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Ronaldo vs Messi, and unanswered questions

A reflection on how the two greatest players of all time stack up against each other after Messi’s Copa America victory

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League - Final - NSK Olimpiyskiy Stadium Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

In 2018, following Real Madrid’s 3 - 1 win over Liverpool in the Champions League Final, Cristiano Ronaldo held the most prized trophy in club football in one hand, and put five fingers up with the other — boasting a finger for every European Cup he’s won. It was the classic, iconic flex that only the best player of the best team, and by extension, the greatest athletes of all time, can pull off. It was Michael Jordan, holding up six fingers; Tom Brady, posing with six rings; Bill Russell, squeezing all 11 on two hands. Muhammad Ali did not have a way to wrap his belts around his fingers, but he did have arguably the most badass sports photo of all time on his resume, as he stood over the defeated Sonny Liston, barking “Get up and fight, sucker!” in a moment that will be frozen forever.

But there was something even more symbolic about Ronaldo’s gesture that night — it was 58 years after Alfredo di Stefano won his fifth Champions League title, bringing the discussion of Real Madrid’s greatest player of all time, full circle. Ronaldo’s five fingers made us reflect on Don Alfredo posing with five European Cup trophies. There was always a sense among certain Real Madrid circles, particularly among older fans, that Ronaldo wouldn’t catch Di Stefano’s ghost. When Ronaldo lifted his fifth title, it was noted by some that one of those was won with Manchester United. Di Stefano had five in Madrid, and he also kickstarted the club’s relevancy — then stuck around as a manager, caretaker, and honorary member until the day of his death. The discussion may not have been about who is the greater player? But rather who is the greater Real Madrid legend?

But Ronaldo lifted only five fingers, then used a sixth to point in the direction of Turin, closing the Real Madrid chapter in what was, to many, an unsatisfying ending — like a movie that leaves everything open for interpretation. Ronaldo left a stacked team for one with an inferior supporting cast, and with his departure, left plenty of ‘what ifs’ on the table. How much did his departure impact his legacy? Would he now have a sixth Champions League title?

It’s worth noting: Ronaldo going to Juventus was a high-risk, high-reward scenario. Had he been able to win a Champions League title with the Italians, he would’ve started bolting down the ‘goat’ discussion, to the hatches. It would’ve been a feat similar to Lebron James leaving the Heatles and pulling the Cleveland Cavaliers to the finish line against an unstoppable Golden State Warriors team.

But Ronaldo didn’t win with Juve, and his arch-nemesis in the ‘goat’ discussion, Lionel Messi, didn’t join anyone that could have helped him pad his European trophy count, and has been stuck with Barcelona’s disastrous run in Europe since 2015, adding year after year of Champions League failure to his resume. Neither Ronaldo nor Messi have pulled away from each other. So here we are, sitting on an eternal debate, just like we did with Pele and Diego Maradona, and just like we’re still doing with Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Messi vs Ronaldo lingers, and perhaps no consensus will ever be reached, and there is a certain subjectivity that will be impossible for most to ignore depending which way they lean. Digging into the numbers for both is, to a certain degree, futile — because legends have to be measured by all kinds of context that surpass sheer numbers.

It will come down to these two. It has to. There are players who have won more European titles, and players who have won more international trophies. But none dominated the sport like Ronaldo and Messi. What these two have done, and are still doing, is unprecedented. They have rewritten what we thought was possible, and have made real greatness look like mediocrity.

Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Juventus FC and Lionel Messi of FC... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Now both stars orbit around each other in the twilight of their journeys, facing a decline that eclipses most players’ peaks. Ronaldo had a chance, this summer, to add to his international trophy resume, but came up short despite an impressive supporting cast. Messi took his chance to finally lift Copa America — a feat that has escaped and haunted him his entire career.

What happened this summer has reignited the goat discourse, and the next two seasons could start to close the story of this rivalry with a bow. Beyond this summer’s international tournaments, Juventus are not talented enough to help Ronaldo achieve success in Europe. Messi has not found synergy with his attacking partners since the bar was set high alongside Luis Suarez. Messi, in large part, also was the reason Barcelona brought in Sergio Aguero — a player well past his peak and someone he hasn’t meshed well with at the international level. The club futures of both Ronaldo and Messi look underwhelming, particularly if Ronaldo does end up staying with Juventus beyond this summer.

Regardless, both Messi and Ronaldo will likely be hunting domestic trophies with their respective teams, but both will chase the Champions League more than anything, and those European trophies, be it right or wrong, will be the measuring stick. League trophies are nice, and many would argue are, over the grind of an entire season, more difficult to win. But the greatest teams always rake through the European haul and form dynasties on a continental scale. There is something special about beating the best teams in the world in do-or-die games with everything on the line. The greats rise above the pressure.

But that final chapter isn’t closed yet, and until now, these two have been toe-to-toe for nearly 15 years now — really since the 2008 season where Manchester United slightly edged Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals when neither Ronaldo nor Messi had yet hit the peak of their powers. 13 years on from that tie, both have broken records — enough of them that we just assume every single offensive metric all-time belongs to one of them. Messi has dominated league titles; Ronaldo Champions League titles. Messi is the better deep-lying playmaker, dribbler, and passer. Ronaldo is the greatest off-ball mover in the history of football and is the greater physical freak. Both are the greatest goal-scorers the game has ever seen. Both have completely contrasting stylistic profiles, but were so great at what they did that their teams built their entire offense around them, which, in turn, shaped two completely contrasting styles of play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But in doing so, both clubs have also hurt themselves long term. Real Madrid have not been able to retool their offensive identity since Ronaldo left. When he was at the Bernabeu, Zinedne Zidane knew one thing: Cross to Cristiano, and if not to him, then to Bale and Benzema while the Portuguese drags defenders away. Now they cross to Ronaldo’s ghost, and their offensive efficiency has dropped to historically low levels for the club. On the flipside, Barcelona run everything through Messi, but former president Josep Maria Bartomeu didn’t have an understanding of who should be deployed around him, and signing Antoine Griezmann — a Messi parallel — was like tying his own shoes together before an attempted sprint. Maybe Messi would’ve been even more successful had there been a better sporting direction within his club.

Manchester United v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

But Messi’s biggest handicap in the goat discussion, perhaps even beyond his failures at the international level, will be his paralysis in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Since 2009, he’s been KO’d in the Champions League knockouts 12 times compared to Ronaldo’s eight. Messi has scored 49 goals in Champions League knockout history. Ronaldo has 67. The Portuguese also has dished out three more assists than his Argentine rival — all in six less games. When the chips are down and backs are against the wall, Ronaldo has the edge. Messi has never scored more than 14 goals in a single European campaign. Ronaldo has done so three times. Messi, known as the better playmaker, averages the same amount of assists per game (.23) as Ronaldo.

These are mere numbers, as absurd as they are. 49 goals, Messi’s ‘paralysis’, would be the ceiling of almost any other player. But the eye tests points to a different kind of apathy, one specific to Barcelona’s do-or-die moments where they needed their leader the most.

Barcelona’s recent track in Europe is gutting. They have not made it past the semi-finals since the 2014 - 2015 season. During that span, they’ve been knocked out of the round-of-16 once, and the quarter-finals four times. In four of those six eliminations, Barcelona went into the second-leg with a sizeable lead, and melted under pressure. Messi did not provide one single goal contribution during those six seasons in their elimination game. Elimination games are where the greatest players thrive. Imagine MJ being unnoticeable in the fourth quarter of an elimination game for six seasons straight. It’s unfathomable, for a player who’s in the running for greatest player of all time, to vanish.

The biggest stain on Messi’s resume, perhaps even beyond Barca’s 8 - 2 loss to Bayern Munich in 2020, the 3 - 0 loss to Roma in 2018, and the shortcomings with Argentina until 2021, was Barcelona’s 4 - 0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield where they blew a 3 - 0 first leg lead. It should be noted that Messi scored two goals in the first leg, but was a ghost in the second half of the second leg when the season was on the line. Barca were paralyzed as they watched Liverpool (playing without Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, two-thirds of their attacking trident) pick them apart.

“I haven’t watched the game again,” Messi said in 2019. “It was very similar to Roma where we went into the game and suddenly they scored. We reacted well, then they scored the second goal and we didn’t compete, the worst thing is that we didn’t compete. We let them walk all over us.”

When we look back years from now on Messi’s legacy, will we magnify those high stake moments where Messi evaporated, and use that as the distinguishing factor between him and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Both players now have one major international trophy to their name. How much do we value those? Messi did not rise to the occasion in the Copa America final against Brazil. He did not take over the game, contribute to the goal Argentina scored, and even missed a chance in the six-yard box towards the end of the game. He attempted just two dribbles, won three of his 13 ground duels, and lost possession 17 times. But Messi did also have a team-high 59 touches, and was great in Argentina’s previous games in the build-up to the final. We cannot take away this trophy from Messi if we’re going to count Ronaldo’s Euro triumph, where the Portuguese didn’t even play in the final game, but did everything he needed to get his team there.

Critics will point to one glaring flaw in Messi’s international triumph, which is no fault of his at all: The Copa America happens prolifically. The Euros happen every four years. Messi has had more cracks at it in South America, and has come away with a trophy only once. Since he made his debut for the Argentinian national team in 2005, there have been seven Copa America tournaments. In that same time span, there have been four European Championships. There have been more opportunities to win in South America, and CONMEBOL regularly invites teams from other continents — Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Qatar, USA, Mexico — to help fill up the tournament.

Ronaldo’s path to the European Championship is harder, condensed with better teams deploying more compact tactical schemes, and he can only shoot his shot every four years.

(I do not necessarily want to downplay the value of tactics in South American football like many do, nor do I want to emphasize a gap in the degree of difficulty between the two tournaments. South American football is also much more physical, and that in itself dials up the degree of difficulty for players like Messi and Neymar, who naturally provoke heavy challenges due to their greatness and unstoppable nature.)

The discourse on these two will likely go on for a long time, without any real clear answers on who was the de facto #1. Messi is a free agent this summer, likely to re-sign with Barca, which may not be the best move for the end of his legacy given their rebuild. If he signs for Manchester City, he’d immediately land on a Champions League contender, and possibly take them over the hump and swing the debate into his favour even more. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure either him or Ronaldo will add to their Champions League tally.

Maybe destiny arrives in Qatar, where Argentina and Portugal meet in the World Cup final. There wouldn’t be a single greater story in the history of football if it all came down to that one game. It would be a showdown that would settle a debate that will otherwise stretch forever.

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