Will this World Cup finally end the Ronaldo vs Messi debate?
DOHA, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup feels like the ‘Last Dance’ for two of soccer’s biggest stars, neither of whom have ever won the sport’s biggest prize. Lionel Messi, 35, told the media in August that it would be his last, while Cristiano Ronaldo, who turns 38 in February, appears determined to press on.
But the two icons have experienced very different tournaments: Messi is one game away from ensuring that Qatar 2022 will forever be known as the World Cup when Argentina face France in the final on Sunday. But for Portugal’s Ronaldo, the man who shared the sport’s biggest stage for more than 10 years, it was one he would like to forget.
Ronaldo left Qatar with a record when he became the first male player to score in five World Cups, but it says everything about the two players’ differing impact that when Messi set the benchmark during Argentina’s semi-final win over Croatia they were treated as little more than a record. side. He equaled Lothar Matthaus’ record (25) for most appearances at the men’s World Cup and passed Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s top scorer in the competition when he scored his 11th goal against Croatia on Tuesday. But the only story of the night was that Messi had given himself the chance to win a trophy. For Ronaldo, his dream had ended three days earlier when Portugal were knocked out by underdogs Morocco in the quarter-finals.
However it ended for Messi, the storylines surrounding the two most recognized players on the planet have been very different since their arrival in the Middle East.
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While Messi sat in on his first press conference at the Qatar Convention Center almost a month ago, speaking of feeling “calm” and praising the Argentinian spirit, the atmosphere was very different in Doha at Portugal’s training center at Al Shahaniya Sports Club.
Ronaldo’s shocking interview with journalist Piers Morgan – which prompted Manchester United to threaten legal action before a “hastily arranged mutual termination” – had aired a week earlier. When Bernardo Silva held Portugal’s first press conference in Qatar, the questions were, understandably , not about the World Cup. The Manchester City midfielder has a reputation for being relatively mild-mannered, but it wasn’t long before he got tired of the barrage of questions about his team-mates.
“The news coming from England has nothing to do with the national team, so I won’t say anything,” he said.
Days later, Ronaldo – who slipped into his morning press conference without advertising to avoid the media circus – asked journalists to stop asking his team-mates about the mess he left in Manchester. It doesn’t help, and there’s always been a sense that Ronaldo is at the mercy of everything Portugal does.
During the group stage, Ronaldo tried to claim a goal that wasn’t his own against Uruguay. (Bruno Fernandes, who was eventually awarded the goal, said post-match that “We are happy with the win regardless of who scores.”) When Ronaldo was substituted early against South Korea, he was caught on television cameras uttering the words of coach Fernando Santos were ” rush to replace me” – something Santos would later say he “didn’t like at all,” before dropping the star to the bench for Portugal’s remaining fixtures.
Santos regularly sits at press conferences shaking his head and rolling his eyes when questions about Ronaldo come up. Ahead of the quarter-final against Morocco, Joao Felix again demanded that questions about the striker stop. Santos went further, saying that it was time for the 37-year-old to be “left alone”.
While Ronaldo was a distraction for Portugal, Messi’s influence on the Argentina squad grew as the World Cup progressed, with No. 10 wants to show a unifying presence. As Portugal fans began to doubt their hero, the Argentinians embraced their hero even more.
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Journalists covering Argentina have become accustomed to media blackouts during recent World Cups, but this time was different. Following a shock 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening game, Messi even stopped in the mixed zone to speak to reporters at a delicate moment. “My message to the fans is to have faith,” he said. “We will not let them be stranded.”
Messi has done more than just talk. In Argentina’s second match against Mexico — a game that lasted just over an hour in which the team kicked the most — Messi was the difference, producing the first moment of real quality with a stunning touch and finish from 25 yards.
His incredible run in the semi-finals, beating Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol twice before skirting the centre-back on the byline to set up Julian Alvarez, will be replayed time and time again. It pays attention that the skills and technique that made him named the world’s best player a record seven times are still there, even at 35 years of age.
Steve Nicol and Stewart Robson doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo’s comments about Portugal winning the World Cup are completely genuine.
The uncomfortable truth for Ronaldo – who still draws thousands of fans to Portugal matches just to watch them – is that he doesn’t come close to Messi’s influence on the pitch in Qatar. He got his goal, the penalty against Ghana, but there wasn’t much to offer. Dropped by Santos ahead of their last 16 tie against Switzerland, his 21-year-old replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win.
Left on the bench again for the quarter-final against Morocco, Ronaldo came on early in the second half, but his one chance to equalize was fired straight at the keeper. It was an opportunity he would have taken more easily during his prime years at Real Madrid, but he’s not that player anymore.
Performance-wise, it’s becoming increasingly clear who lives up to expectations, with Messi managing five goals – tied with Kylian Mbappe for the Golden Shoe award given to the World Cup’s top scorer – and three assists and 1.26 G+A per 90, while Ronaldo is only managed to score one goal and 0.31 G+A per 90 minutes off the bench.
Following Portugal’s exit, there have been suggestions from family members that Ronaldo could continue until the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, when he turns 41. (With Thursday’s news that Santos is stepping down as manager, Ronaldo’s conundrum will be big business for his successor.) Messi, meanwhile, has said that Sunday’s final against France will be his last game in the competition — his 26th appearance. , set a record for the men’s World Cup. . He had the chance to go high, lifting trophies won by two other greats in Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona, and the only prize that eluded him during a career that saw him collect everything.
Ronaldo remains the only other active player with a CV that comes close, although the 2022 World Cup may still be remembered as the defining difference between this generation’s two superstar rivals.
Messi or Ronaldo? The question soccer fans have been asking for more than a decade may soon find a definitive answer.