Messi Lifts the World Cup and Ends the Ronaldo Debate

DOHA, Qatar – As Lionel Messi prepared for the biggest night of his career, the man who spent more than a decade as his biggest rival in Spain, trained on a separate pitch at Real Madrid. He was wearing equipment he had borrowed from the club.

Cristiano Ronaldo had left the World Cup in Qatar more than a week before Messi, after Portugal’s stunning quarter-final defeat to Morocco. Ronaldo’s last photo of the tournament captured him walking down the tunnel in tears, bitterly mourning his last chance to win the prize that had eluded him.

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But what happened next was far more confusing. In the short time between Ronaldo’s passing and the end of the World Cup, soccer’s never-ending discussion of all-time greatness has shifted from under his feet. The great debate in sports is over – Messi or Ronaldo, Ronaldo or Messi. In the final accounting, Messi will be the world champion forever. Ronaldo no.

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“It’s crazy that it happened like this,” Messi said on Sunday after lifting the trophy in his fifth and final attempt to win the World Cup. “I wanted it so much.”

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For a long time – since before the invention of Instagram, the iPad or Bitcoin – the great Messi vs Ronaldo debate has been a matter of perspective, and it speaks volumes about your worldview. Are you interested in art or awards? Heavenly genius or grinding work ethic? Goals or a little more goals?

Lionel Messi of Argentina touches the World Cup while also holding the Ballon d’Or award.


friedemann vogel / Shutterstock

What made it even more compelling and immediate was that the rivalry played out in real time. They set ridiculous standards and live up to them season after season. When Ronaldo scored 40 league goals for Real Madrid in 2010-11 to Messi’s 31 for Barcelona, ​​for example, Messi responded by beating his 50 goals the following year over Ronaldo’s 46. The Ballon d’Or, soccer’s annual award for the best player in the world, has been a contest between two men for ten years.

“It’s almost become Pavlovian,” says Pascal Ferret, editor of France Football, who oversees the award. “When it came time to vote, people saw it was time to vote for one or the other.”

The fight made Messi and Ronaldo like a pair of marathon runners, kicking and tackles for 26 miles. But when the finish line appeared and Messi made a final push, Ronaldo stumbled. Although the two men had never been on the same court in Qatar, most likely a World Cup final, it would have been impossible to watch their progress through the tournament without balancing each other out.

The Argentine soccer team, led by superstar Lionel Messi, made a triumphant bus ride through Doha, Qatar, after defeating France in the World Cup in Russia on Sunday. Argentines back home thronged the streets of Buenos Aires to celebrate the victory. Photo: Frank Hormann/Sven Simon/Zuma Press

Messi, 35, scored twice in the most dramatic World Cup final ever seen, ending Argentina’s 36-year wait for the trophy. Ronaldo exploded in amazing fashion. Over the most turbulent weeks of his 20 years as a professional, Ronaldo burned bridges with Manchester United, parted ways with the club that made him a star, saw himself relegated to the bench in Portugal and did little to prevent defeat by Morocco.

Ronaldo hopes to get back on track once the club’s season resumes. But before he can do that, he first has to find a club that wants him. Needless to say, this isn’t the venerable final chapter he’d hoped for.

However, when the dust has settled and the past few weeks have faded a bit, Ronaldo can still be remembered as the greatest goalscorer of all time. The problem for him is that the controversy has shifted soccer’s standards for GOAT’s prestige to such a remarkable degree that Ronaldo himself might simply consider being the game’s most lethal striker a downgrade.

This does not mean that the comparisons are over. Sports fans don’t just do that agree on something.

Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo’s reaction came after losing the quarter-finals to Morocco.


Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond the Ronaldo question, Messi’s place in the pantheon of all-time greats is a debate that will follow long after his retirement. He may have won the World Cup, but a guy named Pele hit three goals in 12 years. And some of Messi’s compatriots still don’t see him as even the greatest Argentine – at least not those who remember the outrageously talented and tragically flawed Diego Maradona. He had a World Cup to his name, too.

Then there is the issue of succession. Messi just so happens to have a front-row seat to the rise of the player who already fancies himself as the successor, fellow Paris Saint-Germain player Kylian Mbappe. By turning 24 on Tuesday, Mbappe has already become a world champion and on Sunday became the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

Not that any of it is specifically about Messi in Qatar. He was on his own mission here.

“I knew God would give it to me,” Messi said Sunday night. “I had a premonition it would be like this. Now to enjoy it.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

Lionel Messi scored a goal in extra time during the World Cup Final.


Julian Finney / Getty Images

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