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Messi v Ronaldo: Settling the football GOAT debate once and for all


Messi, Ronaldo, Football GOAT

In the world of football, you’re one or the other. Either you think Lionel Messi is football’s GOAT, or you think Cristiano Ronaldo is. There is no in-between, no grey zone, no room for fence-sitting or neutrality, and that may forever be the case.

Much like the constantly raging debate over who the greatest basketballer ever is – Michael Jordan or Lebron James – for the best part of 15 years the football world has been dominated by a single question: who’s football’s GOAT? Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

Where once it was Diego Armando Maradona and Pele sat untouchable atop the list of football’s finest, alone in their own private section the pantheon of the greats. Now, the discourse has shifted, the generational pendulum swinging towards the newish kids on the block, Messi and Ronaldo.

There can be debate, but no doubt, that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two greatest to ever lace on football boots. Just who comes out on top between the Argentine magician and powerful Portuguese forward is a debate that will rage for as long as humanity forges on, likely without a definitive conclusion.

I’ve long held the belief that your preference between the pair is heavily influenced by your personality, especially given both players are two sides of the same coin, one the antithesis to the other, polar opposites with a few commonalities.

Those who hold Messi up as the greatest they’ve ever seen have a greater appreciation for beauty in all walks of life, while strict adherents to the church of Ronaldo value efficiency above all.

Definitively settling this debate is about as easy as locating the Holy Grail, but I’ve run my eye over both stars’ careers and accolades which, supported by the eye test, will allow me to have my say.

Messi and Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are two of football’s greatest

Messi or Ronaldo? Who is football’s goat?

Lionel Messi

Age: 36

Total games: 1,069

Teams: FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Miami, Argentinian National Team

Goals: 827

Assists: 400

Major individual awards: 8x Ballon D’Ors, 6x European Golden Shoes, 2x FIFA World Cup Golden Ball winner, 3x UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, 2x Copa America Best Player, 6x UEFA Champions League top scorer, 1x FIFA World Player of the Year, 1x Copa America top scorer, 6x La Liga Best Player, 8x Pichichi winner, 16x Argentine Footballer of the Year

Major team accolades: 1x FIFA World Cup, 1x Copa America, 10x La Liga, 2x Ligue 1, 7x Copa Del Rey, 4x UEFA Champions League winner

All stats are according to Transfermarkt and accurate as of 29 December 2023.

Football's GOAT, Lionel Messi
Did lifting the 2022 World Cup cement Lionel Messi as football’s undoubted GOAT?

At its purest, football is art and Lionel Messi its Picasso, his left foot his brush, decorating the canvas with his sublime, borderline alien, abilities. Few in the sport’s history can waltz through tight, feisty defences like Messi, whose ballet dancer elegance and grace allow him to navigate the smallest of spaces.

See his goals against Getafe, Real Madrid, and Athletic Bilbao for a deeper understanding of how the speed of the Argentinian’s feet matches that of his thought.

Not only a great goalscorer but also a scorer of great goals. It borders on unbelievable that the man with the most goals in a calendar year, 91 in 2012, could also lay claim to football’s 10 greatest-ever goals. Surely greater volume brings with it diminished quality? Not in Messi’s case.

Away from his incredible goalscoring feats, the man who morphed Barcelona into the indomitable monster they were during his time there, is also one of the sport’s greatest creators. Messi’s nearly peerless in his ability to thread balls through spaces tighter than cracked concrete.

No piece of ballplaying encapsulates this more than his assist for wing-back Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands in the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals. Despite being in his career twilight, Messi’s eyes remain hawkish, aware of a gap opening before even it knew it was, threading the ball into a space no wider than a needle’s eye.

For all his divinity, his career has not been without heartbreak. Messi tasted defeat in the 2014 World Cup final, a tournament where he was the best player, and three times at the Copa America in 2007, 2015, and 2016.

Later in his career, he conquered those international tournament demons, adding those crucial international trophies to his already jammed cabinet while being the best player in each victory.

Pep Guardiola, arguably the greatest manager in footballer history and the Barcelona coach who extracted more from Messi than any other, believes the Argentine is undoubtedly football’s GOAT.

“For me, I’ve said many times, he’s the best. It’s difficult to understand that a player can appear and compete what he has done in the last 50 or 70 years,” the Manchester City coach said.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Age: 38

Total games: 1,197

Teams: Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus, Al Nassr

Goals: 866

Assists: 282

Major individual awards: 5x Ballon D’or, 1x FIFA World Player of the Year, 4x UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, 7x UEFA Champions League top scorer, 4x European Golden Shoe, 1x UEFA European Championship Golden Boot, 2x Premier League Player of the Season, 1x La Liga Best Player, 2x Serie A Footballer of the Year, 1x Premier League Golden Boot, 3x Pichichi winner, 5x Portuguese Player of the Year

Major team accolades: 1x UEFA European Championship, 1x UEFA Nations League, 3x Premier League, 1x FA Cup, 5x UEFA Champions League winner, 2x La Liga, 2x Copa Del Rey, 2x Serie A, 1x Coppa Italia

All stats are according to Transfermarkt and accurate as of 29 December 2023.

football's goat, Cristiano Ronaldo
Is former Manchester United superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, the greatest footballer ever?

If Messi is an artist, Cristiano Ronaldo is a Formula 1 driver, obsessed with efficiency, total domination, and victory whatever the cost.

Early in his career, under Sir Alex Ferguson’s guidance at Manchester United, Ronaldo was a swashbuckling winger with feet quicker than egg beaters, bamboozling defenders before rifling a thunderous strike beyond a helpless goalkeeper.

While its widely known he’s not naturally as gifted as Messi, who’s footballing ability was set in stone at birth, Ronaldo’s work ethic is unrivalled anywhere in world sport. As he aged his movements became less frantic and more efficient, his only desire to score as many goals and win as many accolades as possible.

In the NBA, Ronaldo would be regarded as a three-level scorer, capable of scoring many goals in many ways, whether an elegant tap-in following a perfectly timed run, a thunderous strike from distance after an unstoppable dribble in-field, or a towering header.

He is genuinely unlike anything we’ve seen in football before. A cyclonic force of power, thrusting and forcing his way into the history books as one of football’s greatest ever goalscorers, with the individual and team honours to compliment his remarkable talent.

Success has followed Ronaldo wherever he’s gone, albeit despite joining Manchester United and Juventus when both were at the peaks of their powers. His time at Real Madrid, where he was the core element of a side that won four Champions League titles in five years, including three consecutively between 2016 and 2018, will go down as his career defining spell.

Ferguson, who discovered and polished Ronaldo early in his career, setting him down a path of greatness rivalled only by Messi, labelled the Portuguese forward as ‘the most gifted player he’s ever worked with.’ Some praise from some manager.

So, who’s the greatest?

There can only be one; Lionel Andres Messi. To steal Pep’s praise, ‘he’s the best.’ Genuinely, he is. We’re more likely to see another Cristiano Ronaldo, a goal-scoring crazed, powerful, borderline mechanistic footballer with an unrivalled drive. In some ways, that’s what Erling Haaland is shaping to be.

If Ronaldo was made in a lab, Messi was conceived on another planet. How he plays football is completely alien to anything we mortals can conceive, unrivalled by any in modern football history. The lightning speed of thought and movement make him unstoppable, his balance ensuring he can push and slice his through defences effortlessly, despite constant frustrated kickings.

When you add his goalscoring achievements too – at the time of writing, he’s 39 short of Ronaldo while playing 128 games fewer – as well as the creativity and effortless grace with which his decisive passing opens the floor up, then considering this debate a debate seems futile.

Putting it plainly, no one can replicate Lionel Messi’s footballing feats; the swift, dizzying dribbles, the spell-binding runs, the delicate finishes, the ease of execution. He’s achieved it all while barely breaking a sweat, walking his way around the pitch until the moment to strike arises.

He is the personification of joy, someone who invokes a kind of childish happiness in anyone lucky enough to witness his greatness. Wherever Messi is, a sense of astonishment is not far off. Just look at how Pep reacts to his nutmegging of James Milner here:

There is no description of Messi’s mesmeric talent as apt than that of English commentator Ray Hudson after the Argentinian scored his 91st goal of 2012.

“It’s not the statistics! It’s not the statistics!” Hudson cried.

“You tell me. How do you measure somebody who could balance a balloon in a wind tunnel on a needle. He is capable of that. Astonishing!” This line is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Lionel Messi was, is, and forever will be.

No one unblinded by bias can argue anything other than Messi being the greatest footballer of all time, especially now he’s won a World Cup, football’s toughest stage and one Ronaldo has sputtered on, whilst being the best player at the tournament.

None of this is a knock on Cristiano Ronaldo. He is a phenomenal player, a truly remarkable force of nature, a hurricane obsessed with victory and goalscoring, with accolades that, in a world without Messi, would undoubtedly place him as football’s GOAT. It’s just that he isn’t Lionel Messi.

Picture of Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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