Ronaldo rises as Messi flops
It used to be too tough to pick between them. It isn’t any longer
● As Portugal take on Iran tomorrow, the debate over who is the greater between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi has never been more intense after the performances of the two greats.
Ronaldo is selfish, arrogant, attention hungry and in love with himself. Messi is selfless, humble, team-driven and genuine. That is how the narrative surrounding the undisputed pair of individual kings in modern soccer goes, the perfect plotline with a down-to-earth hero and a bombastic villain.
Yet if what we think we know about this pair of present-day football superheroes is true, how is it that it’s Ronaldo who is currently capable of carrying a mediocre team while Messi is floundering amid a collection of standouts?
A decade-long fight
Argentina’s defeat to Croatia on Thursday pushed the South American side to the precipice of unthinkable early elimination in what might be Messi’s final World Cup.
And finally, after years of dueling, it provided the separation needed to give one of them a decisive edge over the other in the biggest debate in 21st century football.
It is Ronaldo. His efforts at this World Cup, combined with Messi’s uncharacteristic struggles, have added a crucial element to the discussion surrounding which man deserves to go down as the greatest of his era.
The fight has been played out since 2008, when Ronaldo won his first Ballon d’Or, given to the world’s best player. In the years since, he and Messi have lifted it five times each, and no one else has gotten a sniff.
With Ronaldo at Manchester United and then Real Madrid, and Messi’s career-long allegiance being tied to Barcelona, there was an incessant trickle of silverware finding its way into both of their trophy cabinets.
Ronaldo has won five league titles (three in the English Premier League and two in La Liga) plus five Champions League titles. Messi has won La Liga nine times and the Champions League on four occasions.
They both score, create and cultivate insanely high scoring tallies. They both have the dexterity to make an opponent look foolish. They are highlight reels waiting to happen, albeit in different ways, with Ronaldo’s speed, force and easy power, and Messi’s impossible balance and fleet-footed trickery.
It used to be too tough to pick between them. It isn’t any longer.
International football is a snapshot these days, with most of a player’s activity being in club colours. But the global game is a thoroughly appropriate tiebreaker, and Ronaldo is moving ahead in that regard.
Messi has never lacked for talented support with Argentina but he has never won a trophy with his homeland. No Copa Americas and no World Cups. Four years ago he had to collect the trophy as the tournament’s best player after the final, then watch as Germany collected its winners medals. He has come close, but coming close isn’t the yardstick by which the eternal greats are measured.
Ronaldo won the European Championship in 2016 with an underwhelming Portugal team. He came off in the final with an injury, but it is what he is conjuring at this tournament that will set him apart.
The group he is with is not one of the best. Portugal would be middle of the road (at best) if he was removed from the lineup. However, he turns that impediment into a destructive force, driving his nation to a 3-3 tie with Spain in the first game thanks to an incredible hat-trick, then added another in a 1-0 win over Morocco.
When the time comes he accepts the burden of taking on the kind of responsibility that would be too much for a normal player or a typical character. Some kind of similarity to LeBron James in the NBA playoffs can be drawn here, as Ronaldo time and again thrusts himself into the middle of the story and makes things happen.
Frustrated and sulky
This World Cup may not end in an overall triumph for Ronaldo as there are probably too many strong rivals for that, but he is giving himself the best possible chance.
Messi is not. He is frustrated and therefore sulky, and at times he has looked like he doesn’t want to be here. He is waiting for the game to unfurl as usual, instead of grabbing it by the collar and demanding that it bends to his will.
He gets dejected when things don’t go his way, with those shoulders slumping after a missed penalty against Iceland and much more so when the second Croatia goal went in on Thursday.
There have been times before when Messi has outperformed Ronaldo at the World Cup, so many will suggest this is unfair. Portugal was knocked out in the group stage in 2014 and in the round of 16 four years prior to that, while Messi came within a whisker of winning it all last time.
But he didn’t. And he may now never.
At 30 it remains to be seen whether Messi will be back. There are plenty of incentives to do so. Argentina hasn’t had a winner since 1986 and is waiting for a return to glory — not particularly patiently, it should be noted. But Ronaldo, at 33, knows this is definitely his last realistic shot, both to send his country into rapture and to answer football’s burning question of who is personally better.
Ronaldo is on his way to completing at least one of those tasks. — usatoday.com
Ronaldo is capable of carrying a mediocre team while Messi is floundering amid a collection of standouts
Cristiano Ronaldo is the joint leading scorer in the World Cup with Belgian Romelu Lukaku.