I can’t think of any question I have been asked more often than “Ronaldo or Messi, who is the greatest of all time?”
As the two star players of their generation prepare to face each other for the first time since May 2018, the answer is as simple as it is impossible; they both are the best.
Messi the best player ever and Ronaldo the best striker ever. That is what I think anyway.
In the process of trying to come one way or another to an irrelevant and fundamentally flawed conclusion, everyone seems to make the same basic error. People seek to compare two geniuses who changed the way football is appreciated around the world by highlighting their differences.
The superficial vision of them ignores the reality that they have as much in common as separates them. So, as their clubs Barcelona and Juventus meet in the Champions League on Tuesday, let’s explore what unites these two footballing greats.
…come from similar backgrounds
Ronaldo and Messi come from humble origins. Cristiano is the youngest of four children raised in Madeira by the cash-strapped Jose Dinis Aveiro – a gardener by trade – and his wife Maria Dolores, a cook.
Leo is the third of four children born to Jorge Messi, a steel factory manager, and his wife Celia Cuccittini, who worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop.
From the moment both youngsters could walk, they were obsessed with playing football. Both would risk everything in their quest to become great footballers, not because they were particularly brave or foolhardy – or both – but simply because neither had a “Plan B”. In their minds, there was no other choice. And no doubts either. Doubts kill dreams.
Ronaldo’s journey into the unknown began when, as a 12-year-old, he left Madeira for the first time, cardboard name tag around his neck, en route to Lisbon where he would play for Sporting and endure months of loneliness as team-mates made fun of his “hicktown” Madeiran accent.
The 12-year-old Messi wept as the plane flew out of his beloved Argentina for Spain. Unlike Ronaldo he was accompanied by his family – at least for the time being. In the end his overwhelming, uncompromising desire and unfaltering ambition would end up tearing his family apart.
…were destined for greatness from the time they made their debut
Ronaldo made his first-team debut with Sporting on 7 October 2002, aged 17 years, eight months and two days. Messi first appeared in Barcelona’s senior team at 16 years, four months and 23 days, coming on in the 75th minute during a friendly against Jose Mourinho’s Porto on 16 November 2003.
From the moment they made those first appearances both were considered certainties to become major players on the world stage.
“There have been a few players described as ‘the new George Best’ over the years, but this is the first time it’s been a compliment to me,” said Best of Ronaldo in 2003, while the assistant manager at Barcelona Henk ten Cate said of Messi on his debut: “It seemed as if he had been playing with us all his life.”
After seeing Messi train for the first time, Ronaldinho – one of the world’s most admired players at the time – said: “He will be soon be the best player in the world.”
…have been vital for the success of their sides
Messi’s almost serial ability to grab victory from the jaws of defeat has led to a new word in football’s international language – “Messidependencia”.
The Argentine has won Spain’s Pichichi Trophy for being the league’s highest goalscorer for the past three years and seven times in the past 11 seasons. For three out of the other four years, it has gone to Ronaldo.
Ronaldo’s importance was demonstrated when his stellar performance in the 2017 Champions League final against Juventus earned him the fourth of the five Champions League titles he would win.
During one of his many spats with Real Madrid – always inevitably caused by his perception that he was not respected as much as Messi was at Barcelona – he told club president Florentino Perez: “If it’s a question of money, I’ll come back with 100m euros.”
“If you want to go, bring me the money to sign Messi,” Perez retorted.
Real Madrid have been knocked out in the last 16 of the Champions League since Ronaldo left in 2018.
…have a passionate loathing of defeat
Both men express the pain of defeat in different ways – ways that reflect their DNA. Ronaldo brash, loud, bellicose and confrontational. Messi reserved, introverted and often uncommunicative, sometimes for days afterwards.
While the expression of their angst may be poles apart, the intensity of the sentiments they are feeling at that precise moment is identical.
As kids, neither were they always totally enamoured with winning if they did not consider themselves to have been a fundamental reason for that victory.
Win, lose or draw, in his early days Messi would cry inconsolably if he failed to score in a game, while Ronaldo’s tears after a penalty shootout for Manchester United against Chelsea were not, as many suspected, tears of joy at winning the Champions League but perhaps a manifestation of the humiliation he felt at being the only United player to have missed his spot-kick in the sudden death shootout.
…have reinvented themselves
Both have reinvented themselves as they have grown older. Ronaldo, beset with knee problems and conscious of the fact he no longer possessed the lightning pace to strike terror into defenders, converted himself from blisteringly fast winger to the deadliest striker the game has ever seen.
Messi started as a winger, before becoming a forward, false or not, and then the best number 10 the world has ever seen – and, yes, in my opinion that includes Pele and Diego Maradona.
Seemingly not content with just scoring for fun, he has now begun to occupy a place further back in the midfield so, when not scoring more goals than anyone else in La Liga, he also dedicates himself to creating more goals than any other player over the course of a season. The complete forward.
…have needed each other to build on their success
Would Messi and Ronaldo have been as successful if they had not had each to compete against? Probably not.
Niki Lauda, when talking about his rivalry with James Hunt, once said that “having an enemy is a blessing”.
On 27 January 2013, Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against Getafe only for Messi to hit four against Osasuna a few hours later. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Writer and physical coach Pedro Gomez told me when I was researching my biography of Messi that in his opinion “the level they demand from themselves varies and increases as the enemy’s achievements increase.
“Thinking small makes us grow only a little. If the level we demand from ourselves is not stimulated daily, we stop evolving. If one of them didn’t exist, the other would be satisfied with being top scorer with 25 goals.”
In effect, back then in Spain, and now on the European stage, each makes the other better.