The Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate will go on as long as the human mind will remember. These two players have been compared against each other ever since Messi burst onto the scene in the 2007/08 season. Invariably, both players have won a significant amount of trophies with their respective clubs as well as plenty of individual honours, most notably they have shared the FIFA Ballon D’Or award since 2008.
They are considered to be two of the greatest players of their generation if not of all time. But one thing has always eluded them; their inability to win a major international tournament with their respective countries. That is no longer the case because the Real Madrid forward won the 2016 European Championships with Portugal, whilst Messi failed to win the Copa America Centenario 2016 after he missed a penalty in the 4-2 penalty shootout loss to Chile after a goalless 120 minutes. Many football fans now believe that due to these recent events, Ronaldo has officially surpassed Messi as the best footballer of all time. But is that really the case?
The problem with this debate is that there is no real definition for the “best player in the world”. Cristiano Ronaldo won the Euro 2016 even though he barely featured in the final against France due to an injury he sustained in the opening stages of the match. The Portuguese team did not require his services for them to win the match. In modern football, it has become more and more difficult for the attacking team to win tournaments let alone a single match. A motivated and organised defensive unit is all that is required to win a football match these days. Leicester City won the Premier League title by adopting a defensive and counter-attacking strategy. Atletico Madrid used the same strategy to reach the UEFA Champions League final and France used it to beat Germany in the Euro semi-finals.
That is exactly how Portugal won the tournament. Ronaldo may have played his part during the tournament but it was the team that won it in the final without him. Ronaldo cannot be solely praised for what the team achieved as a whole. The belief that he has surpassed Messi because of the Euro win is entirely flawed. Using this same belief on other player comparisons shows this. Is Gerard Pique a better player than Paolo Maldini because Maldini never won anything with Italy? Is Michael Carrick better than Steven Gerrard because Gerrard never won the Premier League? Of course not. The belief is flawed because many factors play a role in the final result of a single match. The factors include the tactics that were used, players being marked, poor officiating and even bad weather amongst others.
So what describes the “best player in the world?” Is it the numbers? Messi has won more trophies than Ronaldo. But then again, Munir El Haddadi has won more trophies than Francesco Totti, so this concept seems out of place because most fans do not believe Munir is anywhere as good as Totti. Is it the amount of individual awards? These individual awards can be very biased, especially with the Ballon D’Or. Ronaldo infamously won it in 2013 when fans believed Franck Ribery deserved it. Is it the amount of goals scored? The Portuguese attacker has slightly more goals than Messi, but the Argentine has a better goal per game ratio. Also we have to take into consideration that they did not start their career at the same time and they still have many more games to play. So these criteria cannot be used to rightly separate the two.
On the pitch however, it is a different story. There is no doubt that Ronaldo is a great player. The 3-time Ballon D’Or winner scores goals with powerful headers, outrageous long range shots and can get past an opposing player with a skilful trick or two. But he is not an entirely unique player. There are a few players that have the potential to play like him. Neymar is a player who is similar to the young Ronaldo of Manchester United, skilful, quick and sometimes selfish. He could end up playing like Ronaldo does now. Ronaldo’s free kick technique has also been perfected by the likes of Gareth Bale.
Messi on the other hand, is a phenomenon. There is no one like him. What Messi does on the pitch mesmerizes football spectators all over the world and leaves them thinking, “did he actually do that?” Messi can get past three opposing players that surround him, he can see a pass that no one else would and execute it perfectly, he gets tackled to the ground and still gets up and carries on playing, he creates chances for his teammates and he scores unbelievable goals. No one else can do what he does on the pitch. Even now that both players have aged and evolved from being wingers to playing more central, Messi has become the greatest central attacking midfielder. He creates chances, passes the ball effectively and assists goals like no other. The Copa del Rey 2016 final is a perfect example of this.
After winning the Copa America 2016, Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi still praised the Barcelona forward after the match. “Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they’ll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a football player to do what Messi has done,” he said. “My generation can’t compare him to Maradona, that’s for my generation, because of what Maradona did for Argentine football. But I think the best player ever, played today here in the United States”. Cristiano Ronaldo has done something Messi has never done, win a major tournament with the national team. But being part of the team that won a major tournament and being a great player are two different things. Ronaldo may have the better looking career on paper, but Lionel Messi is the better footballer.