There is a gap between Messi and Ronaldo that is now more evident than ever

Before leaving Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo was so determined to stay at the top tier that he actually took it upon himself to speak directly to figures he knew at elite clubs. Few were interested. There was no offer that would have been acceptable to the Portuguese. He still had strong ideas about his own worth.

Ronaldo’s plan was clearly to go to the World Cup and remind everyone how much he was worth, before seeing the pile of offers come back.

Instead, reality intervened. Not only in a tournament in which a limited Ronaldo was unable to perform at the same level and ended up on the bench for ignominy. It was also applied to a debate that has dominated soccer culture for the past 15 years.

Lionel Messi has done much more than win. He has shown that there never really should have been a debate at all; that it was largely illusory, a product of social media and public relations.

This is not to say that the players didn’t feel it, or that Ronaldo didn’t put pressure on Messi. Probably, he raised both to greater heights. All this was visible during the last decade.

It’s just that Messi’s World Cup victory also made the reality of the gap between these two stars visible.

Ronaldo is clearly better than most footballers who have ever played the game, it wasn’t for nothing that he became such a historic goalscorer. But Messi is perhaps the purest footballer to ever play, which made him much more than just a goalscorer.

It is on that level above, where only Pelé and Diego Maradona reside. That’s where the debate really was.

It’s what was so symbolic about this World Cup victory and the feeling of completion. It was the culmination of the career of a great player, but also the culmination of all his talent. Nothing was left unanswered, in a rare way in sport. Very few stories compare, possibly only Pelé’s 1970 victory and Muhammad Ali’s 1974 heavyweight title recapture are on a similar narrative and global scale.

Like those two, Messi displayed similar transcendent ability to adapt his innate talent, and reshaped his own game and the game itself. His World Cup featured so many classic moments that also gave him and the world something new in sensationally greater glory.

There were goals; Messi finished with seven goals and the last of them was a classic poacher’s goal in a play that he started. There were key moments, like the one in the final, but also the impossibly accurate goal against Mexico that reinvigorated Argentina’s performance. One argument that has been put forward by some people familiar with both stars is that while Messi was always the better footballer, Ronaldo just had a superior will that ensured he didn’t suffer defeat in the same way.

It’s over. The image of ashen-faced Messi enduring yet another humiliation, the escape from yet another major trophy, disappeared, except to serve as mere preparation for the ultimate comeback. Few have dominated and defined a World Cup like this, in which a relatively moderate team reached the highest level. There is the greatest will, at the last moment.

Then there are Messi’s comebacks throughout this World Cup, especially that wave in the semifinal against Croatia.

Lionel Messi dribbles past Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol


However, the most revealing thing was that divine pass for Nahuel Molina to score against the Netherlands. It wasn’t that Messi put him in the only place he could to conjure up a goal out of nowhere. It was that, in an instant and on the fly, he calculated the optimal path to the goal and followed it with exquisite economy.

This was precisely why there was never a debate at all, and what became so apparent as both players reached their late 30s.

Messi’s greatness has always come from that talent, above all else. Obviously Ronaldo has talent, but the real difference has been how his physical prowess has maximized it. When thinking about his big moments, it’s usually not about skill or technique, but about power, agility and movement. Even his finishing, which was almost flawless, became a matter of timing.

However, since Ronaldo’s physical attributes began to fade, so did his effect. Messi, put bluntly, can still do a lot more with the ball. That’s why it’s easy to imagine him throwing passes as his movement slows down. He will continue to be able to control the ball at a higher level than anyone, except perhaps Maradona and Pelé.

That was always obvious, but this last period has made it an inescapable truth.

Messi has just enjoyed an achievement that is priceless. Ronaldo must try to pass a price for an achievement

One answer might be that Ronaldo is almost 38 and Messi is 35, but it’s the same if you go back two and a half years.

In autumn 2020, the Portuguese had started a campaign that marked the end of nine years of straight Serie A titles for Juventus. It was already being discussed that he contributed goals, but he took away power from the team’s collective threat. The argument now is different: that the signing of Ronaldo was one of the worst in the history of modern football given the negative effect of him on Juventus. The immense expense involved prevented the club from being able to reshape or restructure itself, anchoring it to a system built for it that weighed it down.

At the same age, Messi rose to the greatest glory.

It is not known if Ronaldo watched the World Cup final. It’s still hard not to think that he influenced his decision to join Al-Nassr in some way. Without a proper status club offering him the chance to restore his reputation and soothe his ego, he had to look for the next best thing to show off. That is the largest financial contract offered by Al-Nassr.

The situation continues to reflect one of the many contrasts between the two, which have been conditioned by their abilities, personalities and choices.

Messi has just enjoyed an achievement that is priceless. Ronaldo must try to pass a price for an achievement.

“I had offers from Brazil, Portugal, the United States, Australia,” he said. “But I gave my word to Al-Nassr.”

They gave him a number.

Other arguments will be presented about the legacy, about the diffusion of the game. “I gave my word to this club to push not only football but other parts of this amazing country,” Ronaldo continued. “I want to give a different vision of this club and this country.”

Messi celebrates the glory of Argentina with the World Cup


However, far from enhancing his legacy, it could damage it. After all, Saudi Arabia already has a fervent soccer culture. That could be seen in the World Cup. It’s not like he’s developing a new culture, nor is it like the game in general cares about his growth in any given country. There are also questions about how much Ronaldo really cares, given that he only agreed to this deal at this late stage and at this kind of cost.

There is also the moral cost.

“The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr fits into a broader pattern of sportswashing in Saudi Arabia,” says Dana Ahmed, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International. “It is very likely that the Saudi authorities will promote Ronaldo’s presence in the country as a way of distracting from the country’s appalling human rights record.”

It seems even more likely that he will be used as an ambassador for the country’s 2030 World Cup bid. You might even see Messi on TV doing something similar, given the Argentine’s role in Saudi tourism.

The irony of this is that it is still arguably not as dire as Qatar’s use of Messi himself, via Paris Saint-Germain. While Ronaldo’s departure for Saudi Arabia is an attempt by the league to superficially benefit from the glare of a fading star, projects like those of the French club – or Newcastle United or Manchester City – are participating in the very structure of the match. One is out of the elite. One is in the heart itself.

Still, that’s where the two big rivals now meet. Ronaldo is reduced to trying to find some meaning in a league far from the highest level, and it generates more questions than attention. Few outside of his online fans will seriously care about goals.

Messi has just returned to being a favorite for the Champions League, where he has been celebrated for finally winning the World Cup.

One last irony is that Ronaldo could still be at such a club. He would just have had to play a more limited role with less money, albeit a potentially influential one as a high-level professional. He would have had a lot of merit. He could have done it for Manchester United.

Yet it’s as if he’s been ruled by a sense of denial about where he is at this point in his career. It is as if a delirium had besieged him. Some of the advice he has received should be questioned.

Something similar occurs with this broader debate. Actually, it’s no shame that Ronaldo is in that second echelon of the greats, along with players like the Brazilian Ronaldo. It’s part of what made him so good that he refused to accept that secondary status.

The other side of the coin is that it has also led to this rather sad end, while Messi enjoys this best possible climax.

As in the case of Ronaldo’s calls to the clubs, there isn’t much more to say.

Translation by Michelle Padilla

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