In what has been a stupendously enthralling FIFA World Cup, we now know our semi-finalists and the eventual world champions are just two wins from winning the most illustrious international trophy in football – some would argue, the highest accolade in all of sports.
Among those not getting a World Cup winners’ medal would be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two greatest players of the modern generation. And with both in their 30s now, there’s more than a fair chance that the two most glittering club careers of all time might actually end without a World Cup trophy.
Messi will be 35 and Ronaldo 37 in four years’ time as the world gears up for Qatar 2022, and while they both should be present and perhaps extending their unparalleled achievements in club football – especially since the peak age of athletes throughout sports is increasing – it is hard to imagine even these two being anyway near the peak of their powers.
So assuming that neither Messi nor Ronaldo ever wins the World Cup, how does that impact their individual bits for the Greatest Of All Times (GOAT), which is a never-ending debate and will remain so till both of the maestros have hung up their boots.
There is almost universal consensus that both Messi and Ronaldo feature in, at the very least, the top four in the GOAT debate alongside Pele and Diego Maradona. What differentiates the two greatest players of the 20th century with their 21st century counterparts is the World Cup winners’ medal.
Pele actually has three of those (1958, 1962 and 1970). While Maradonna won the World Cup in 1986.
It is always tricky to compare players of different generations considering how the game and accolades evolve over time. For instance, club football has grown exponentially since the 1990s, with the Champions League becoming the holy grail of the sport.
And even though the World Cup still attracts a global viewership, for the aficionados of the sport the world over – along with the commercial and competitive aspects – it’s club football that now has more at stake than its international counterpart, especially when compared to the previous century.
That is why all the world’s top players ply their trade in Europe, because the leagues in the continent and most importantly the Champions League have become the most coveted prizes.
Pele played almost his entire career for Santos, only joining the New York Cosmos in the last couple of seasons at the very end – but he never played in Europe. Pele won the Brazilian league 10 times and the Club World Cup twice as well.
While Pele won the domestic league 10 times with Santos, Messi has won it nine times with Barcelona. Ronaldo has a combined five league titles (three with Manchester United and two with Real Madrid). Ronaldo, however, has four Club World Cup titles to Messi’s three.
But there’s absolutely no gauge to compare Campeonato Paulista from over half a century ago to La Liga and Premier League post the turn of the millennium. And since Pele never played in Europe, Ronaldo’s five Champions League titles and the many records in the tournament can’t be juxtaposed with the Brazilian either.
Maradona indeed is conspicuously behind in the club accolades race having won only three league titles (one in Argentina with Boca Juniors and twice with Napoli in Serie A), and no Champions League or Club World Cup titles.
Then there is the Ballon D’Or or FIFA World Player of the Year contest, with the former not including players that didn’t play in European leagues before 1995 and the latter only existing between 1991 and 2015, before being merged into the former.
And so when Pele and Maradona were at their respective peaks, there was no commonly accepted ‘player of the year’ contest that gauged the footballers the world over.
Messi and Ronaldo, of course, have had a duopoly over the Ballon D’Or over the past decade. Ballon D’Or has been an integral argument in the perpetual comparisons between the two, especially till 2012 when Messi won the award for the fourth time on the bounce, with Ronaldo then at one. Both now have five each, with the Portuguese dominating that particular award in the past five years, thanks in large part to his Champions League returns.
But, again, while there are so many factors that generate a head-to-head comparison between the two greatest footballers of modern times, it’s impossible to do the same with those that plied the trade decades ago.
And thence we move back to the original question: how decisive a factor is the World Cup – the only constant in the evolving dynamics of the sport – in determining the pedigree of a footballer?
Of course, when it comes to international football, the compatriot peers matter a lot. In the clubs, the best players go to the biggest clubs and can hence attract similarly bigger names.
Internationally, only those eligible for a country can play, and this has resulted in many great players not even participating in a World Cup, let alone winning it. And while there were many an occasion that Pele and Maradona carried their international sides on their shoulders, more often than not they had a better roster than Ronaldo especially has had with Portugal – more so than Messi.
In terms of overall quality, Messi’s Argentina hasn’t been far behind Maradona’s Argentina, and that is why the 2014 World Cup final would perhaps remain the biggest regret of the Barcelona star’s career as the golden opportunity that got away.
What Messi doesn’t have either is a Copa America trophy, despite Argentina being an undisputed force in South America. Ronaldo’s Portugal winning the Euro 2016 gave him that elusive international trophy.
But of course there are multiple other factors that make a player great in addition to the number of team accolades. Maradona’s league titles with Napoli, for instance, came with a club that had been struggling and was singlehandedly lifted by the Argentinian.
While there will never be a conclusive answer to who the GOAT in any sport is, whenever the World Cup would be factored in the football argument, it would be hard to argue against three winners’ medals of the biggest international silverware in the sport.
But yes, the evolution of the sport has meant that the biggest leagues and the Champions League matter more than they did a few decades ago.