A large part of watching soccer for the past decade or more has been Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the stars in the upcoming 2018 World Cup. If you plan on going to Russia to witness history, be sure to mark Portugal and Argentina as must-watch on your World Cup Travel guide.
They're still the two best players in the world. Who's better than the other is completely up to you. But it's undeniable that the end of soccer's most illustrious player rivalry is near.
This year's World Cup could be the first in a string of lasts for Messi and Ronaldo. It's not official until they announce it, but this could easily be the last World Cup that they both feature in.
By the tournament's end, Messi will be 31. Ronaldo is already 33. By the next tournament, they'd be 35 and 37, respectively. Their elite talents could hold them over, but you really don't see non-goalkeepers playing into their late 30s.
Messi has already been talked out of international retirement once and has been sounding like someone about to retire from international duty again.
"We depend on the results, unfortunately. We feel that if we are not champions ... we will not have another." -- Messi, via EuroSport
Ronaldo, who said he'd play for Real Madrid until he's 41 just 18 months ago, has been thinking about retirement much more recently.
"I achieved everything I dreamed of in football. I really think I have achieved so many nice things that I don't have any more dreams. But if you ask me if I want to keep winning of course I do. Obviously I would love to win the World Cup. But if my career ended now I would be very proud. I never thought my career was going to be so nice." -- Ronaldo, via The Mirror
Neither Messi nor Ronaldo has been able to win this competition. Messi has come closest, losing in the final to Germany in 2014 while also winning the Golden Ball as the tournament's most valuable player. Portugal were eliminated in group play, with Ronaldo scoring only once in three games. Messi has had the more complete team, so failings from previous years weigh more heavily on the Argentinian.
So that's the tale of the tape. But what does it mean? It's insane to reduce the World Cup to being about two players, but this is the prism through which many have watched international and club soccer for several years. If a player is good, it's "is he as good as Messi or Ronaldo?" or "he's the next Messi/Ronaldo."
They're the way we've interpreted greatness in soccer. And there has been nearly no way to determine who has been the better of the two.
Since 2008, each player has won five Ballon d'Or trophies and four European Golden Shoe awards. Messi has an 8-5 edge in league titles, but he and Ronaldo have both won five Champions League tiles.
Ronaldo's Portugal are currently ranked fourth in the FIFA Men's World Ranking. Messi's Argentina are fifth, but have a much easier group.
If either Ronaldo or Messi can push their nations to a World Cup win, one camp can definitively claim superiority. They're both great, but one will become greater. It's not particularly fair, because winning a World Cup requires a whole lot of luck, but this will be literally the only feat that one has over the other.
But for some people, the rivalry isn't all that serious. These two players are the greatest ever and, instead of drawing at the slightest of advantages one has over the other, most opt to watch Messi and Ronaldo for what they are...
...the greatest to ever play the beautiful game.
"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very
disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more
important than that."
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