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2018 FIFA World Cup: It’s now or never for Messi and Ronaldo

By the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Cristiano Ronaldo will be 37, and Lionel Messi, 34

Cristiano Ronaldo (right) has scored three times in three world cups for Portugal for and Argentina’s Lionel Messi five times in three world cups. Photo: AFP
Cristiano Ronaldo (right) has scored three times in three world cups for Portugal for and Argentina’s Lionel Messi five times in three world cups. Photo: AFP

For as long as one can remember, debates that involve the words “Messi" and “Ronaldo" have centred around who among the two is the GOAT (greatest of all time). Or, who will eventually win more Ballon d’Ors or score more goals.

But the forthcoming World Cup in Russia throws up a debate that might be reaching its endgame: Will this be the last shot Cristiano Ronaldo, 33, and Lionel Messi, 30, have at lifting the World Cup?

Let’s rewind to the eighth minute of the 2016 European Championship final when it all started to unravel for Ronaldo. His dream of winning a first major international trophy with Portugal was left in tatters after Dimitri Payet clattered him with a fair tackle.

The Frenchman won the ball but caught Ronaldo on his left knee. The Portuguese star, infamous for his on-field theatrics, fell flat with a grimace.

He hobbled off the pitch for treatment. Despite attempts to walk it off, Ronaldo knew the night was over for him. He threw the captain’s armband on the grass and left the field in tears.

He would still end up winning the trophy that night. But it was clear how much he wanted to win an international title for his country.

Something similar happened with Messi four years ago in Brazil. Mario Götze decided that it was going to be Die Mannschaft’s night in Rio. He chested a hopeful cross from André Schürrle and finished expertly beyond the onrushing Sergio Romero—Germany had won their fourth World Cup in extra time.

Messi—and Argentina—left the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro distraught. They’d have to wait another four years to try and win only their third World Cup after 1978 and 1986.

Sure, Messi has had success with Argentina in the Olympics (a gold medal in Beijing 2008), but a major international honour remains elusive. Back at the club level, the picture is completely different.

Club greats

Ronaldo and Messi have been peerless in club football. Between them, they have amassed more than 1,000 goals for their respective Spanish clubs (Ronaldo has scored 450 goals for Real Madrid, and Messi, 552 for Barcelona). That number is bound to increase in the coming years.

Compare that to the goals they have scored in the World Cup finals and you can see why the two have been under constant pressure to deliver on the international stage. Ronaldo has scored three times in three World Cups, while Messi has a grand total of five goals in three World Cups.

“Some pundits wonder if he (Messi) feels the pressure rather more in national colours...but these explanations, it seems to me, miss the point. For Argentina, the problem is simple: he does not have Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández alongside him," sports journalist Matthew Syed writes in his book The Greatest: The Quest for Sporting Perfection (2017). Even these two midfield greats have now left FC Barcelona.

There have been times when this pressure got to the diminutive Argentinian. After finishing second best to Chile in the 2016 Copa América final, Messi announced his retirement from international duty. He reversed his decision after a tense few weeks that saw everyone from the Argentinian president to the mayor of Buenos Aires requesting the player to reconsider.

Ronaldo, many feel, faces the same dilemma. At Madrid, in recent years, he has had the likes of Toni Kroos, Xabi Alonso and Luka Modrić play alongside him. He has had quality to rely on. There’s no doubting the abilities of a Bernardo Silva or a João Moutinho in the Portugal ranks, but it’s not the same.

When he dons the Portugal jersey, there’s nothing more important for Ronaldo than the team. He plays for the team, but the expectations are always on his shoulders. It is hard to imagine any other player standing next to Fernando Santos, their current coach, and gesticulating wildly at the players from the sidelines—a sight witnessed during the 2016 European Championships final.

Vitruvian Man

There’s also the age factor. Even the harshest critics would find it difficult to spot chinks in their fitness levels right now—when in full flight, both Ronaldo and Messi are mesmeric. But four years is a long time in sports. By the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Ronaldo will be 37, and Messi, 34.

“It is about his supreme balance and athleticism. You could almost say that in footballing terms, Ronaldo is complete. Everything is in perfect proportion. He is football’s Vitruvian Man," Syed writes in The Greatest.

However, it seems nigh impossible to imagine Ronaldo galloping down the flanks, doing step overs, or Messi beating three defenders and then rounding the goalkeeper to score into an empty net, in 2022.

“In many ways, this is the last roll of the dice for both players. They will be in their mid-30s by the next World Cup, and their commercial pull will be on the wane by the time Qatar comes around," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School, University of Salford, UK, over email.

“Commercially, I don’t think either player has underachieved or will ever be forgotten, although Messi has been rather less bullish than Ronaldo in pursuing financial gain via his marketing activities. For me, the bigger legacy of failure will be the omnipresent doubt about both of them, that they never won a World Cup. This would constantly cast doubt on their abilities and legacies, especially given that the likes of Pele and (Zinedine) Zidane did (win World Cups)," Chadwick adds.

Brazil, Belgium, France, Spain and England are all on the cusp of starting a golden generation again. There is no dearth of star players—Brazil’s Neymar, England’s Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane, France’s Paul Pogba, Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne and Egypt’s Mohamed Salah—who will be wanting to leave their mark in Russia.

Perhaps Messi and Ronaldo could look at another list of players for inspiration. Bobby Charlton, Zidane, Kaká, Ronaldinho, Paolo Rossi, Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer and Rivaldo: these eight names form an elite club of players who have won the World Cup, the Champions League and a Ballon d’Or.

If one more name is to be added to this remarkable list, then Ronaldo and Messi need to seize their chance in Russia

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