Trying to answer who is the best player in any sport is more difficult than it seems. Let alone if we’re talking about soccer. Arguably the most popular sport on Earth, there are millions of players out there and picking just one is a tough decision. However, that has not been the case in recent years, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo being the obvious options.
The problem comes when you have to choose between one or the other. While many believe the Portuguese star is the best, others think he is not as good as the Argentine icon. But who is really better, Messi or Ronaldo? Here, we’ll compare the two superstars to try and answer that question.
When someone claims that a certain player in any sport is the world’s best, others will probably disagree or ask him to explain why. The same happens with the Ronaldo vs. Messi debate. To prove why one is better than the other, it’s better to have all the facts. Let’s begin by comparing how they have fared with their respective clubs during their careers.
While Messi spent most of his professional life with Barcelona before moving to Paris, Ronaldo took his talents to different parts of Europe, playing for some of the most prestigious teams in the history of soccer.
Lionel Messi looked set to be a one-club man who would spend his entire professional career in Barcelona, until a shocking turn of events saw him join PSG in the summer of 2021. At Camp Nou, the Argentine megastar made a name for himself and made Barca even greater than it already was, leading them to multiple UEFA Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup, and Spanish Super Cup titles. His departure still hurts him and Barca fans, but the memories are the best.
Having emerged from the ranks of his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, Messi arrived in Spain a 13-year-old kid who signed his first contract in a napkin, and left more than two decades later as the leading goalscorer in the club's history. At the beginning, some people doubted he could succeed due to his height. But time proved that he didn’t need to be tall to become one of the all-time greats.
In addition to his goal scoring record at the Spanish giants, Messi became the foreign player with most games played in a FC Barcelona uniform. On top of that, he also broke two La Liga records: Messi is the all-time leading scorer of the Spanish first division and has provided the most assists in the history of the league.
But things would take a huge twist for Leo when he left what had been his home for a long time. Even though the expectations were through the roof, his first year with Paris Saint-Germain was not even close to how great his time with Barcelona was.
Messi struggled to make an impact at first, especially in Ligue 1 affairs. He didn’t look as comfortable as he did with Barca, where the team roster and style of play was built around him and his ability to create opportunities for his teammates.
In France, Messi found himself with opponents who had studied him a lot to prevent him from making any danger. Not only were they well prepared to shut him down, but they never hesitated to make ugly challenges for him whenever he had the ball. Besides, instead of having the rest of his teammates adapt to his way of playing, Messi had to adjust himself to the system that Mauricio Pochettino had already established at the Parc des Princes the previous year.
Many thought Messi’s addition to a star-studded team would automatically pay off, but that was not exactly the case. On paper, PSG were one of, if not the mightiest team in Europe. But they didn’t perform like one for much of the 2021-22 season. It wasn’t until the final stretch of the year that Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe found the chemistry they had been looking for throughout the tumultuous campaign.
If we consider the expectations that were around his signing, Messi’s first season with PSG didn’t go according to plan. Everyone expected to see the player that took Barcelona to new heights, but instead saw a different — and at times unrecognizable — version of Messi in many games. Moreover, the team left much to be desired on the field and its Champions League hopes ended earlier than predicted.
Even so, the Argentine star eventually found his place in the team and laid a good foundation on which to build next season. It’s been years since he last won the UEFA Champions League, but in Paris they believe that Messi can get back to his true self to finally end that personal drought and also help the club win the elusive trophy for the first time.
On the other hand, Cristiano Ronaldo has donned many uniforms throughout his decorated career. CR7 first made his way to Manchester United as a teenager who had already started to impress Europe with Sporting CP. It didn’t take long for him to prove Sir Alex Ferguson right, winning a spot in the starting eleven shortly after he signed for the prestigious English club.
That was just the beginning of one of the best chapters in his life as a professional soccer player. With the Red Devils, Ronaldo achieved what any Manchester United fan could ask for: Premier League, UEFA Champions League, and FA Cup titles.
His key contribution to those successes, as well as his breathtaking goals, made Ronaldo a fan favorite. But the love has always been mutual and that’s why years later he would return to Old Trafford for a second stint.
But unlike Messi, Ronaldo felt early in his career the need to pursue glory with another continental powerhouse. That’s when, after winning everything with United, Ronaldo packed his bags and finished his first spell with the Red Devils. A bigger challenge was ahead of him, as he signed for another iconic club in world soccer: Real Madrid, where he would continue to write history.
While his presence in La Liga (and particularly in Barcelona’s lifelong rival Real Madrid) fueled the comparisons and soccer rivalry with Messi, Ronaldo didn’t let the outside noise affect his game. Real Madrid has arguably the most demanding fanbase in the world, but the Portuguese lived up to the club’s high standards.
Not only he became the player with most Champions League medals won during his tenure in Madrid, but Ronaldo also left the club as its all-time top scorer with 450 goals in just 438 games. Though he has scored less times in La Liga than Messi, his 311 goals in 292 league appearances gave Ronaldo a better goal ratio than the Barcelona icon.
After many years of unparalleled success at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Portuguese star decided to chase a new challenge in Italy with another European heavyweight: Juventus. While he couldn’t repeat the continental success he had in Madrid or Manchester, Ronaldo helped the club extend its dominance in the Serie A.
Besides, he put the team on his back throughout the three seasons he spent in Turin. Ronaldo continued to produce fantastic numbers with Juventus, recording 101 goals in just 134 appearances. Another important fact about his stint with Juve is that in those seasons, he switched from winger to striker.
But after failing to achieve European success with the Old Lady, Ronaldo decided that at 36 years of age it was the right time to head back home. Therefore, in the same transfer window that saw Messi leave Barcelona in favor of PSG, Ronaldo made a sensational return to Man Utd.
The club was not in the same spot it was when he left, but Ronaldo was one of the few bright spots in the 2021-22 season. Even so, he ended up leaving the club in controversial fashion as he blasted the coaching staff and front office before terminating his contract. Shockingly, Ronaldo signed a massive contract with Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr after the 2022 World Cup.
While it didn’t take long for them to succeed at the club level, the international path has been different for Ronaldo and Messi. Both had to wait to taste continental glory with their respective national teams, but Messi went through much tougher times with Argentina. La Albiceleste fans are known for being demanding, and sometimes impatient. But with Messi, many have been completely unfair.
Despite having already won a reputation as one of the best players in the world, for some time, Messi struggled to perform for Argentina the way he did for Barcelona. On top of that, many people were constantly comparing him to the other soccer legend that was born in the country, Diego Maradona.
It wasn’t easy, but Messi eventually changed the narrative and Argentine people learned they could appreciate Lionel without comparing him with Diego. For years, the country was divided between those who loved Messi and those who weren’t sold on him. That’s part of the past now, as people in Argentina let him know how much they admire him every time he plays with the national team at home.
On the other hand, Portuguese people never criticized Cristiano Ronaldo the way some Argentinians did with Messi before. Ronaldo was quickly seen as the greatest player to have ever worn the national team’s colors, and thus he made millions of fans in his country.
Messi proved early in his career that Argentina had a gem in their hands. At only 19 years of age, he was part of the roster that took part in the 2006 World Cup. It’s been more than a decade and yet many fans are still in pain that he didn’t see the field in the quarterfinal loss against Germany.
But unlike with Barcelona, where he quickly won titles and became a fan favorite, Messi had a hard time with the national team. While he was undoubtedly the best player in the team, many fans and journalists complained that his level was not the same he had with his club. Besides, people were growing impatient as Messi failed to win a senior international title.
For years, it looked like Messi and Argentina were cursed. They came close to a long-awaited World Cup success in 2014, only to lose against Germany in the final. But the worst came in the following years, when Argentina lost to Chile in two consecutive Copa America finals.
It was after the Copa America Centenario defeat in 2016 that Messi hit rock bottom with the national team. Argentina had once again lost in the final against Chile on penalties, and this time Messi missed his spot-kick. That same night, a devastated Messi said postgame he would quit the national team. Fortunately, he changed his mind a few months later.
He couldn’t turn things around right away, and had to go through more painful moments before he could finally smile. Argentina almost failed to qualify for Russia 2018, but Messi’s hat trick in the Qualifiers finale secured them a World Cup berth. Then again, Argentina had to sweat to make the round of 16 only to be knocked out by France.
Things would change for Messi and the national team when Lionel Scaloni took over. After a third-place finish in the 2019 Copa America that saw Messi establish himself as La Albiceleste’s leader, Argentina began its path to a memorable success in Brazil. In the 2021 Copa America, Messi led Argentina to its first title in 28 years, lifting a much anticipated international trophy wearing the armband.
Far from slowing down, Argentina extended its unbeaten streak to a historic 33 games, comfortably sealing a place in Qatar 2022 in the process. Additionally, Messi extended his goalscoring record to lead Argentina’s all-time list, while he also overtook Pele as the South American player with most international goals.
In 2022, Messi helped Argentina win the Finalissima against Italy, putting the team on his back in a memorable final at Wembley. But the best came in November-December, when he finally won the World Cup with Argentina. For many, that success means Messi is not only better than Ronaldo, but also than any other player in soccer history.
Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed a great start to his international career. After making his senior international debut at only 18 years of age, Ronaldo was part of the Portuguese squad that reached the Euro 2004 final (a 1-0 loss to Greece). Later, his seven goals in the Qualifiers helped Portugal qualify for the 2006 World Cup, in which they made the semi-finals.
From then on, Ronaldo established himself in the starting lineup. Though he struggled to get on the scoresheet for some years, he was named captain in 2011. While he couldn’t repeat a deep run in a World Cup with Portugal, Ronaldo was a key contributor to Portugal’s first major title in the 2016 European Championship. He got injured 25 minutes into the final, but the team wouldn’t have reached that stage without him.
Three years later, he propelled Portugal to another success in the inaugural UEFA Nations League, which was the second international trophy for his national team. His biggest stain remains leading his side further in the World Cup, as Portugal haven’t gotten past the round of 16 since 2006.
His lowest point in his international career may have come in 2014, when Portugal suffered a group stage elimination in Brazil. Four years later, he got off to a fantastic start to Russia 2018, recording a hat trick in the opening game against Spain which included a fantastic free kick goal. Unfortunately, those Ronaldo goals didn’t end up meaning much as Portugal was out of the World Cup in the round of 16.
However, Ronaldo has left his mark in international soccer by becoming the all-time top scorer with an impressive 117 goals.
Of course, another measuring stick to compare their careers is the number and value of individual accolades won through the years. For a long time, the Ballon d’Or debate circled mostly around Messi and Ronaldo. However, there are other prizes for which these two superstars have competed.
Besides the coveted golden ball, Messi and Ronaldo have often taken center stage in the battle for the European Golden Shoe by scoring the most goals in a single season. Neymar sometimes joined the conversation in the awards they challenged for, but he always ran from behind Messi and Ronaldo.
Both players have brought home a number of individual awards, but Messi has the edge in Ballon d’Ors won with seven trophies to his name—a world record. Ronaldo, meanwhile, is two Ballon d’Ors shy of Messi and it’s been a while since he last won one.
With their club, international, and individual records already considered, another way to compare Ronaldo and Messi is by considering how they fared when they faced each other. For some people, to consider that Messi has the most Ballon d’Or awards should be enough. However, it’s interesting to look back at those games that pitted Ronaldo vs. Messi.
These two stars have played against each other on 37 occasions. 35 of them were at the club level, while they only faced twice on the international stage.
Messi has yet to face Ronaldo since joining PSG, but he did face him a lot while at Barcelona — and his record is great. With 16 victories, Messi has the edge over Ronaldo, who won 10 times. The other nine games finished level. Both of them were prolific in those matchups, with Messi scoring 22 goals and Ronaldo 19. But the Argentine had a hand in even more goals, providing 12 assists, while Ronaldo only gave one.
On the international level, however, the Ronaldo vs. Messi duels have been even. Neither of them has the upper hand in this one, as they have one victory apiece, with one goal scored by each other as well. On both occasions, they faced off in international friendlies representing their respective national teams.
All in all, both Messi and Ronaldo can show off two of the most decorated résumés not only in the history of soccer but of all sports. They have different styles of play, while Messi is widely recognized for his dribbling and playmaking abilities, Ronaldo is seen as one of the most ruthless and prolific finishers to ever play the game.
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