For the record, I don’t think Lionel Messi has to win a World Cup to be considered the best ever. You may think that winning a World Cup is a resumé booster for Messi like it was for Maradona, Ronaldo (R9) and Zidane, but Messi’s already in the same company as those legends. I do think that Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest coup could make 2018 the most important year of Messi’s career. After Real Madrid won the Champions League on Sunday, I talked about how the Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate had reached its peak. Ronaldo scored two goals in the final after scoring a combined eight goals against Bayern Munich and Atletico de Madrid. Any doubt that he won’t win his fifth Ballon D’Or in 2017, equaling Messi, has been squashed. And after helping destroy Juventus in Cardiff, Ronaldo was named cover athlete for EA Sports’ FIFA 18, the most popular video game on the planet. I don’t think Messi cares considering he just opened his own theme park in China. Let’s pretend he does. Are Ronaldo’s latest accomplishments setting up 2018 as the Year of Messi?
With a World Cup next summer, Argentina’s number 10 will have one final opportunity to win the trophy that many fans and pundits believe he has to have to truly become immortalized. Historically, Messi and Ronaldo have traded yearly “best in the world” honors, so it’s not a stretch to say that Messi could surpass Ronaldo’s heroic 2017 performance. Last summer when Messi lost his second consecutive Copa América as Argentina captain, Ronaldo answered by winning the European Cup with Portugal. In La Liga, if Ronaldo scores a brace against Celta, Messi will score three against Espanyol.
From the couch, we the fans benefit most from this manufactured competition between the two megastars. They’re complete opposites of each other, as evidenced in how we praise the two. After an extraordinary performance for Barcelona, Messi is often hailed as the best player ever. A humble alien that’s descended upon the sport to change it forever. We stand in awe of his incredible performances. We marvel about his touch, creativity, and natural-born talent. His lack of height and unassuming personality make Messi the working man’s hero. Yet he’s considered incomparable, although I’d argue that Maradona was just as mystical a player. Messi scored 37 goals to Ronaldo’s 25 in La Liga this season and earned his fourth Pichichi title. Ronaldo currently has three league-scoring titles.
Embed from Getty ImagesBut we look at Ronaldo as a goal-scoring machine and a record-breaker. A physical specimen that combines speed and power to overwhelm his opponents on the ground and in the air. There’s this perception that he’s had to work harder to be the player he is today. He’s considered arrogant, self-serving and from the cheap seats, we call him a bad teammate. The best player to ever wear a Real Madrid jersey has made us obsessed with data and heat maps. After he surpassed the century mark for goals scored in Europe, we analyzed his numbers, not his performances.
Next summer in Russia, Messi and Ronaldo will play in their final World Cup. I’ll assume both Argentina and Portugal qualify, although both squads have plenty of work still to do. Their performances in Russia will be judged and compared, yet for some reason (perhaps because of Maradona) Messi has far more pressure to lift a World Cup trophy than Ronaldo. Why is that? Portugal will arrive in Russia as the reigning European champions. Argentina have underperformed, underwhelmed and currently sit in 5th place in South America, the Region’s home-and-home playoff position. Despite the likes of Aguero, Higuain, Di Maria and Messi, Argentina struggle to score and their style of play is undefined. Hiring Jorge Sampaoli was a deliberate attempt to right the ship. The former Sevilla boss will be expected to inject the squad with energy and pace, freeing Messi of the burden of having to do it all. In his first test as national team manager, Sampaoli will face Argentina’s eternal rivals Brazil in a friendly in Melbourne.
In 2018, the world will wait and see if Messi can outduel Ronaldo categorically and put the debate to rest for good. So let’s debate: does Messi have to win a World Cup to be considered the best ever? Does Ronaldo? Let me know in the comments.