As the football world prepares for the World Cup, the latest edition of the quadrennial tournament is set to bookend the era in which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been the sport’s two eminent players. But can either player lift the ever-so-elusive trophy?
The FIFA World Cup 2022 is on the doorstep, and football fans from all across the world are once again enthusiastic to witness the game’s finest ballers and most decorated players at the grandest stage and find out who will walk away with the glory this time around.
But this iteration of the World Cup will be a little different from previous ones since football’s two greatest ever and most celebrated superstars, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, will likely be performing at the biggest spectacle on the planet for the final time.
“There’s some anxiety and nerves at the same time,” Messi said. “It is the last one.” At 35 years old, Messi’s decision to opt against holding out for the 2026 World Cup comes as little surprise.
However, the announcement reinforces the notion that this year’s event will signal the end of an era. Like Messi, Ronaldo is simply running out of time, with the Manchester United forward being two years older than the Argentine.
So, it is highly likely that both global icons will bow out of the world’s biggest competition at the same time, and this will be their final chance to have a shot at the biggest prize, whilst their futures in European club football also appear to be approaching the end. Messi is extensively linked with a move to the MLS. Meanwhile, Ronaldo is expected to face what appears to be a disgraceful end to his relationship with Manchester United after his recent misgivings off the field.
Could we see Messi or Ronaldo win their first World Cup? 🏆 pic.twitter.com/Jfr6Rj8WLi
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 16, 2022
The names Messi and Ronaldo will forever be synonymous with each other in the modern era. Messi vs Ronaldo is to football what Federer vs Nadal is to tennis, or Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali is to boxing. It is one of the greatest battles in the history of professional sports, let alone football.
Few players have ever been this successful for this long or have shared the stage; their rivalry has truly pushed each other to their limits, which has made them better, and it has been a lot of fun to watch as they continue sharing the big stage over and over and over again.
These two icons have redefined the very landscape of the most popular world sport, boasting over 1,600 goals, 12 of the last 14 Ballon d’Or awards, and over 50 major titles for club and country between them — or, as some might say, they have broken our beautiful game with such ridiculous levels of consistency.
The world-renowned talents have won every major individual and international award imaginable. One prestigious medal, however, has somehow managed to elude their storied cabinets. While Ronaldo won the UEFA Euro 2016 and the the UEFA Nations League 2019 titles and Messi captured the Copa America and the inaugural Finalissima last year, neither has lifted a World Cup trophy.
For over the last 17 years, a serious discussion point that has divided supporters across the world has been who is better: Messi or Ronaldo. The World Cup in Qatar could be the ultimate piece of fodder for either side of the debate. And it will effectively settle the debate once and for all with both now firmly in the twilight of their widely acclaimed football careers.
Here, at The Hard Tackle, we take a closer look at their individual competition histories, club forms, and rhetoric heading into the tournament. We will also rate who has a better chance of finally leading his nation to ultimate glory, as well as the big question that lives rent-free in every romantic football lover’s headspace: Can we see both legendary figures on the same pitch together, going up against one another?
The curious case of Messi’s Argentina legacy
The Paris Saint-Germain playmaker and former Barcelona captain hardly needs any introduction on the international stage. Messi holds the distinction for the most caps and goals for Argentina and finally clinched his first international trophy last summer, where his exploits helped La Albiceleste cruise to triumph. He was also the player of the match in Finalissima success.
With 90 international goals to his name from 164 outings for La Albiceleste, Messi is the South American country’s outright top scorer, with the next best being 56 goals by Gabriel Batistuta. These numbers are enough for him to be treated as a national treasure, but not in the country that witnessed the Messiah in flesh in Diego Armando Maradona.
Messi’s glittering resume has one very significant omission, and that is a World Cup winner’s medal. Many Argentines see him as a close second to the late Maradona, who guided Argentina to a World Cup triumph in 1986.
By almost every metric, for both club and country, Messi has surpassed the Argentine genius. But his predecessor’s remarkable run to the title in Mexico earned him immortality and a place in the folklore of the football-crazy country.
Messi has often been regarded as the reincarnated Maradona. But the closest he came to winning the World Cup was in 2014 final when he walked past the shining trophy to receive the Golden Ball with eyes pensive.
The diminutive left-footed magician has suffered a lot with mind-boggling comparisons to Maradona in the past, while the burdens of the Argentina shirt appear to have weighed him down. So much so that he seemed to retire from international football after Argentina were beaten on penalties by Chile in the 2016 Copa America final, where he missed a spot-kick in the shootout.
The Argentina captain was on the cusp of retiring from the international scene once more after his team’s early exit from the 2018 FIFA World Cup under the management of Jorge Sampaoli. It has really been a rollercoaster journey for him with the national team. There are many fans who downright hate him, while the majority think Messi is a phenomenon, but a Maradona he is not.
That may change if he inspires one of the pre-tournament favourites to triumph in Qatar, laying the cornerstone of his well-documented stellar career in style. He has been a man-possessed over the last two years with Argentina, and he has evolved into a much stronger leader. It is almost as if the gods passed on the leadership skills to him after Maradona passed away.
Argentina’s head coach, Lionel Scaloni, has also been successful in getting the most out of Messi and helping the team to not just play with, but also for him. The footballing world breathed a sigh of relief when he finally got his hands on a major international trophy in the form of the Copa America 2021. And most neutrals will be rooting for him to follow it up by winning the crown jewel of international football, the World Cup.
Can Ronaldo live up to his high standards amid intense criticism?
Death, taxes, and Cristiano Ronaldo scoring all kinds of goals for fun. These were the three certainties in life for god knows how long until the current calamitous season. He did it at Manchester United the first time around. He did it at Real Madrid. He did it at Juventus. And he did it in his first season back at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo is the world’s all-time leading goalscorer for a reason. His career has been sprinkled with a mercurial dose of magic dust, and he has long been the definition of a clutch player. He has been like Aladdin with a miracle lamp.
Arguably the greatest clutch player of all time, the Portuguese international’s career has been defined by iconic individual performances. His never-say-die and fearless attitude have been evident since his early days at Manchester United.
But he evolved into a different machine at Real Madrid. The goalscoring phenom has given countless clutch moments for both club and country that it is difficult to even mention them all here. His goals have helped his national team come back from unlikely scenarios on multiple occasions. For instance, in the UEFA Euro 2012 clash against the Netherlands, where the forward scored two crucial goals after being 1-0 down in the 11th minute of the match.
His complete hat-tricks against Sweden and Northern Ireland in the 2014 World Cup qualifier stages. The one against Sweden is even more popular, as he went head-to-head with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored two goals for Sweden in that remarkable game.
On this day in 2013, Cristiano Ronaldo scored an unforgettable hat trick against Sweden to cancel out Zlatan Ibrahimovic's brace and send Portugal to the 2014 World Cup. 🇵🇹 pic.twitter.com/m3jTiHSy9o
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) November 19, 2021
Ronaldo will forever be known as the man who led Portugal to the 2016 Euro success and topped the goalscoring charts as they became the inaugural champions of the UEFA Nations League in 2019. The 37-year-old continued to deliver the goods for his teams in their hour of need.
However, he has recently found himself on the back pages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons. His controversial “tell-all” two-hour soap opera with journalist Piers Morgan has all but ended his Manchester United career and ruined his legacy in the city that adored him unconditionally throughout his career.
While it is the mainstream media’s job to blow things out of proportion and make a mountain out of a molehill, a player of Ronaldo’s brand and standing should be more circumspect before calling out the club, coach, and ex-players, even though the last one was in a humorous manner.
But then again, this is Cristiano Ronaldo we are talking about, someone who loves controversy and take the centre stage ahead of any transfer move, major finals, or crucial games before stepping up when it mattered, being the deciding factor in big games. And now he needs to do it again, this time for his country.
Criticised for his selfish, prima donna, and egotistical behaviour, this is his chance to show the world that regardless of all the criticism, he is without a doubt one of the best players to grace the beautiful game and prove that he still has what it takes to perform at the top level in order to put him in the shop window.
The question remains whether the real Ronaldo shows up in time to help Portugal out here. This talented Portugal team would benefit from a more humble Ronaldo, since he is no longer the unstoppable machine that he once was, nor does he have the legs to effect full-stretch, intense games with aggressive counter-pressing or tracking back.
For a hypothetical analogy, he is no longer the rapid Lightning McQueen of Cars 1 and 2 in the third sequel. And his team will profit more if he can push and set the mindset of the next breakout superstar, Cruz Ramirez, who in real life could well be Rafael Leao or Joao Felix.
Who is more likely to do it, Cristiano or Leo?
Both Argentina and Portugal look formidable heading into the most-watched global sporting event, and both have previous experience winning international silverware. Portugal won Euro 2016, while Argentina won the Copa America in 2021, their first major tournament title in 28 years.
However, Ronaldo and Messi are regarded as underperformers at World Cups due to the fact that neither has gotten their hands on the trophy despite boasting enough silverware to fill a full museum. They have combined for a total of 207 international goals but have yet to score a World Cup knockout goal in six and eight games, respectively.
Portugal’s best performance came in the 1966 World Cup, when they finished third, while Argentina last won it in 1986 under the captaincy of the incomparable Diego Maradona. So, if either Ronaldo or Messi can power their respective nations to the trophy, that will go down as a tremendous historical achievement.
Both players enter the tournament in contrasting forms. Messi has finally settled in Paris and rediscovered his shooting and playmaking boots, chipping in with 11 goals and 14 assists in all competitions for PSG this season.
If Messi plays every group stage game, he will overtake Diego Maradona as Argentina’s most capped player at the World Cup.
If Messi plays every game from group stage to the final, he will overtake Lothar Matthäus as the most capped man in World Cup history.
Over to you, Leo. 🐐 pic.twitter.com/7Nm0N4vEh4
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) November 17, 2022
Meanwhile, Ronaldo is going through arguably the toughest period of his entire club football career and has been in shockingly poor form, having scored only three goals in his last sixteen appearances for Manchester United in all competitions, being used six times as a sub, and getting bad press for discipline issues.
Messi seems better placed to lift the crown of the two, simply because of the vast improvement that Argentina have made under coach Scaloni’s watch. Argentina are one of the most in-form, confident, and well-balanced teams at the World Cup, riding extremely high on a 35-game unbeaten run.
When they reached the 2014 World Cup Final against Germany, it was a one-man show, with Messi pulling the strings all by himself. He now has a more functional and better-supporting cast around him, driven to cover the hard yards to win the title for their captain. The players have incredible chemistry amongst themselves, with no ego clashes whatsoever.
It is a slightly different story when it comes to Ronaldo. This Portuguese side is not as good a team collectively and functionally as Argentina at the moment, with a reactive coach in Fernando Santos at the helm. That is part of the reason why they required the playoffs to qualify for the World Cup despite boasting world-class talent across the pitch.
That indicates that this Portuguese side is not a flawless version of themselves like Argentina. Ronaldo needs his teammates to do a better job of compensating for his lack of energetic presence. Then again, this same Portugal team won Euro 2016 despite winning only one game in normal time throughout the tournament.
Not to mention, the scandalous Ronaldo interview has not done Portugal manager Fernando Santos any favors. The team will be scrutinised by fans and the media from the angle of the dispute. There are already videos floating around the internet showing Ronaldo’s teammates looking less than thrilled with him.
The interview’s criticism could either condemn or inspire Ronaldo’s performances at the World Cup. In any case, as much as we want to, it’s difficult to see Portugal improving on their run in the 2018 Russia World Cup, where they failed to advance past the Round of 16.
Can Ronaldo and Messi face each other at the 2022 World Cup?
Many people are already wondering about the possibility of witnessing what could be one of football’s greatest spectacles: Can these two legends end up going head-to-head against each other in the World Cup final?
Such a contest would, in essence, put the controversy to rest about who is better and who comes away with the bragging rights. If it were to happen, that would be an era-defining event for each player. Given that they are both in their mid-to-late 30s, winning this year’s tournament is essentially a case of now or never for both players.
Ronaldo and Messi have never faced each other in a competitive World Cup game. Of course, a Messi-Ronaldo showdown is a fan’s dream. But a lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen, including both teams winning their respective groups.
The arch-rivals could also face off in the semi-finals if one team wins their group and the other finishes second, while there is also an odd chance that the legends will end up competing for the third-place consolation spot.
Any game between the two will be a closely contested affair, and it will be interesting to see who will have the last laugh and whose international career will end in tears. Both will, however, be desperate to cap off a luminary career by lifting the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar.