One of the main narratives of this World Cup has been the, seemingly, eternal debate of who is the better footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. It has been framed as the ultimate showdown between the two greatest players of their generation. This time last year it seemed the question had been put to bed, Messi was the answer and all that remained was for him to count the personal achievements before he retired.
However, after a blistering campaign at Real Madrid, Ronaldo, was able to claim the Ballon D’Or and the European Cup, finishing the season as many people’s preferred choice. Something has to give in the contest and if neither the Champions League nor La Liga can provide us with a suitable answer than perhaps this summer’s tournament might.
But, this being the pinnacle of all of football, there is also the added intrigue of whether or not either player can truly take their place among the immortals of the game. Are Messi and Ronaldo simply just the greatest of their generation, or can they climb the ladder and take their place among the greatest of all time? The World Cup is seen by most as the litmus test of becoming a footballing icon whose name spans generations. For anyone hoping to achieve that immortality, winning it is seen as a must. For however great Eusebio, Puskas, Di Stefano and Cruyff were, when they are spoken of it is always in a slightly more hushed tone than the likes of Pele, Maradona and Zidane. There is a genuine belief that a player must truly shine, and win, at a World Cup. Given that this is both Ronaldo and Messi’s third World Cup, and knowing that neither have truly dazzled at international level in the way they have done so at their respective clubs, there is a sense that time is running out for them to make that final step.
But perhaps that notion isn’t truly fair. When you look at the array of stats, honours and trophies that both men have amassed between them than it seems like there can be little argument as to whether they are among the greatest of all time. Messi, perhaps the one people most expect to take the final step, has scored more goals in a calendar year than any other player of any generation. He is also Barcelona’s all-time top goal scorer, has scored the most goals for Argentina in a calendar year (tied with Gabriel Batistuta), and has the most FIFA Ballon d’Or awards, alongside about two dozen other accolades. Ronaldo, for his part, has broken his own laundry list of records and doesn’t look like stopping. In an era when the Spanish national team has set itself apart as probably the greatest of all time than these two have been so rampant that they have made sure that no individual Spanish player can touch them, a huge feat in itself.
So have they peaked? If neither player is able to dominate a tournament like Pele in 1958, Maradona in 1986 or Zidane in 2006, than will they remain in second tier of footballing legends? The answer is undoubtedly yes. A World Cup makes up for any missing piece of a footballing CV but nothing makes up for the absence of the trophy itself. Few ever discuss how Maradona never won a European Cup, or how Pele never even played in Europe. People bypass Zidane never having hit double figures in goals or assists in any of his Real Madrid seasons. The only real reason they do so is because all three are World Cup winners and all three can justifiably lay claim to having been the best player at individual competitions.
Neither Messi nor Ronaldo have that. They have their club achievements and stats to back up their claim to being the greatest of all time, but this summer they have a chance to set that right. After one round of games, however, it’s not looking promising for Ronaldo. Crushed by the Germans, and with Ronaldo himself looking half fit, Portugal look quite likely to be heading home as soon as possible. With this being potentially Ronaldo’s last World Cup, he will be 33 by the time Russia rolls around, his chance looks to have passed him by. For Messi the outlook looks somewhat brighter, even if he flattered to deceive somewhat in Argentina’s opening match against an uninspired Bosnian side. Looking nervous up until the side’s second goal, a superb piece of play straight from the Nou Camp, he will need to improve greatly in the knockout stages if he is to have his moment in the Maracana.
Games against Nigeria and Iran should allow him to hone his instincts and give him the confidence he needs heading in to the last sixteen. Should he go on to light up the tournament and win the trophy than surely the debate as to whether he is the greatest of all time will be over. He will not only put Ronaldo in the shadows once and for all but he just might create a new tier of legendary footballer all for himself. It’s probably not fair to Ronaldo but football rarely is.