Well, once upon a time there was little or no doubt as to who the best soccer player in the world was - the name of Pele, and not too long after that, Diego Maradona, instantly surfaced, and possibly even someone like Zinedine Zidane in the late 90’s could have entered this conversation. There have been many other great players during this time as well - Roberto Baggio and Maldini of Italy, the “other” Ronaldo, from Brazil (he was pretty darn good too!) along with Ronaldinho, Kaka, Roberto Carlos and most recently Neymar have carried the torch for the most successful footballing nation in the world. As has Arjen Robben and a host of many talented Dutch players such as Ruuds Gullit & Van Nistelroy, Edgar Davids, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert and most recently Wesley Sneijder & Memphis Dupay. Andres Iniesta and the entire multi-talented Spanish side (Casillas, Raul, Busquets, Puyol, David Villa, Carlos Vela, Pique, etc.) that captured 3 consecutive major cup titles from 2008 to 2012 also boasted claims to several great players. And of course France’s Mbappe, Benzema, Pogba, Griezmann, and many others from the ’98 Cup Champions such as Thierry Henry and Desailly, the USA’s own Landon Donovan, along with England’s David Beckham, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and others, not to mention players like Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Poland’s David Lewandowski, Wales’ Christian Bale, Turkey’s Sukur, and Germany’s Muller, Klinsmann, Matthaeus, Khedira, Klose and Ozil, Argentina’s Di Maria and Uruguay's Luis Suarez & Edinson Cavani, along with Croatia’s recent stars Perisic, Rakitic, and Luka Modric - could all make a claim as being magnificent footballers that have impacted the game greatly.
But somehow, through this plethora of amazingly skilled and talented players throughout the years, two men managed to rise above the rest, and stake the claim to be called the best ever, at least in terms of club soccer (probably not quire as much internationally, although they have each contributed greatly to their national teams’ success in Argentina and Portugal respectively as well). It’s hard to argue with what the statistics say - (theweek.co.uk) Messi, who finally now at age 34, appears headed to a different club for the first time in his storied 21-year career, has amassed an incredible 672 goals and 268 assists in 772 appearances all-time for Barcelona. Ronaldo, on the other hand, has played for a few different teams, most recently in the Italian Serie A league for Juventus, but in the past for Real Madrid, in la Liga in Spain along with Messi, as well as time with Manchester United at the beginning of his career. He has managed to tally a whopping 674 goals and 194 assists in 894 appearances. I’d say the edge here as a pure goal scorer and playmaker has to go to Messi given how many more assists he has compiled, and how he has tallied just about as many goals as Ronaldo in well over 100 less appearances than the Portuguese striker to achieve a higher goal ratio by a count of .86 to .76. Interestingly they have both totaled 48 hat tricks apiece in their phenomenal club careers, and Ronaldo has had a large edge on penalty kicks by 125-82 during this time.
Internationally however, the Portuguese Ronaldo has had the edge, scoring 109 goals to go along with 32 assists in 179 appearances, while the Argentine Messi, has netted 76 goals and added 46 assists in 151 appearances. Put them both together and you end up with 783 goals and 226 assists for Ronaldo in 1073 appearances, and 748 goals to go with 315 assists in just 929 appearances for Messi, with Ronaldo holding the slight advantage in hat tricks at 57-54, along with penalties scored 139 (27 missed) to 100 (29 missed), whereas Messi has the goal ratio advantage at .81 to .73 career-wise for both club and country.
In the last 2 or 3 years, despite each of these superstars growing older, neither one has slowed down much, as Messi put up 38 goals and 12 assists in 47 appearances for Barcelona in 2020-21, while Ronaldo managed 36 goals and 5 assists in 44 games for Juventus. In 2019-20, Messi had 31 goals, and a sensational 25 assists for Barcelona in 44 appearances, whereas Ronaldo executed 37 goals, but just 5 assists in 46 outings for Juventus. I don’t think that anybody will argue that while the two superstars are very even in goal scoring, Messi is indeed the much better passer and creates many more scoring opportunities for his teammates, in addition to himself, than does his Portuguese counterpart. And going back to 2018-19, Messi put up a heart-stopping 51 goals, while still adding 19 assists for Barcelona in 50 fixtures, while Ronaldo managed a “mere” 28 goals and 10 assists in 43 matches for Juventus. Incidentally, Ronaldo has accumulated 11 red cards over his career, while Messi has had only 3 - 2 of those coming for Argentina, and his recent January 17, 2021 loss in the Spanish Super Cup Final against Atletico Bilbao 3-2, marked the first time Messi had ever been sent off at the club level after getting into it with referee Asier Villaibre, a momentous and unusual occasion indeed. Ronaldo by contrast, has only been sent off once while with Juventus, but also was ejected 10 times during his time with Real Madrid and Manchester United combined.
While I think most of us can agree that Lionel Messi has a slight edge over Cristiano Ronaldo statistically, we must also take into consideration the trophies and titles won, when making an educated decision on who is truly the greatest of all-time. We know that neither player has won the coveted and elusive World Cup title they both so passionately desire (as does any great footballer). Messi came closest to winning it, but fell painfully short in losing to eventual champion Germany in Brazil in 2014, and again losing in the 2018 semifinals, this time to eventual champions France, and then to the Netherlands in the 3rd place game.
Perhaps the greatest honor an individual solver player can receive in club competition is the Ballon D’Or (or Golden Ball), which Messi has won 6 times (2009-12, 2015, 2019), whereas Ronaldo has captured it 5 times (2008, 2013-14, 2016-17). In Europe, Messi won the Golden Shoe for scoring the most goals 6 times as well, 2009-10 (34 goals scored), 2011-12 (50 goals), 2012-13 (46 goals), 2016-17 (37), 2017-18 (34), and 2018-19 (36 goals). By contrast, Ronaldo has won this award 4 times: in 2007-8 (31 goals scored), 2010-11 (40 goals), 2013-14 (31, shared with L. Suarez), 2014-15 (48 goals). Messi did manage to win an under-20 World Cup with Argentina in 2005 as well as an Olympic Gold Medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics to go with his recent 2021 Copa America championship and Golden Boot, and record 151 appearances for Argentina. By contrast, Ronaldo did win the 2016 European Championship with Portugal and won the Golden Boot at the just completed 2020 Euros, to go with a 2019 Nations’ League championship over the Netherlands, and is tied as the top all-time international goals scorer with those 109 goals. He’s also the all-time high scorer in UEFA European Championship history with 14 goals in 25 tournament matches. These are very impressive credentials for both of these amazing athletes without a doubt!
Both have excelled equally in club championships, and lets compare those:
UEFA Champions league titles: Ronaldo 5 (4 w/ Real Madrid, 1 w/ Man U) / Messi 4 (Barcelona)
UEFA Super Cup Titles: Messi (3) / Ronaldo (2)
Spanish Supercup Titles: Messi (7) / Ronaldo (2)
FIFA Club World Cup: (Ronaldo (4: 3 w/ RM, 1 w/ Man U.) / Messi 3 (Barcelona)
La Liga Titles: Messi (10) / Ronaldo (2)
Copa Del Rey Titles: Messi (7) / Ronaldo (2)
Ronaldo: English Premier League Titles (3 - Manchester United), FA Cup (1), English Football League Cup (2), Portugal SuperCup (1), Supercoppa Italiano (2), Serie A Titles (2 - Juventus)
All Time World Cup Goals: Ronaldo (7: 4 in 2018) / Messi (6: 4 in 2014)
Champions League Goals (group stage to Final) : Ronaldo 134: 105 RM, 29 Juve, MU / Messi 120 (Group stage goals: Messi 71, Ronaldo 67)
Champions League Hat Tricks: Messi (8) /Ronaldo (8)
Total UEFA Comp. Goals: Ronaldo (137) / Messi (123)
Champions League Winners Medals: Ronaldo (5) / Messi (4)
Indeed, both of these giants of the game have left an indelible mark on the sport for many years gone by and many still to come. Perhaps the most impressive thing about each one of them is the way they have carried themselves - always putting the team above themselves, and always setting a great and magnificent example for the youth both in their competitive spirit and sportsmanship, and also the way they have represented their club off the pitch. They have both epitomized what it means to be a role model on a professional sports stage, and have embraced a leadership role within their respective organizations, while never shying away from this, or denigrating it in any way.
Incidentally, another Argentine legend worth mentioning in the debate of greatest of all-time is Diego Maradona. Maradona scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina’s national team, and is best known for leading them to the 1986 World Cup championship over Germany in Mexico City in 1986. He played in 4 World Cups from 1982-94, and had 21 appearances, more than any other Argentine, reaching two finals, while amassing a total of 8 goals and 8 assists (5 and 5 in the victorious 1986 run, something never again equalled in WC play) in those games. His famous “Hand of God” goal, which many believed to be a handball instead of the go-ahead header in the final, which helped propel Argentina to the World Cup title. Maradona also played club soccer in Italy, scoring a total of 250 off his 338 career goals there, but was unfortunately known to become involved in drugs and the Italian mafia scene, which greatly diminished his reputation, and also led Argentina to the 1990 WC final against Italy, where he was forced to compete against the very country that many perceived had saved his life. It was a difficult defeat, and Maradona passed away last year at the age of 60, but he will forever be remembered for his dribbling skills, and his prowess in being able to draw fouls, as well as get numerous shots on target away after traveling long distances on the field. Due to his problems with drugs, and his controversial personal life, I’d probably have to rank Maradona 4th on this list behind Pele and both contemporary stars, but he’s definitely a soccer player worth remembering. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1189503/maradona-number-matches-goals-by-league/) (https://www.besoccer.com/new/maradona-dies-his-world-cup-stats-which-may-never-be-matched-920741)
As far as world soccer goes today, I believe that COVID-19 has changed, and continues to change the face of the sports world significantly, potentially to a point of no return where no sport is truly recognizable in the way it once was. I believe that when France captured the 2018 World Cup title in Russia behind the amazing exploits and talents of Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema, and a very talented group of players, defeating a huge underdog, and upstart Croatia squad featuring the only player who has won the Ballon D'Or other than Messi or Ronaldo in recent times in Luka Modric, we were pretty much seeing what we were supposed to see. This year's Euro 2020, however, often seemed to be a free-for-all or some sort or roulette wheel spinning, mostly of penalty kicks missed and phantom questionable calls by the referees, that influenced almost every outcome of every knockout stage game. In the end, Italy prevailed over an English side that finally seemed poised to end their 55 years of major championship frustration in front of the entire amped up country at Wembley Stadium, but once again it was not to be for 'ole Union Jack. And although they had cruised to their 35th consecutive match without a defeat, Italy hardly appeared to be convincing in claiming this title, still leaving the world stage wide open for next year's World Cup in Qatar for vanquished teams like the Netherlands, France, Croatia, Belgium, Switzerland, and of course Latin American powers Brazil, Argentina, and Spain. We'll have to wait and see on that, and where we are in the COVID protocols at this time next year.
But finally, getting back to our two main protagonists in this discussion, you may ask, how do these two fine athletes compare to the man who previously most would have considered to be the greatest soccer player of all time, Pele? Pele was able to score 643 goals for his club team Santos in 659 appearances, (including the team’s youth side Bauru), and an additional 77 goals in 91 caps for his home country of Brazil. Counting the 37 goals he scored for the New York Cosmos in the 1970’s in 64 appearances, Pele totaled 757 goals, and it took Lionel Messi to break his all-time record of goals scored on one club in 2020. He was the youngest player ever to appear in a FIFA World cup, helping to lead Brazil to the first of 3 World Cup Titles in his 14-year international career (1957-71). They defeated Sweden 5-2 in Stockholm to win in 1958, then defeated Czechoslovakia in Chile to capture the 1962 WC despite Pele having been injured after the first match and forced to miss the rest of the tournament. After a very disappointing showing in the 1966 World Cup, in which Pele was severely roughed up on multiple occasions, and Brazil was eliminated in the first round, Pele returned to reek havoc upon the soccer world once again in 1970, dominating the tournament to help Brazil win its 3rd WC in 4 tries with the 4-1 victory over Italy in Mexico City. Pele was given credit for associating the game of soccer with the phrase “the Beautiful Game,” based on the way he and his Brazilian teammates played. Two of his most influential contemporaries, Holland’s Johan Cruyff, and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, as well as French Legend Michel Platini, all agreed that Pele was “untouchable,” “the greatest player of all-time”, and even drew comparisons to “God” on the pitch. He remains probably to this day, the most well-known football player in history. (Wikipedia)
So how do these two contemporary legends compare to Pele? It’s hard to say. The game has changed quite a bit over the years, and certainly the statistics have reached an elevated stage. Needless to say, neither Messi nor Ronaldo will ever be able to accomplish on a World Cup stage, what Pele and Brazil did, but they have left their legacies and marks on the game nevertheless. Personally, if I had to give a slight edge between these two, I would give it to Messi, and I’m not sure exactly why. It’s a very slight advantage, that is for sure, but I just have always had reverence for players who could not only score, but pass as well. Messi’s assist totals, and goal ratio in scoring as much as Ronaldo in many fewer appearances, would push him over the top for me. But there is little doubt that they are both champions, and deserving of the perch they currently stand on. I would still have to conclude as a final footnote though, that nobody will ever surpass the great Pele, and winning three World Cups is an accomplishment that does trump just about every club accomplishment that both Ronaldo and Messi have achieved. But it is indeed an interesting debate to carry forward for years to come, and perhaps when Messi and Ronaldo retire, we will see even more to change our minds yet again. I’ll leave you with a few more quotes on all of these players below:
Cristiano Ronaldo: “I really admire the career he has had so far, and, for his part, he has already said that he had trouble when I left the Spanish league because it is a rivalry that he appreciates.”
Pep Guardiola (Spain): “He is the best player I have ever seen.The best thing about him is not what he does but how simple he makes everything look.”
Neymar (Brazil): “I played with Messi, who is, for me, one of the greatest footballers of all-time, and he is my idol in football.”
Diego Maradona: “I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius.”
Lionel Messi: “(Ronaldo) is always there scoring goals in all the games and taking part in his club and national side. He has been doing that for many years and whether he is at his peak or a bit below it makes no difference.”
Zinedine Zidane (France): “When you play with Ronaldo on your team, you are already 1-0 up.”
Gerard Pique (Spain): “The best player I have ever played against has to be Ronaldo. You cannot afford to take your eyes off him.”
Pele, after Ronaldo reached 770 official goals (Brazil): “Life is a solo flight. Each makes his own journey. And what a beautiful journey you are having. I admire you a lot, I love watching you play and this is no secret to anyone. Congratulations on breaking my record of goals in official matches. My only regret is not being able to give you a hug today.”