be argued that they had never enjoyed the support from teammates at the international level that they were accustomed to in Barcelona or Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Both Messi and Ronaldo made their World Cup debuts in 2006, during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Ronaldo was an established starter and a young star of the Portuguese National Team which managed to reach the Semi-Finals before being eliminated by France 1-0.
Ronaldo was one of the best young players in the tournament, still, he reached the net only once during the tournament and ultimately a strong Portugal squad didn’t reach the ultimate prize.
Lionel Messi started the 2006 World Cup on the bench. He finally broke into the starting lineup versus Serbia and Montenegro and scored his only goal of the tournament. He spent most of the tournament on the bench and failed to make an impact, a decision that has been criticized across the globe. Argentina was eliminated in the Quarter-Finals by Germany.
Both players entered the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as the bonafide stars and best players in the world. Messi once again endured a difficult World Cup. Even though he played well, he failed to score any goals and his Argentina side made another Quarter-Final exit to Germany.
Ronaldo didn’t fare much better. He entered the World Cup on a goalscoring drought for Portugal, failing to score a goal in 16 months for his national team. He did manage to score a single goal versus a weak North Korea side, but Portugal were eliminated in the Round of 16 by the eventual winners Spain.
Ronaldo entered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil injured. The concerns over his fitness endured throughout the tournament as his Portugal side failed to make it out of the group stage. Ronaldo did score a single goal during 2014 World Cup campaign, becoming the first Portuguese player to play and score in 3 World Cups.
Messi enjoyed a much better 2014 World Cup campaign. He led the Argentina squad to the World Cup Final versus Germany, which they lost 1-0 in the extra time. During the tournament, Messi scored 4 goals and was awarded the Golden Ball award for the best player at the World Cup. This was the second consecutive final that Messi has lost with Argentina.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Messi and Ronaldo have entered the World Cup without the burden of being the heavy favorites to win the ultimate prize. Both Portugal and Argentina have struggled in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup.
Messi and Argentina experienced a terrible 2018 World Cup campaign. They barely made it out of the Group Phase and the team played terrible soccer. They were eventually eliminated in the Round of 16 by France 4-3. Messi managed to score a single goal in 2018 World, marking his third World Cup in which he scored a goal.
Ronaldo’s Portugal didn’t fare much better. Although they made it out of their group more comfortably, their tournament also ended in the Round of 16, as they were defeated by Uruguay 2-1. Ronaldo did enjoy an individually impressive World Cup. He scored a World Cup hattrick vs Spain in the first game of the group phase, and 4 goals in total.
It remains to be seen whether either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo would make it to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. After all, they would be 37 and 35 years old. Still, it seems that the ultimate prize in football has eluded them, making them imperfect candidates for the title of the Greatest of All Time.
Whether you love one or the other, the names of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will forever be spoken in a pair. They are dominating world soccer in the same era and their records are eerily similar. I personally find Ronaldo to be a tiny step ahead, due to winning the Euro 2016 title with Portugal, while Messi seems to be drowning in the shadow of the great Maradona.
But all that seems irrelevant, as we all are lucky to be living in the era where two of the greatest to ever play the game are going head to head and delivering time after time. World Cup title or no, I will always remember this decade as the Golden Age of modern soccer.