Messi versus Ronaldo: Time we got over it?

In September 2007, Lionel Messi came to the MCG with his Argentinian team-mates to play the Socceroos. Over 70,000 turned out to welcome a player already dubbed by many as the world's best.

Ronaldo Messi

prior to the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2015 at the Kongresshaus on January 11, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. Source: Getty Images

At the time, however, I was convinced he was only eclipsed by Cristiano Ronaldo – the dominant figure of Manchester United’s 2006-07 title-winning season, who would do even greater things the following year.

Ronaldinho, Kaka, Fabio Cannavarro and Andrea Pirlo were all rolling around at this point but, a year after the 2006 World Cup, a new order had been established.

It was Messi and Ronaldo, head and shoulders above the rest. Now pause for a moment. That was a decade ago.


For context, they were the best in the world before Facebook went mainstream, let alone Twitter – and way before Snapchat and Instagram. You probably knew somebody with a functioning fax machine.

Yet here we are in 2017 and it is the same two men dominating the headlines. That Cristiano Ronaldo was just named as FIFA World Player of the Year didn’t surprise anyone.

In fact, if anything, we have become so used to their dominance that we have become blasé about just how good they are. We no longer hope to see them perform miracles on the field. We expect it.

In fact, if they don’t do something incredible, we almost wonder what went wrong.

Perhaps this is the way of the post-Facebook world, but something doesn’t sit well with me about this. Rather than arguing about who had the better 2016 – a valid discussion, despite Ronaldo’s international exploits – there seems to be more headlines about Messi not turning up to the awards ceremony.

We have become transfixed not on the players themselves, but the circus that follows them. There seems to be a whole cottage industry dedicated to analysing the minutiae of their lives, both on and off the field.

Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for their rivalry – yes, there is one – has more than 300 references and offers side-by-side comparisons, with reams of over-achieving data to support either argument.

The temptation to chose one and pick your side is overwhelming. It’s a guaranteed conversation starter in any pub in any inhabited city on this earth. Even people who don’t like football have an opinion.

To be fair, they have helped cultivate this. Or at least Ronaldo certainly has – he made an entire movie about it. Messi has been more circumspect, but hasn’t exactly backed away, either.

As we enter the second decade of their “rivalry”, it seems somewhat churlish to pick sides. Particularly if, like me, you love watching them both equally. I feel as though there is this unspoken (and quite ridiculous) pressure to play down the achievements of one if you “back” the other.

If you’re on Team Cristiano, you’ll point – probably incessantly – to Messi’s international record (which is actually remarkably good, especially in terms of goals) and a failure to win anything with the full Argentina side (despite winning the 2008 Olympics) as irrefutable evidence.

But if you’re with Team Leo? You’re a fan of artistic, pure football – and that egomaniac from Madrid is so focused on himself that he hurts Real's overall team balance (despite playing the defining role in two Champions League wins and breaking Barça's La Liga monopoly).

To be honest, there are still times when I’m drawn to either. I began with Ronaldo, jumped to Messi after the 2009 Champions League final, but was swayed back to Ronaldo this past year or two.

However, over the whole journey, I find them almost impossible to split. Cases can be made for either, in the same way arguments can be made for Pele and Diego Maradona regarding the greatest of them all. Honestly, all of these arguments have merits.

To be so consistently brilliant, at the highest level of world football, for more than a decade, is a feat we shouldn’t casually brush away.

I have them both in my top five greatest of all time – rounded out by Johan Cryuff – and perhaps, just perhaps, making a run at the top two.

Yes, an absence of World Cup medals is what is likely to hurt both in such discussions. But then again, Maradona only won three league titles in two decades and the apparently unbeatable Santos only won two Copa Libertadores titles in Pele’s 18 year-career there.

Unfortunately, that’s what happens as soon as you start having these debates: the negatives come out. Maybe we should look more at what they have done, rather than what they haven’t.

Besides, 2007 seems a long away behind us now. I don’t know how much longer we’ll get to enjoy Ronaldo and Messi playing at this ridiculously high level.

Until they hang up the boots, I’ll be relishing their every move, knowing they gave me - and millions of others - a generation of memories. And they'll both be long retired before I pick a side.

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5 min read
Published 10 January 2017 at 10:56am
By Sebastian Hassett