If Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi had been plying their trade in separate eras they would’ve been worshipped by one and all for continuing to redefine all possible superlatives. But the past decade — the Messi-Ronaldo era — has been defined by a rivalry between two all-time greats, where they’re both judged with respect to one another and not in terms of their feats, many of which are beyond anything and seen by anyone on a football field in years gone by.
Not many were fighting in the 70s on how Pele hasn’t officially scored 1,283 goals. The 80s didn’t quite echo with how Diego Maradona ‘didn’t have a right foot’. That Ronaldo Nazario de Lima never won the Champions League was hardly brought up during his career, or that Zinedine Zidane’s best performances always seemed to come in patches.
But Messi and Ronaldo will forever exist side by side, with one being criticised for what the other has — and vice versa.
On October 23, Ronaldo was crowned the best football player in the world for the second year running at Fifa’s The Best awards gala. This means that Ronaldo and Messi now have won the award five times each, with the Argentinian taking it four times in a row between 2009 and 2012. Messi has five Ballon D’Or awards to Ronaldo’s four, with the Portuguese expected to level the tally in December.
Ronaldo helped Real Madrid win the La Liga and Champions League double last season, making Real the first team to retain the European Cup in its current format. He scored 29 goals in 29 La Liga games that he played in, 12 Champions League goals in 13 games and one in Copa del Rey.
In helping Portugal qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, Ronaldo went past Pele’s tally of 77 international goals, and now has Ferenc Puskas’ 84 in sight — the most for a European, and the second most on the all-time list behind Iran’s Ali Daei.
While many would disagree in favour of Messi, Ronaldo’s goal-scoring prowess and his spearheading of the most dominant club team in the world, and indeed the European champions (both in international and club football) make him comfortably the best footballer in the world right now.
He has bridged the gap of personal accolades with Messi — who looked like putting Ronaldo permanently in his shadow around 2012 — and now has an international trophy to boot as well.
However, what we are all set for is perhaps the decisive season, which could have a bearing on which of the two maestros comes on top — at least in drawing room and chat room arguments — when the two hang up their boots.
Messi-led Barcelona have opened a five-point lead at the top of La Liga ahead of third-placed Real Madrid, who have suffered from Ronaldo’s ban and lack of league goals in the first nine rounds.
Barca are also off to a perfect start in the Champions League, winning all three of their matches so far, while Read Madrid drew at home to Tottenham Hotspur — but both look good to top their Champions League groups.
Messi currently has 11 league goals to Ronaldo’s one, while the latter leads 5-3 in the Champions League.
Even though the team and individual results in La Liga and Champions League would be critical when individual awards are announced this time next year, the biggest prize of them all would be given out in the summer — should either of the two manage to finally get their hands on it.
The greatest blot on both Ronaldo and Messi’s careers, especially when they’re compared to the likes of Pele and Maradona, is the lack of a World Cup winner’s medal. Messi came agonisingly close in 2014, finishing among the runners-up with Argentina, while Ronaldo’s Portugal have only gone as far as the semifinals — that too in 2006, with Round of 16 and Group Stage finishes in 2010 and 2014 respectively, at the peak of Ronaldo’s powers.
With both Ronaldo and Messi not expected to be near their prime in 2022, this could well be one last opportunity for them to finally get that monkey off their back. And even though Ronaldo has always been given the benefit of doubt for ‘weaker teammates’, that argument might no longer cut it as Portugal head into the World Cup as European champions.
What will also make this year interesting is Neymar’s vociferous challenge to both Ronaldo and Messi, symbolised by his move to Paris Saint Germaine. A Champions League win for PSG and/or a World Cup win for Brazil, spearheaded by Neymar, could mean that football will have a new superstar at the helm.
This makes for a fascinating nine months or so of football with a multi-pronged assault on team and individual silverware. But, for now, Ronaldo is head and shoulders above the rest — including Messi (and Neymar).