Is now the time to judge the Messi-Ronaldo debate?


For over a decade, the question of who is the best player in the world has raged almost exclusively between two camps. On one side, the claims have been for Cristiano Ronaldo, whose time at Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus has been filled with goals and titles. On the other, Leo Messi has been largely a one-club man until the age of 33, dominating the top end of the pitch for Barcelona and exciting sports betting hunters by continuing his brilliance at Paris St Germain. Even into the current season, debate has persisted regarding the two players.

However, there has probably never been a more reasonable time to consider the debate closed. Ronaldo, released from his contract at Manchester United, had months to meet and speak to other clubs, and has finally signed with a new one: Al-Nassr of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, both players have played in what will likely be their final World Cup. With Messi due to be 39 when the next one kicks off, and Ronaldo in his forties, their international careers are now largely complete. The days of both players being involved at the top of world football are closed – so who can look back on the most distinguished career?

Messi has won everything he can

When the final penalty kick was struck and the World Cup final came to an end, Argentina became world champions for the first time since 1986, and Messi had won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. Thus, he added a World Cup winner’s medal and second Golden Ball (a feat never achieved by any other player) to seven Ballons d’Or, a Copa America winner’s medal, and countless club honours with Barcelona. Ronaldo, meanwhile, came off the bench to little effect as Portugal’s World Cup was ended in the quarter-finals by Morocco. Only a fool would say he had underachieved in his career, but he’s not been as effective as Messi in as wide an arena.

Ronaldo has lacked in at least one key area

Early in his career, Ronaldo played as a winger, his elusiveness and change of pace making numerous full-backs look foolish. As he got older, bigger and stronger, he moved more centrally and became a goal machine that any Fantasy team would want to have. That development caused him to be the core focus of his team, drawing everything to him to the exclusion of other players. That often led to talented players such as Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and others being relegated to the role of water carrier to keep him supplied with chances in the penalty area.

In his final full season in an elite league, he scored an impressive 18 goals for Manchester United, but the team actively performed much worse than the season before when he wasn’t there. While he may improve Al-Nassr, it would be hard to make the case that he did the same for Juventus and United as his career ran down. Messi, meanwhile, has played alongside Kylian Mbappe as the French striker has taken more of the focus at PSG.

There really is only one winner

Some people will still argue that Ronaldo is the greatest ever to do it, but in any meaningful statistical category he is either behind Messi, or has a lead so narrow that it can be explained by Messi’s two-year lag period. Many would also argue that the GOAT is still either Pele or Maradona, but with regard to the present debate, the numbers and impact just don’t add up for Ronaldo.