The Messi vs. Ronaldo Debate is Over


Credit: Aurelien Meunier / Getty Images

Joseph Schueneman, Cub News Writer

Great individual rivalries bring amazing battles to sports. The contests between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi playing the most popular sport in the world have transcended all other rivalries and evolved into a debate not just over who is better of the two, but who is the greatest of all time. 

Messi and Ronaldo’s rivalry began when they were both stars at FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively. The two clubs have a historic rivalry, and Messi and Ronaldo’s dominance on the pitch within this rivalry sparked debates among fans over who is better. As accolades and achievements for both players grew, the debate shifted from who is better to who is the best player of all time. Now, Ronaldo, 38, and Messi, 36, are both off exploring new horizons of the game. After years of struggling on the national stage, Messi has finally found success with the Argentina national team, winning this past World Cup. Ronaldo, on the other hand, signed the richest contract in sports history to go play professionally in Saudi Arabia. The recent career developments show that this debate may no longer be close — maybe this debate has a clear winner.

To get the scope of how this debate is changing it is best to start last summer. The World Cup hosted in Qatar was in November to combat the country’s summer heat, so club seasons would be split into two portions. Heading into the start of the 2022-23 Premier League season, Ronaldo was not satisfied with his role at Manchester United. A year earlier, the superstar had returned to United’s Old Trafford Stadium, the place where his career originally took off. A struggle-filled 2021 season led the club to fire their manager Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer and hire Erik ten Hag in the summer. By this summer, Ronaldo was already disengaged from the club. Ten Hag’s tenure started poorly, and Ronaldo announced he was done with the team right before the World Cup after a bombshell interview with journalist Piers Morgan in which Ronaldo complained about United’s management.

Meanwhile, Lionel Messi was thriving with Paris Saint-Germain in France. The club was having success in Ligue One and had advanced to the Champions League knockout rounds. It was apparent that Messi was currently having more success at the club level but if either Argentina or Portugal were to win the World Cup, the winner would receive a huge boost in the greatest of all-time debate. 

Portugal won their group fairly easily to advance to the knockout stages. Argentina on the other hand started their tournament off rocky by losing to Saudi Arabia but managed to take care of Poland and Mexico to advance. Ronaldo’s effectiveness once again came into question when Portugal routed Switzerland in the Round of 16 with Christiano coming off the bench. Ronaldo’s World Cup journey ended in the next round where they lost 1-0 to World Cup underdogs Morocco. Meanwhile, Messi continued to score and advance through the group stages. The captain provided legendary heroics in a shootout win over the Netherlands. In what is considered one of the greatest World Cup Finals in history, Messi delivered two goals and a crucial point in the penalty shootout to complete the last achievement left in his legacy and reach football’s summit. 

After the World Cup, Messi spent weeks celebrating while Ronaldo had to figure out where to play next. He landed the largest professional contract in sports history when he signed with Al-Nassr, a side in Saudi Arabia. Ronaldo leaving the competitive waters of Europe signaled to fans that his run may be nearing an end. He chose a massive contract and believes his conquest in Europe is complete: “I am fortunate that I have won everything I set out to win in European football.”  What Ronaldo lacks though is the crowning achievement of a World Cup, which Messi was able to add to his trophy cabinet this winter.

Ronaldo and Messi met up to play when a group of Saudi league stars took on PSG in January. Both scored goals and let everyone bask in all the beautiful memories this rivalry left us. While it was cutthroat and intense for a long time, personally I believe that Messi is now clear of Ronaldo in more ways than one. He holds countless individual statistical awards and is on pace to break many of Ronaldo’s records that are held only because of their age difference. He is still playing in Europe and is expected to win his eighth Ballon d’Or award soon.  Messi has disproved criticism about his lack of international success recently winning the Copa America and World Cup in his thirties and now fights against his own aging to see how many more records he can pass. This rivalry will always be legendary and close but Ronaldo’s lack of a World Cup will always need to be mentioned when partaking in this argument. 

You definitely cannot tell the story of football, or even all of sports, without talking about the greatness of both these players. That said, it is time to put the head-to-head comparisons to rest. Respect is due to both men for being icons of the game, but recognize that Messi’s achievements have now put him one step ahead of his rival.