A tournament of the magnitude and prestige of the football World Cup deserves the greatest players. Not all of the greatest players deserve to win it. There is perhaps an exception.
One of the biggest debates of this generation has maybe been put to bed on the back of the most recent World Cup. The greatest of all time (GOAT). Two have gone head-to-head, in at times arguably the fiercest rivalry in the sport at the highest level.
Being almost ‘head and shoulders’ above others who have competed with them, accolades, individual and collective, having set both apart from the rest.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have graced the sport on an elite plane, with very little setting each apart. Until now. The latter’s World Cup exploits, which saw him almost carry Argentina on his shoulders for the duration, concluding in a mesmeric climax, earned him the one trophy that has long eluded him.
Debate Settled Or Not Quite?
As far as the debate goes between Ronaldo and Messi, the general consensus is that his World Cup win has nudged him past the Portugal international, despite the former having won league titles and domestic cup competitions in more countries.
It can also be argued that on paper, at least, Portugal had a better team than Argentina at this latest edition of the World Cup, which gave Ronaldo a fighting chance, though the team spirit throughout the South American side was evident, Messi being a spearhead, despite an opening game, shock defeat against minnows Saudi Arabia.
Not only did Messi win the World Cup – he also claimed the ‘Golden Ball’ – the ‘FIFA Player of the Tournament’ award; Ronaldo likely being nowhere near winning this due to his bit-part status for Portugal in Qatar.
What is likely to make this indisputable is if Messi goes on to win the Champions League with his current club, PSG. At 35, the jury is out on whether he will be included in Argentina’s next World Cup squad – it is almost inevitable that Ronaldo, at 37, is not picked for Portugal.
At three out of four clubs that Ronaldo has been at, he has won the Champions League with two. Once with Manchester United and on four occasions with Real Madrid, as well as a handful of cup competitions and league titles with each, while at Juventus, he won two league titles and two domestic cup tournaments. As well as this, internationally, he won the European Championship, despite coming off injured in the final.
Messi, on the other hand, has spent the majority of his career at Barcelona, where he won everything there is to win in club football. Four Champions League winners medals, 10 La Liga’s and seven Copa del Rey’s, added (like Ronaldo) to other minor tournaments such as the European Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. His Copa America win with Argentina in 2021 put him well on the road to competing with Ronaldo. At his first attempt, he won the Ligue 1 title with PSG and could well add to this during 2023 if PSG retains it and secure a Champions League victory.
In terms of goals currently, not counting those he has already scored in Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo has recorded 819 goals in 1144 appearances for both club and all levels for his country, while Messi has 612 goals in 786 matches at every level for both club and country.
Don’t Forget Pele And Maradona
Without question, the last greatest debate before Messi and Ronaldo was that between Diego Maradona and the recently passed Pele (Edson Arantes do Nascimento) some four decades earlier, admittedly, the latter admittedly being a number of years older.
The latter won three World Cups with Brazil (1958, 1962 and 1970), with Maradona following in 1986 for Argentina. What seems to be the biggest difference between the two is that Pele didn’t play club football in Europe, compared to Maradona.
Both at Barcelona and Napoli, he won honours, the latter being where he won the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League), which at the time was considered to be just as elite as the European Cup (now the Champions League).
It still calls into question who is the greatest of all time. There are a number of nuances that might not make this debate as straightforward as it may seem. Both Ronaldo and Messi throughout their careers have played at big clubs with big budgets, surrounded by prodigious talents.
When Maradona played for Napoli, however, he almost single-handedly carried the team on his shoulders, steering them to five honours over four years. Even in the clubs that Pele played for (Santos and New York Cosmos), he was considered the shining light – he and his teammates were considered to be almost poles apart.
Pele scored a world-record number of goals during his career. From conflicting sources, these numbers differ. Indeed, Brazil’s Football Association (CBF) has this at 1283 goals in 1367 matches, while FIFA records this figure at 1281 goals in 1366 appearances. Maradona, meanwhile, scored 259 goals in 491 appearances, albeit arguably playing in more challenging competitions where the level of quality was higher.
How Do The Statistics Compare?
|Lionel Messi||612||786||10 La Liga, 7 Copa del Rey, 4 Champions League, 1 Copa America, 1 World Cup|
|Cristiano Ronaldo||819||1144||3 EPL, 2 La Liga, 2 Serie A, 2 Copa del Rey, 2 Coppa Italia, 5 Champions League, 1 European Championship|
|Diego Maradona||259||491||1 Argentina League, 2 Italian League, 1 Italian Cup, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 UEFA Cup, 1 World Cup|
|Pele||1281||1366||6 Brazlian League, 2 Copa Libertadores, 2 Intercontinental Cup, 1 NASL Soccer Bowl, 3 World Cup|
Above you will find an illustration of the stats broken down for each player, which should give you an idea of, perhaps who the most effective player has been throughout their career so that you can come to your own conclusion!
The above table paints a concise picture of the most important statistics for each of the four players. Arguments can be made for each one, due to them each having unique individual achievements, especially when taking into account certain variables; Maradona for example being the only star player in each team he played for, Pele scoring a record number of goals and winning three World Cups, Ronaldo for the sheer number of major trophies won (no World Cup though) and of course, Messi for his almost god-given talent, a very impressive number of goals and every major trophy won, now including the World Cup.
If he can win the Champions League again, perhaps that settles the debate.