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Messi and Ronaldo: let’s settle this

Trying to find the least unsatisfactory answer to the most boring question in football

By Daniel Petersen

Credit: Fanny Schertzer

What came first, the chicken or the egg? If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Do mirrors have a colour? There are lots of questions like this in life. Questions that seem to be quite fun, where one can have a fun discussion, safe in the knowledge that there is no correct answer.

The egg came first, the tree does make a sound, and mirrors are very slightly green. Sorted.

Football’s version of this question, of course, is Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo: who is the greatest of all time? With these two icons of the game having been winding down over the last few seasons, and arguably surpassed as the best players in the world by the likes of Karim Benzema and Mohamed Salah, not to mention that this year’s World Cup is likely to be the last in which they both participate, it seems like an opportune moment to try to answer this question.

Let’s get one thing straight off the bat: Messi is the better player. To put it bluntly, there is no relevant performance metric in which Ronaldo outperforms the little Argentine across their respective league careers. Seriously, you name it. Non-penalty goals per 90? 0.85 for Messi, 0.7 for Ronaldo. Assists per 90? 0.42 to 0.24. Dribble success rate? 64.9% to 59.8%. These are all stats that we’d reasonably expect both players to perform well in, given that they’ve both been wingers at points in their careers. The picture looks even more disparate if we look at the more playmakery stats, such as passes into the penalty area (4.14 per 90 to 1.05) or key passes (2.61 per 90 to 1.28). Messi also has better defensive stats, but Ronaldo gets a pass on that as he’s never played in an organised pressing team.

Messi even has a superior aerial duel win rate (seriously!): 50% to 49.9%. That last one probably sounds like splitting hairs, and to be fair it is, but bear in mind that Ronaldo is 7 inches taller than Messi. This doesn’t really prove anything, but it shows how stats can challenge your assumptions about certain things. The assumption being challenged here is that Ronaldo and Messi were always at broadly the same level but Ronaldo was much more of a goalscorer while Messi was more of a playmaker. As we can see, that’s not really true.

If this all looks like I’m taking a big dump on Ronaldo, that’s not my intention - far from it, in fact; all the numbers that matter to him are world-class, as you’d expect. It’s just that Messi is a better player and there’s no way of looking at the numbers and saying otherwise. So that should answer the question, right? Messi is the GOAT.

Well, no. Being the greatest and being the best are two different things. To be great means something more, something that the numbers don’t always fully capture and to be honest, Ronaldo has a better shout for this than Messi does. The Portuguese is the all-time top goalscorer in men’s senior football, the all-time top scorer in international men’s football, the all-time top scorer in men’s European competition, the all-time top goalscorer in the Champions League, and the only player to score 60 or more goals in consecutive calendar years. The variety of records is interesting, too: Ronaldo is the first Manchester United player ever to win all four of the Professional Footballer’s Association and Football Writer’s Association Awards, Real Madrid’s all-time record goalscorer, and has scored the most Serie A goals in a calendar year (alongside Juventus’ new No.7, Dusan Vlahovic).

International football serves as an interesting field for this argument. Ronaldo is undoubtedly Portugal’s greatest ever player: their all-time top goalscorer, all-time most-capped player, youngest player ever to reach 100 caps, and oldest player ever to score at a major tournament. But if you asked an Argentinian who their greatest ever player is, a fair few would still say Diego Maradona over Messi, and not without justification. Maradona did, after all, win the World Cup, which neither of our modern-day greats has managed, to say nothing of his two goals against England or his achievements at Napoli, where he is still worshipped as a god. How can Messi be the greatest of all time if he isn’t even the greatest Argentinian player of all time?

There’s also an aspect of greatness that transcends sports itself. While both Ronaldo and Messi both qualify for this to a large extent (when he was at Barcelona, Messi was responsible for 20 to 30% of the club’s revenue), Ronaldo’s brand is bigger. He is the most followed individual on Instagram and makes more than anyone else per post. His brand is estimated to be worth more than €100 million globally, most of which comes from his social media, from which he earns more money than he does playing professional football. He was the first footballer ever to earn $1 billion over the course of his career, with Messi following swiftly behind. According to some researchers, he is as big a contributor to the Portuguese economy as port.

So where does that leave us? Well, to be completely honest, it’s up to you. The purpose of this article wasn’t so much to come up with a definitive answer as to try and find a middle ground, and to knock down some assumptions along the way. In doing so, I think we’ve satisfied literally nobody, and maybe that’s how it should be: an endless, self-sustaining argument for the modern era.


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