Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina’s opening goal against Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup in St Petersburg (Photo: Getty Images)
THE LIGHT OF AN ENTIRE GALAXY OF football’s biggest stars will go out one by one in Qatar. From Luka Modrić, Thiago Silva and Manuel Neuer to probably Ángel Di María, Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani and many others, each of them will go to the World Cup and never return to it again. But what will lend this tournament an especial air of poignancy—mark it with a profound sense of loss—will be the extinguishing of football’s two supernovas.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, ageing superstars, their best behind them, will enter a World Cup for a fifth and final time, believing what they possess is still good enough to blank out the rest and lay to rest once and for all the debate about who will be remembered as football’s greatest in this era. It is an all-consuming drama within a drama, an event within another event, which has chased them all their lives through various World Cup iterations and club competitions. But this time, at its end, will be one final whistle.
No great has been this good for this long. Messi is 35; Ronaldo will be a few weeks shy of 38 by the end of the World Cup. By comparison, Pelé played his final World Cup at 29. Maradona was 33 when he was banned at the 1994 World Cup. And only three others before them—Germany’s Lothar Matthäus, and Mexico’s Antonio Carbajal and Rafael Márquez—have ever played a fifth World Cup. Such longevity owes a lot to the improvements in modern medicine and nutrition, and the ban on violent tackles. But their single-minded pursuit for footballing glory has been the secret ingredient that has kept the elixir working.
Messi and Ronaldo are similar in many ways. Yet complete opposites in others. One is built like a wrestler, the other slight and diminutive; one is a preening peacock, the other shy; one makes football look effortless, the other makes it seem impossible. Who among the two is the greater? Whose style better represents the footballing ideal? These are questions that have obsessed football and divided the world for nearly two decades, and it now chases them into their sunset.
Looked at objectively, there is still little to choose between them. Both have scored goals by the heaps. Both have won nearly every conceivable award and championship for their clubs. You may be tempted to put Messi’s seven Ballon d’Ors ahead of Ronaldo’s five. But until last year, Ronaldo had a major title with his national team (the 2016 European Championship) and Messi none. (Messi finally ticked this empty box when he led Argentina to the Copa América title last year.)
Of the two, it is Messi who carries the greater burden in World Cups. Ronaldo already won Portugal the Euro; they’re not expected to win World Cups. To Messi, the World Cup is, as former Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli once put it, like a revolver to his head. It is perhaps his greatest misfortune that only one player in history actually won a World Cup on his own, and that individual happened to be an Argentinean who also wore the No 10 jersey.
Messi came closest to winning the World Cup in 2014. Had Gonzalo Higuaín converted those two very presentable chances against Germany in the final or the team held out for the last few minutes before penalty shootouts commenced, the outcome of the match might have been different and the debate on football’s greatest player finally ended. Instead, a forlorn Messi walked up to the podium to accept his Golden Ball, a prize that looked as though handed in commiseration, and the debate has dragged on.
In Russia, neither went in too deep. When Argentina were trounced 4:3 by the French in their Round of 16, a wounded expression filled Messi’s face. Up in the stands, Diego Maradona, who had resembled a figure possessed all through the Argentina campaign, clasped his head in his hands and had to be helped by his handlers. Hours later, at another end of the vast Russian landmass, Uruguay crashed Ronaldo and Portugal’s dreams 2:1. As always, Ronaldo and Messi had remained inseparable, even in grief.
The two now reach Qatar in varying circumstances. There are certain similarities. Neither is the force he once was for his club. They are a little slower, a little less explosive. People go not to see them but to have seen them. Messi is no longer the headline act at his club Paris Saint-Germain. And Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United, hailed as the “Second Coming” last year, is fast unravelling. It must be a bitter pill to swallow. To watch the game you once dominated moving on without you. And of the two, Ronaldo has had it especially hard. He’s gone from being the first name on the United teamsheet to being told he is surplus. And he hasn’t expectedly taken it well. After spending much of this season warming the benches, he refused to come on as a substitute in last month’s match against Tottenham Hotspur and disappeared into the dressing room with the game still in progress. He has now burnt every possibility of rapprochement by declaring in an interview that he feels betrayed by the club’s owners and management.
Portugal players know that even a diminished Ronaldo remains their best chance at winning the tournament. Argentina remains equally beholden to its superstar
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Both Messi and Ronaldo are still terrific players. Ronaldo, in fact, scored 18 goals in 30 games in the Premier League last season. What has changed, however, is the game. Modern football at its highest levels has evolved into an extremely high-intensity sport played at a blistering pace. Players have to constantly press their opponents, cover greater distances at higher clips than was ever required before. Despite his incredible fitness, just a few months shy of 38, Ronaldo cannot be that player any more.
That we are nearing the end of the Messi-Ronaldo era became evident last month when the Ballon d’Or was handed to Karim Benzema. One of Messi and Ronaldo has been winning this award since 2008 (the only exception being Modrić in 2018). But in this edition, neither was anywhere close. Ronaldo finished 10th. Messi, last year’s winner, didn’t even make the shortlist.
Football had exit routes for its superstars before. There would have been circuits or teams where the adoration remained as high but the demands less exhausting and the scrutiny less glaring. But this is a different era, and Ronaldo and Messi are stars who have grown too big to fall. And so their decline, most prominently in Ronaldo’s case, now plays out in full view.
There may be a temptation to disregard their prowess at this World Cup and to relegate their rivalry to a mere sideshow. But that would be foolhardy. The two will be highly motivated to prove their detractors wrong. Manchester United may not be willing to remake itself around Ronaldo. But Portugal awaits its prodigal son’s return. He is still their most reliable scorer, and his teammates know that even a diminished Ronaldo remains their best chance at winning the tournament.
Argentina remains equally beholden to its superstar. This team, however, is arguably superior to many of the last few teams at the World Cup. It has now gone nearly three years and 35 consecutive games without being beaten (winning 24 and drawing 11). If they remain unbeaten through the group stage of the World Cup, Argentina would have broken Italy’s record for the longest streak without losing a match (37 games between 2018 and 2021). There is even talk that this team is no longer, as the hashtag goes, “Messidependiente”. Only last year, Messi scripted one of his greatest achievements. It didn’t come courtesy his forgettable last season at Barcelona or his indifferent start in Paris. It came for the first time in an Argentina shirt. For one dreamy month in empty Brazilian stadiums, Messi led Argentina through the Copa, scoring a tournament-high of four goals, and then beating Brazil in the final at the Maracanã, the same venue where he had suffered the 2014 World Cup final defeat.
For nearly two decades, the Argentina shirt had seemed like a heavy burden on Messi. He had retired from the national team twice, but returned for one more fling. Now, however, at a time when his form elsewhere is deserting him, the Argentina blue-and-white seems to have liberated him. He sank to his knees when the final whistle was called at the Copa final, a victory that seemed as much a sporting glory as a personal exorcism. When Argentina played Italy for the “Finalissima” at Wembley earlier this year, Messi put in another dominant performance, helping his team win 3:0.
And so here come the two for one final time. Messi and Ronaldo, two dying stars still giving off enough light and heat to blank out the others, one hurting and the other triumphant, taking a stab at crafting their legacies, even as time begins to shrink around them.