Just in case you’ve been living in a bubble for the best part of the last decade, please be informed that the rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is a pretty serious affair, to the extent that it even has its own dedicated Wikipedia page — uh-huh, that serious.
Few are certain exactly when it all began, but the first whispers of a grudge must have been heard when the pair flanked Brazilian Kaka for the 2007 Fifa World Player of the Year prize. Back then, Messi was that kid with the hair that fell to his shoulders while Ronaldo was still some way off from being the impressive physical specimen he currently is, but almost everyone could tell the foreseeable future belonged to them. And it has.
Since that night at the Zurich Opera House, official recognition for the planet’s finest footballer in whatever format — Ballon d’Or, Fifa Player of the Year, the version that resulted from a brief romance between those two awards, or the latter-day The Best Fifa Men’s Player — hasn’t gone to any other footballer but them. As has become the norm, if Ronaldo doesn’t depart with a satisfied grin at the end of an annual awards gala, Messi would. It’s been that simple: a straight two-man fight with no third parties involved.
It gathered momentum when, shortly after the pair clashed in the final of the 2009 Uefa Champions League, Ronaldo made a long-anticipated switch to Spanish giants Real Madrid. The move seemed perfect for the rivalry’s fast-growing following. Having both players in the same league, playing nearly the same opponents each season, and featuring either side of a fine line that would vividly highlight their many contrasts — the arrangement couldn’t have been more ideal.
Initially, though, it was no fun, at least for one faction. The first few years of their stay together wasn’t much of a contest; if anything, it was a gross mismatch, one that swung heavily Messi’s way. Three consecutive Ballons d’Or/Player of the Year gongs (henceforth referred to in this article as ‘BPY’) were grabbed by Messi, with Ronaldo looking a little less pleased each time he stood next to his nemesis playing bridesmaid. And that isn’t mere assumption on this writer’s part.
“I’m not going to hide from you that I was sad and angry,” Ronaldo confessed to Ballon d’Or organizers France Football regarding that frustrating period, after winning the latest edition of the prize. “I went to the award ceremonies and I never won. At one point, I was even demotivated. I had no desire to go. To be there for the photo didn’t interest me.”
The ‘best-of-our-time-or-just-maybe-best-ever’ debate seemed well and truly over even at that early stage, with the petite Argentine delivering the knockout to claim a seemingly unanimous decision. But just when all — especially the pro-Ronaldo fans — were off to bed, the tall Portuguese stepped up with one last card up his sleeves. Actually, it had been handed him by Messi — or, to use a phrase more apt in a poker setting, Messi showed his hand.He did so in the 2011/12 season, by some distance his most prolific as a footballer. Barcelona won neither La Liga nor Uefa Champions League that term, but Messi netted 73 times to win the BPY, going on to finish with an unprecedented 91 goals for the calendar year. So celebrated was that feat, it might just be the most outstanding of Messi’s many achievements. It was a statement, too, perhaps a golden signature to put the argument to rest once and for all. For Ronaldo, though, it was his cue — an inspiration to consider the battle, regardless of the 4-1 deficit incurred at the time, just started.
You see, between Ronaldo and Messi, one is generally considered the better footballer, while the other is deemed little more than a scoring machine — I’d leave you to decide who is tagged what. Or rather, to arrive at the crust of this article quicker, I’d just point Messi out as the former and Ronaldo the latter so we can move on. Goals had always mattered in this particular match-up, but Messi’s 2012 haul took them to all-new levels of importance. While admirably raising the bar, Messi had unwittingly reduced the feud to a matter of goalscoring, something Ronaldo had a reputation for doing slightly better. The watching world had taken note and, surely, Ronaldo couldn’t have failed to do same.
Over the years, he’d likely also learned that goals matter, not just in their numbers nor for their aesthetic value, but for sheer worth. Until that point, Messi’s had won Barça lots of titles, while Ronaldo’s had only propelled him through the scoring charts at the Santiago Bernabeu, with little reward for his employers. Since then, however, he’s roared his way back into the competition, bridging the gap and finally drawing level with Messi this year on five BPY crowns apiece. With four BPYs in five years (Messi got one back in 2015 to maintain some relevance), it’s quite fair to say Ronaldo has dominated the latter half of his rivalry with Messi in much the same stunning fashion the Rosario-born held sway earlier on.
It’s certainly helped that Ronaldo has outscored Messi in three seasons out of the ensuing five (hitherto, he’d never managed that feat even once in the duo’s stay together in Spain) but, more decisively, he’s turned up big in the most significant games. He’s been instrumental, the chief goal-getter, in each of Madrid’s last three European conquests. Last season was a classic example. Messi had been the more consistent scorer in the Champions League right up to the crucial quarter-final clash with Juventus, only to fizzle out in both legs as the Italians romped to a 3-0 aggregate triumph. Ronaldo, on the other hand, had been uncharacteristically blunt in the earlier rounds but sprung to life toward the end, hitting 10 goals in the last five games of that memorable run to glory, including two in the final’s drubbing of Juve. The trend has continued somewhat this season. While Messi’s chart-leading 13 goals in the league have Barça top and are nine better than Ronaldo’s surprisingly paltry tally thus far, the latter’s return in the far more esteemed Champions League is way higher (nine already, including strikes in each of the six group games contested) than Messi’s. Should Ronaldo keep scoring, doing so especially when the platform is biggest and the lights are brightest, Messi would struggle to keep up?
And it wouldn’t be anyone’s fault but his. Messi might still score the more reel-worthy goals, have a better comprehension of the team ethos, and even actually score more, but Ronaldo’s ‘selfish’ streak in the final third and greater ability to rise to the occasion would still tick the most boxes in the ‘goals’ column and grant him an advantage.
So if ever, after a Ronaldo BPY coronation (and one can’t help but feel there’s more of that on the way for the former Manchester United man, even at the ripe age of 32), a Messi fan insists the argument is really more about who the ‘greatest’ footballer is than about which forward has mastered the art of [effective] goalscoring better between the two, do remind him that their own little sweetheart changed the rules and lost the edge with that landmark scoring feat of his six years ago. He couldn’t help himself at the time as he was in the form of his life, of course, but, hindsight, he didn’t really help himself. Messi inadvertently aided Ronaldo instead and, after his freshly awarded fifth Ballon d’Or, the Sporting Lisbon graduate couldn’t be more grateful.