As the 21st FIFA World Cup reaches the last day of its first-round matches in the group stages, it’s fair to say that the pre-tournament favourites – giants such as Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain – have struggled. All four failed to win their first game, but yet the spotlight remained on the rivalry between two of the best football players of this generation. The title up for grabs in Russia is not only the World Cup, but also the label of the “best footballer of all time”.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 51 st career hat-trick in Portugal’s first game against Spain. Portugal rarely ever starts a FIFA event as favourites, and this World Cup has been no exception. What has set Ronaldo apart from Messi on the international stage is not just his superior goal-scoring ability, but his leadership of a team that has been average for most of his career. Ronaldo single-handedly kept a marauding Spanish side at bay, and finished by handing Portugal a valuable point.
Lionel Messi, in contrast, struggled against first-timers Iceland. He was given little space by the Icelandic defenders, and failed to score – even missing a penalty to give Argentina the lead. Argentina finished 1-1 with the debutants, and the swords were out for Messi, who has had a torture legacy with the national team – yet to win a major title in an Argentina shirt, in stark contrast to his club career with Barcelona. One would argue 2018 in Russia is his last chance to dethrone Maradona in the imagination of his people – 3 Copa America Final losses, 2 World Cup quarterfinal eliminations and 1 World Cup Final loss is weighing heavily on the legacy of Lionel Messi.
Let’s take a look at the comparison between Ronaldo and Messi strictly in the context of World Cups – Russia is the fourth World Cup for both players.
2006 World Cup (Germany)
A 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo entered the 2006 FIFA World Cup as a new Manchester United signing and the heir to Portugal’s star Luis Figo after Portugal reached the final of the 2004 Euro Championships. As a teenager, Ronaldo had already dazzled at Euro 2004, and he scored 1 goal in the World Cup – a penalty against Iran. He will however mostly be remembered for his cheeky wink after club teammate and English striker Wayne Rooney was sent off in the quarterfinals. Portugal reached the semifinal and lost to France.
A 19-year-old Lionel Messi became the youngest scorer at the 2006 World Cup, when he scored one of his team’s 6 goals against Serbia and Montenegro. But Messi wasn’t a regular starter, still cutting his teeth at the highest level – Argentina coach Jose Pekerman started him only against Netherlands in their final group game after they had already qualified. Messi didn’t play the quarterfinal against Germany, in which Argentina lost after a penalty shootout.
Total WC Goals: Ronaldo (1), Messi (1)
2010 World Cup (South Africa)
Ronaldo captained Portugal at the 2010 World Cup after failing to score a single goal during their almost-doomed qualification campaign. In the group stages, Portugal drew to Ivory Coast and Brazil, and slaughtered North Korea 7-0, in which Ronaldo scored a goal. Portugal lost to eventual champions Spain in the Round of 16. Ronaldo however was Man of the Match in all their three group games.
Messi, by now the more successful player at club level and an Olympic gold-medal winner for his country, entered as a playmaker under new coach Diego Maradona. Argentina too barely qualified for the World Cup, but topped their group by winning all three games against Nigeria, South Korea and Greece. Messi captained Argentina for the first time against Greece. After beating Mexico in the round of 16, Messi had 6 assists to his name, but was yet to score an international goal since 2009. Argentina lost to Germany in the quarterfinal.
Total WC Goals: Ronaldo (2), Messi (1)
2014 World Cup (Brazil)
Ronaldo entered the World Cup with an injury, and Portugal crashed to a 4-0 defeat in their opening game against eventual champions Germany. They managed a draw against USA and a win against Ghana (in which Ronaldo scored a goal), but were eliminated from the group on goal difference. This was Portugal’s worst performance at a major tournament under Ronaldo.
Messi, in contrast, broke his World Cup hoodoo and scored 4 goals in his first 4 matches as full-time Argentina captain. It was the first time he had scored since the 2006 World Cup – and he was Man of the Match in all three group stage games as well as the Round of 16 match against Switzerland, where he assisted for the winner in a 1-0 win. Messi didn’t score in the quarterfinal (against Belgium), semifinal (against Netherlands) and Final (against Germany). He however won the Golden Ball award for the best player of the tournament despite losing the final to Germany. Messi had almost done a Maradona, but fell at the last hurdle.
Goals: Ronaldo (3), Messi (5)
Against Spain in the 2018 World Cup, Ronaldo became the only Portuguese player to score in all 4 World Cups, and one of the only players ever to score in 8 consecutive major tournaments (including Euro championships). He is now on 6 goals to Messi’s 5. The difference between the two is Portugal’s Euro 2016 title as an underdog, with Ronaldo 20 international goals ahead of Messi in career statistics.
In three weeks, however, we will have a clearer answer.
Ronaldo will end on 7 World Cup goals, while Messi will add 2 more to
his tally to end on 7 too. Neither Portugal nor Argentina will win the
2018 World Cup.
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