Cody is a new online writer. His work often focuses on sports theory, sports management, and analysis.
Had the year been 2012, I would be crazy for writing this article. However, the year is 2020, and a lot has happened to make me change my mind. Both Messi and Ronaldo have earned individual, as well as team achievements which reinstates the idea that we are witnessing the greatest soccer players of all time. They both score goal after goal, win award after award, except one continuously chokes year after year.
I must concede, Messi’s overall performance has not deteriorated, while it’s clear Ronaldo has had a very subtle drop off in his physical attributes in the past few years. Despite this, I proclaim Cristiano Ronaldo as the GOAT. And Ronaldo didn’t necessarily change my mind by himself, but rather it was a combination of Ronaldo’s greatness, and Messi’s shortcomings. Before we examine this, let’s ask ourselves why seemingly everybody thinks Messi is better.
Considering soccer is a team sport more than anything, the situation in which a player joins plays a big role in determining their overall success. Fortunately for Messi, the team around him was sublime. Messi joined an all-star team of players, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Puyol, and Iniesta, to name a few. In fact, this team is an all-time great team even WITHOUT Messi. Why can I say this? Because that Barcelona team won La Liga and the Champions League that year, while Messi contributed very minimally to both campaigns. To recap, Messi joined a team that won both their domestic league and the Champions League, practically without him and now I’m supposed to pretend that he’s some divine being sent from the heavens. To be fair, Ronaldo joined a similar situation when he first made appearances for Manchester United. However, once Ronaldo started making regular starts for Manchester, they went on to win three premier leagues in a row. Similarly, Barcelona also won three La Liga titles from 2009 to 2011, but does Messi deserves the most credit for his teams success?
Messi may have stood out as best on the all-time great Pep Guardiola Barcelona team. However, Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 was the most stacked team of all time. In 2009, the year Messi won his first ballon d'or, the second and third ranked players were both teammates of Messi. Additionally, throughout all of Messi’s ballon d'or wins, he has had at least one other teammate in the top three in voting. Whereas every year Ronaldo has won the award, he has been the only player of his team in the top three in voting. To put into perspective how good Barcelona was in that four year stretch, we can take a look into what happened when it came time for international competition. Spain won Euro 2008, with the top scorer being David Villa, who later became a teammate of Messi’s. The best player award was given to Xavi, again, one of Messi’s teammates. The Spanish national team continued their dominance in the following years, as they won the World Cup in 2010, with the winning goal scored by Iniesta, one of Messi’s long term teammates. The player who assisted Iniesta, was Cese Fabregas, who later became one of Messi’s teammates. I apologize for the redundancy, but it is imperative to recognize that the majority of Messi’s success came at a time when his overall team consisted of the best players of all time. To further prove my point, Spain ended up winning Euro 2012, with Iniesta being awarded as the player of the tournament. Additionally, Messi’s success at Barcelona didn’t translate to international play as Argentina got bumped out in the quarter-finals in the 2010 World Cup and again in the quarter-finals in the Copa America in the following year. To Messi’s credit, he did lead Argentina to the World Cup finals in 2014, however he was a shell of himself in the final game.
Sticking with International play, it must be noted that Ronaldo, the leading all-time goal scorer for Portugal has won an international trophy unlike his counterpart Messi. Although Ronaldo got injured in the beginning of the game, Ronaldo played an integral role as he cheered and motivated his team from the sidelines. That’s the kind of player I want on my team, not the player who quits the National team after missing a penalty in the finals in a loss to Chile.
It doesn’t matter what situation your team may be in, but the best always find ways to find motivation for themselves and their teammates. For example, in the 2016 NBA finals, after being down 3 games to 1, Lebron James motivated himself and his team to come back from that deficit to win the Finals, a deficit that has never been overcome in an NBA Finals ever before. Additionally, in Super Bowl 51, Tom Brady led his team to the largest Super Bowl comeback in history, further cementing his legacy as the GOAT. What has the “GOAT” of all of soccer done in terms of carrying his team? Well lets see. In the 2017–18 Champions League after being up on aggregate 4-1 after the first leg against Roma, the Messi led Barcelona lost the 2nd leg game 3-0, eliminating them in the quarter finals. The following year seemed to be the year for Messi to prove that he can win against Europe's finest, while carrying a team on his back. And this seemed to be the case as Barcelona led Liverpool 3-0 at the end of the first leg in the Semi Finals. In the second leg, right on cue, Messi and Barcelona choked yet again. I will acknowledge Barcelona won the Champions League in 2014-15, however it is worth noting that fellow Barcelona forward, Neymar, placed 3rd in votes for the Ballon D’or that year.
I am aware that the Ronaldo haters are quick to point out that throughout nearly all of Ronaldo’s success at Real Madrid, he was playing alongside 2018 Ballon Dor winner, Luka Modric. And to that statement I respond by saying that Modric winning the Ballon Dor is the biggest joke I have ever seen in all of soccer (Even worse than VAR). We all know the reason Modric won was because of his outstanding performance in the 2018 World Cup. I certainly believe that Modric was most deserving of being named the best player in that World Cup. Although World Cup Performance should be heavily considered when awarding the Ballon Dor, it is clear that if the World Cup didn’t happen Modric would clearly not be in consideration for the Ballon Dor award based on Champions League and Domestic play. I do not believe a stellar World Cup performance is enough to earn a player the Ballon Dor, especially if said player would otherwise not be in the discussion based off of Domestic and International play alone, when considering said players team didn’t win the World Cup anyway. The previous sentence might of been complex, but to sum it all up, I don’t think Modric should have won. In fact, I don’t know who should’ve won the 2018 Ballon Dor.
The 2018 Ballon Dor was set up to be one of the most impactful in history. Either Messi or Ronaldo would jump out ahead of the other, or their ten-year streak would end. I remember at the time, I did not know who was going to win. However I do know that at the end of Messi and Ronaldo’s careers, they will have the same number of Ballon Dors. This is a smart idea from FIFA as they know that the Ronaldo-Messi debate will live on long after both have retired. And what better way to keep the debate going for as long as they can then by having both of them at an equal number of Ballon Dors. FIFA knows that if they awarded Messi the Ballon Dor, and Ronaldo starts to sharply decline, Messi will end with more than Ronaldo, making the debate more one-sided than it already is. The same is true if they were to have awarded Ronaldo the Ballon Dor in 2018. Why not just award the Ballon Dor to Salah? Firstly, Modric had just come off of an excellent World Cup, which had many people, including myself, buzzing. Second, Salah lost head to head against Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League Final. Additionally, the Salah-led Egypt did not manage to secure a single point in the World Cup 2018. Therefore, Modric has the hat trick. His team had won the Champions League for three consecutive years, he outright had the most impressive World Cup that summer, and Modric is not named Messi or Ronaldo. This enumeration made Modric the perfect candidate to end the ten-year reign of Ronaldo and Messi. And count on this- Messi and Ronaldo will never win another Ballon D'or. My firm prediction is for Virgil Van Dijk to win it this year, and deservingly so. Neither Messi or Ronaldo won the Champions League this year, and both won their domestic leagues in 2018-19. Neither player stood out significantly from each other in this past year. And because I think it’s time FIFA places a bit more attention on defenders, Van Dijk should be the favorite.
I want to shift gears to the arguments people will present when engaging in this debate with me. One of the absolute worst arguments came from a peer, who heavily based his argument on the instances when Messi and Ronaldo play head to head. He tried explaining that because Messi typically plays better when their two teams meet, Messi is a better player. First of all, if you judge two players only based off of their performances when playing against each other, then I think you should reevaluate the way in which you analyze players. For example, I think Player A is better than Player B because when they play against each other, Player A has scored more goals than Player B. This idea is absurd, because based off of that logic, James Harden would be better than Lebron James, because when they play each other, James Harden averages more points. Another argument that is often presented to me, is the idea of Messi being a better passer. In this instance, I happen to agree. Messi does have a considerably larger amount of assist when compared to Ronaldo. However, don’t fail to recognize an explanation for this discrepancy. Messi takes the corner kicks for Barcelona, so obviously he is in a position to get more assists. And the reason Messi takes the corners is because he has absolutely no aerial game at all. Only 3% of Messi’s goals are a result of headers. Whereas it can be said that Ronaldo is a top aerial player of this generation. Despite all of this, I do believe Messi is a better passer, but I do also think Ronaldo is a very underrated regarding his passing ability. And finally, these are the two words every Ronaldo fan hates to hear. As a disclaimer, I want to offer Ronaldo fans a trigger warning before I state these words. I’m not even sure if the following offensive phrase is allowed to be written on this site, but I’ll write it anyway. Cristiano Penaldo. Yes, every Ronaldo fan reading this just had a flashback to a time when those exact words came from a grinning Barcelona fan. But for those who are unfamiliar with the nickname Penaldo, it is a reference to how many of Ronaldo’s goals come from penalties. To be fair, Ronaldo does score a lot of goals from the spot, however there is a reason for the nickname. What often goes unacknowledged from the Messi fan however, is the fact that Messi downright stinks from the penalty spot when the pressure is on. We all know what happened during the Copa America Final in 2015, when Messi missed the most important penalty in his career. Maybe Barcelona fans are just upset at the fact that Ronaldo can keep his composure in the deciding penalty of the Champions League final.
One aspect that I use in analyzing how good a player is is by looking at their team once they leave. For instance, if Real Madrid had won another Champions League after Ronaldo went to Juventus, then I would really consider how valuable Ronaldo must of been, considering Real Madrid won without him. In reality though, once Ronaldo left Real Madrid, they completely fell apart. In their first year without Ronaldo, Real Madrid finished 19 points behind 1st place Barcelona. In fact, at one point Real Madrid was closer to relegation than the top of the table. And all I heard was that it was Zidane who was most responsible for Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League wins. Well the jury is still out on that statement, because we’ll see how Madrid does now that Zidane is their manager again. My prediction is another early Champions League exit and they’ll choke in La Liga.
I have to admit, Barcelona's domestic success as of late is legitimate in my eyes. However, what’s more impressive is the fact that Ronaldo has won league titles in England, Spain and Italy. I’m aware that Juventus won the title before Ronaldo got there, and I still believe Ronaldo has yet to prove himself at Juventus.
As far as attributes go, I think it's fair to state both Messi and Ronaldo are relatively equal when it comes to shooting. Personally I believe Messi is a better dribbler and passer. Whereas I believe Ronaldo is just a bit faster than Messi, and a way better header of the ball. The big difference though, is that Ronaldo has the drive to be the very best. After listening to the confidence he has in himself, I wonder how anyone could doubt him. This is why I can leave you with this for certain, Ronaldo will play long after Messi retires. I have never seen such determination in a player, and there is not a single doubt in my mind that Ronaldo will close this debate someday. Ronaldo is the Tom Brady and Lebron James of soccer—he will continue to play great long after people begin to write him off, which is already happening now.
© 2019 Cody Piunno
Harrison on August 14, 2020:
Messi is the best