For the past decade, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have had parallel storylines for their clubs. Both have won Champions Leagues, Ballon d’Ors, and La Liga titles, and both have been convicted for tax fraud. The media and fans alike constantly pose the question: who is the better player? At this World Cup, the storyline has been the same; when Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against Spain in Portugal’s opening game, everyone from ESPN to TalkSport to the casual fan got caught up in the debate. Yes, Ronaldo may have gone down too easily in the 4th minute, and yes, he may have had the benefit of a terrible David de Gea error, but his hat-trick was no joke. Not in a major tournament when each goal, and each point, is as precious as can be.
When the following day Lionel Messi was held scoreless by Iceland, a team of considerably lower quality than Spain, the arguments got even more intense. To compound his misery, Messi also missed a penalty that would have given Argentina the lead that on paper they deserved. The diminutive superstar had ten shots, three of which were on target, and he completed nine dribbles. Yet despite his statistical achievements, he demonstrated remarkable profligacy throughout the day. Many times it seemed that he would look for unrealistic shots instead of finding one of his teammates. It would appear that the Argentine, who has been notably underspoken about the perceived rivalry between himself and his Portuguese counterpart, was trying to prove a point himself. However, this attempted heroism did more harm than good on the day. This do-it-myself mentality is something that Ronaldo is notorious for having, yet Ronaldo only needed four shots to score his hat-trick yesterday. He looked relatively unimpressive in possession, instead capitalizing on a loose ball and set pieces for his goals. Messi had almost 100 passes himself, many of them probing, whereas Ronaldo was more content to play safer passes.
This is not to take anything away from Hannes Halldorsson, the Icelandic keeper. Against Portugal in the 2016 Euros, Halldorsson saw Ronaldo shoot 11 times in a game that would also finish as a 1-1 draw. He converted zero. This means that the two greatest players in the world have a thrown 21 shots towards the Iceland goal, and Halldorsson let zero past. With Croatia’s dominant win over Nigeria, Messi and Argentina need to take at least 4 points from their next two games in order to assure themselves safe passage to the knockout rounds.
It is interesting to note the different attitudes with which Ronaldo and Messi approach the international game. Messi clearly cares a lot about his country – after all, he is the heir apparent to a national legend in Maradona – but he has yet to win a major international tournament. Ronaldo has no such legacy to uphold, but does have the 2016 Euro win in his bag (despite the fact that he played 25 minutes in the final before succumbing to injury). Ronaldo has scored 84 goals for Portugal, while Messi has scored 64 for the Albiceleste. Messi even briefly retired from the international game as a result of the incredible pressure he faced at the hands of his compatriots. Ronaldo is a Portuguese icon, win or lose; Messi, along with other high-profile Argentines, is always either hero or scapegoat. At the end of the day, Lionel Messi is a more complete player than Cristiano Ronaldo on a holistic level. Both players have their merits, but this point should not be a debate. However, for Messi fans to admit that Ronaldo has performed better on the international stage over the course of his career should not be a bad thing; indeed, it might just help ease some of the burden from La Pulga’s shoulders.