How the 2022 World Cup has summed up the Lionel Messi – Cristiano Ronaldo debate.


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First of all, let me be the first to say it’s hard to base all of your footballing opinions based on one tournament. It’s even harder for it to be nuanced in a debate about whether one player is the greatest of all time over the other.

But this isn’t about proving a final point. This is the metaphor of the long and intertwined rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

What is likely their last World Cup was ironically the first time they went into one together having both won international titles, with Messi at last leading Argentina to the Copa America title in 2021

However, they are at different points in their career. Messi has been resurgent after a lowlight 2021/22 season, while Ronaldo became a free agent about a week after the tournament kicked off because of his petulant outbursts to Piers Morgan.

Where Messi has managed to prove people wrong that he can’t exist outside Barcelona, his Portuguese nemesis has definitively shown that he negatively impacts the teams he’s on. Even the Manchester United fans who spent the whole of last season saying ‘he’s the only one scoring so it can’t be his fault’ turned on him by August.

Messi has managed to embrace his nationality and claw himself back from the brink in his home country. He is now revered and worshipped in a similar vein to Diego Maradona, with fans bowing en masse in his presence.

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Perhaps the most important comparison to Maradona in an Argentina shirt is that La Albiceleste now no longer rely on him to have the ball all the time. Lionel Scaloni has built a side where Messi is the best player, but his strengths are now punctuated to the point that it harms the team.

That brings us back Ronaldo. He needs to be fed possession, preferably within 12 yards of goal. He needs to be the focal point. He needs to be the centre of attention.

Portugal were uninspiring in their group stage encounters, and when Ronaldo was dropped to the bench in the last 16 for his childish reaction to being substituted, the Selecao at long last looked like an elite footballing nation.

Their momentum quickly ran out against Morocco, but that set the stage for Ronaldo’s redemption, for his ‘inevitability’ to kick into gear one last time. He failed to deliver the goods and Portugal were eliminated. Argentina will face Croatia in the semi-finals next week.

Ronaldo’s late-career story has been about winning at all costs, always finding a goal rather than anything else. When the goals dried up, you’re left with nothing but a divisive figure. Messi has continued to unite his sides, a positive player even if he isn’t the one putting the ball in the net. But we’ve all known this for a long time, haven’t we?

Messi is still going strong, he’s on the verge of complete and unquestionable immortality in Argentina, a chance to undoubtedly usurp Maradona in all-time rankings. Ronaldo’s trajectory isn’t just in decline, but in reverse and doing damage to his own legacy. That’s been the story of the 2022 World Cup, the story of the latter stages of their careers.

This article was originally published on as How the 2022 World Cup has summed up the Lionel Messi – Cristiano Ronaldo debate.

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This story was originally published December 10, 2022

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