There’s no better visual in a sport than two giants going head-to-head. We as a fan have witnessed historic matchups across sports: Frazier vs Ali, Celtics vs Lakers, Magic vs Bird, Arnold Palmer vs Jack Nicklaus, Tiger vs Phil, O’Sullivan vs Higgins, India vs Pakistan, Tendulkar vs Akhtar/Warne/McGrath, Federer-Nadal-Djokovic. A great rivalry brings character and a new meaning to the sports. It not only provides us with a spectacle now and then but uplifts the competition and standard of the game irrespective of the conditions. Yet, there is one unprecedented individual rivalry which has dominated the world’s most popular sport despite its team structure. Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro vs Lionel Andrés Messi.
It has been one of the most polarizing debates in the world of sports. The supporters and fans on either side religiously worship their pick while most of them resorting to hate and boos for the other one. Irrespective of your allegiance, it’s hard to ignore the career and success of the counterpart. 3rd decade into their domination, they can still turn the odds in their team’s favour with a mere presence on the sidelines. Remember Simeone not celebrating Atletico’s goal. Because he saw Messi warming up to enter the game. He even celebrated Atletico’s 2–0 victory over Juventus in 2019. Apparently, he didn’t know enough about Ronaldo and second leg comebacks until then. Call it whatever you want, it’s their track record which intimidates the opponent.
More than a thousand games and goals later, it’s hard to imagine their services for any other cause than football. But what’s a legendary story without its trial and tribulations. A teenage Ronaldo and Messi overcome the hurdles which might have derailed their career at the least. A racing heart condition for Ronaldo and Growth Hormone Defect for Messi at a time when they were far from being the Forbes’ Highest-Paid Athletes in the world. Ronaldo emerged stronger at the other end of heart surgery and rose through the ranks at Sporting CP. With the help of Barcelona, Messi could outshine at La Masia with the required treatment. These were the stepping stones in the zenith of their career.
Everyone remembers the story about Messi signing his first contract on a piece of napkin and Ronaldo turning heads at a Sporting-Manchester United friendly match. They were destined to become the best version of themselves under the two greatest managers of all time. Ronaldo took his talent to Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson’s guidance. The finest from La Masia had his eyes set on Barcelona to learn from the best in the world- Ronaldinho. The world would soon learn how the power dynamics shift by introducing a single player in the squad. These weren’t your usual role players. They had a repertoire of everything from a midfielder to a scorer. Even a defender when needed. Blazing speed, ambidexterity, dribbling to break the ankle of defenders, powerful shots from range, set-piece accuracy, on-field vision. Hope you get the idea, I am running short of superlatives.
They put the world on notice right at the start of their professional career in Europe. Ronaldo had some big shoes to fill as the next no.7 in one of the most competitive leagues. Premier League had the finest collection of midfielders and attackers. Making a name for yourself was a difficult task. Yet, he was a gamechanger for United striking remarkable partnership upfront with Rooney and Tevez. No wonder United could never replicate the success of this spell post Ronaldo’s departure. 3 league titles, champions league victory and Ballon d’Or. What else could one ask for? But this was just a scratch on the surface.
The first true encounter happened in the 2008 Champions League Semi-Final. It was a tough matchup for both the teams with United narrowly coming out on the top. Barcelona was still finding its feet and had a bunch of excellent team players. Messi was learning from future Hall of Famers in midfield and attack. Pep Guardiola played the most pivotal role to revamp Barcelona and Messi’s ascension. Barcelona didn’t have to wait long to meet United again. 2009 Champions League Final. The best teams under the best managers with the best players on the planet. It was a dominant performance by Barcelona would be putting it lightly. Lionel Messi was crowned as the best player in 2009.
By this point, Ronaldo and Messi have already cemented their place in the history amongst the legends of the sport. Their rise to the throne has seen a similar trajectory from practice pitches to the pinnacle, from hardships to being the best in the world. The comparisons and the debate would naturally follow based on the similarities in winnings and the differences in skill, not by a mile though. While one could score with finesse, the other would pocket the ball in the top corner like a bullet. While one excelled in set-piece routine with the basic bend technique, the other mastered the knuckleball with even Google failing to tell the direction of ball movement. While one could leap for a header as if gravity doesn’t exist, the other could make the ball stick to his foot while dribbling through the entire defence. The one thing common, the teams relied so heavily on them, that they would reduce to a shadow of their former self in the absence of their biggest names.
2009 Champions League Final outcome would change the course of football by bringing Spanish Football to the forefront. Ronaldo moved the base from Manchester to Real Madrid keeping the rivalry alive in world’s most expensive transfer at the time. Worth every penny. There would have been no better place for Ronaldo to challenge Messi than Barcelona’s bitter rivals. Spanish football would never see the golden days like the ones it would witness for the next 9 years. El Clasicos became the most anticipated footballing fixtures due to the giants locking horns for supremacy. Barcelona had a steadfast grip over the league and El Clasicos for some time now and Ronaldo got a taste of it with a 5–0 humiliation.
While Ronaldo was acclimatizing to a new team in a new league, Messi could march on with Barcelona to more individual and collective success. Champions League victory, 4 Ballon d’Or in a row. The only respite for Ronaldo was the extra-time winner in Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona for his first silverware with Real Madrid. Ronaldo and Messi could light up the pitch at their will. Ronaldo led the team to a league victory with 100 points which was matched by Messi and Barcelona the very next season. If one scored 60 goals in a season, the other scored 73. A new record was created every day and then eaten up the next day for breakfast.
They didn’t just buff up their individual stats but performed when it mattered the most. El Clasicos, Champions League nights, World Cup qualification stage. El Clasicos slowly became an individual contest with supporting cast rather than a team match. An intensity and star power to rival any match in any competition.
“Remember Ronaldo’s Calma celebration. Nothing has silenced Camp Nou like it.”
“What about the time when Messi removed and held out his shirt with his name towards the stunned Bernabeu.”
“Didn’t Ronaldo return the favour at Camp Nou?”
Trading blows there, huh?
They have surpassed every expectation when it comes to European competition. Leading their teams from an underdog position, shifting the result single-handedly and piling up goals, wins and trophies. Where some of the legends have failed to win it even once, these two make their team favourites every single season. They have got their hands on the trophy 8 times out of the last 13 seasons. La Decima and three successive titles for Ronaldo to go with Messi’s two trebles. Most goals in a single campaign: been there, done that. Their trophy cabinet could put many clubs’ history and legacy to shame.
However, their respective national teams are the one who owes them the most, in my opinion. It hurts our backs to see them carry their squad to international glory. They have led some of the weakest teams and yet achieve the unexpected. Messi accomplished Olympic success and took his team to 2014 World Cup Final and consecutive Copa America Finals in 2015 and 2016. 3 international finals in 3 years. He took the mantle to qualify Argentina for 2018 World Cup. Noting could eclipse Ronaldo’s hattrick against Sweden in a must-win qualifier for World Cup 2014. Until he netted the biggest prize in Portugal’s history by winning Euro 2016 against all the odds. This bestowed enough confidence to add another silverware by winning the newly conceived Nations League in 2019. A FIFA World Cup would be a feather in their cap and we should wish for them to continue at their highest standards to make it a possibility.
It’s a difficult thing to keep a track of their records. But I will still highlight the ones which shine the brightest amongst the lot:
- Messi and Ronaldo are the leading goal scorers for their national teams. Messi has scored 70 goals for Argentina while Ronaldo leads with 101 goals for Portugal.
- They are also the leading goal scorers for the Spanish giants. Messi has scored 445 league goals and 636 overall goals for Barcelona, which is also the record for the top 5 European leagues in the world. Ronaldo has scored 312 league goals and 451 overall goals for Real Madrid.
- Messi has won a staggering 35 honours in his career to Ronaldo’s 32.
- They both have shared the stage 12 times as Top 3 for Ballon d’Or with Messi winning on 6 and Ronaldo winning on 5 of those occasions.
- They have made the FIFPro World XI team 13 times. Ronaldo has made UEFA Team of the Year 14 times to Messi’s 11.
- Messi has won European Golden Shoe 6 times to Ronaldo’s 4.
- While Ronaldo has scored against every La Liga team in a single season, Messi has assisted and scored in 6 different competitions in a single season.
- While Messi has a record for most goals in a season (50 in the league and 73 overall) and a calendar year (59 in the league and 91 overall), Ronaldo has a record of scoring at least 50 goals in three of Europe’s top 5 leagues.
And here’s something to highlight their goal-scoring prowess:
- Both have scored: 25+ goals in the league in 11 seasons, 30+ goals in the league in 8 seasons and 40+ goals in the league in 3 seasons.
- 40+ goals in a season: 10 times for Messi and 9 times for Ronaldo. 50+ goals in a season: 6 times for Messi and Ronaldo.
Woah, I just got tired writing these down and there’s still no stopping them. These insurmountable stats would not have been possible if either of them would not have challenged and pushed the other one to the limits. Over the years, they have modified their game to switch gears whenever needed. Take a back seat for others to shine and be a leader. Or just put the foot on the gas when their team needs them the most. Regardless, even in their mid-30s, they are a force to reckon with. They are the most complete players of their generation, left foot, right foot, headers, free kicks, assists. Not to be undermined even in your dreams. When you face someone who has ruled the game with you for so many years, it not only helps you unlock your true potential but garner respect for your rival. Federer-Nadal, Magic-Bird, Ronaldo-Messi. What’s the word I am looking for, Frenemies. Remember Ronaldo expressing his interest for a casual dinner with Messi. We shall wait and see.
In the twilight years of their career, they are still the box-office events. Their consistency and longevity are remarkable considering the path traversed and the miles left in the journey. They are global superstars and a brand in themselves. It would be aeons before we find such charismatic and enigmatic personalities in this sport. They are the true definition of hard work meets talent. With Ronaldo’s departure from La Liga, we have had to wait for some time to see the greatest players of our generation face each other on the pitch, again. Not anymore, Juventus faces Barcelona this Wednesday in Champions League Matchday 2.
We have had the opportunity to witness history being created night in night out even while some argue about the GOAT status. It’s a futile attempt to pit one against the other when you could rather watch and enjoy whatever more they offer. Remember your love makes them strong, but your hate makes them unstoppable. We owe them our gratitude for entertaining us and scoring goals for fun. For providing us hours of highlight reels to cherish. For setting the bar so high, no one else could surpass it beside themselves. For being a class apart from the rest. For cementing your legacies as the greatest players ever to grace the sport. And for being an inspiration to the future generations who imitate you while kicking the ball. So don’t hate, appreciate!