Who is Better Messi or Ronaldo? The Great Debate is Settled

The Messi vs. Cristiano debate may be the most formidable and impossible question ever posed in the history of soccer. There have been debates over tactics and style of play, including counterattack vs. possession and football vs. anti-football (basically offensive vs. defensive). There have been debates over the rules and regulations of the game, including referees vs. technology (i.e., Video Assistant Referee, or VAR), that will continue to crop up as the game grows. And then there have been the player debates. Pele or Maradona? Ronaldo (the original) or Zidane? Or maybe Ronaldinho? More recently, Henry or Aguero? But the one question that will forever torture the soccer world involves two players who are reaching the ends of their careers right now.

I also want to preface this by saying that I don’t have the answer. There are sports fans who feel the need to compare and contrast and rank the best players. In fact, that is a lot of what this website does, and it’s important to understand and debate the significance that players have on their teams. But I have learned to just sit back and watch the two forwards play. In my opinion, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are, without a doubt, the two best players to have ever played the sport of soccer. One’s a lab specimen, and the other’s an alien. One’s a magician, the other scores a hat trick of his own the next day. Two incredibly different types of players have challenged each other week in and week out for the GOAT status, and neither has ever cracked under pressure. This article will look into how these two superstars came to be the greatest players of all time as well as offer some statistical and stylistic analysis of each one’s gameplay. And maybe, in the end, I’ll let you know which one I’d have in my team.

History and Career

Portugal to Manchester

cristiano ronaldoThe youngest son of a cook and a municipal gardener/part-time kit man, Cristiano Ronaldo, grew up on the small island of Madeira, Portugal, in the capital city, Funchal. He played for local lower-tier sides, CF Andorinha and CD Nacional, before moving to Lisbon to join Sporting CP in 1997. The Primeira Liga side soon realized this kid was something special. When he made his senior debut for Sporting five years later, Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United at the time and one of the greatest coaches ever, realized the pimply teenager’s worth as well. News about the prodigy grew, and quite a few clubs began vying for the winger’s signature, but it was Sir Alex Ferguson in the end who, after a friendly between United and Sporting in 2003, snatched up the future star’s signature right after the match.

Now, the young Portuguese kid had to show his worth. He had signed for a big club, but would he live up to his manager’s expectations? Or would he flop? Or would he do something in the middle, playing well but never reaching the potential that so many thought he had? The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding “no.” Ronaldo exceeded Sir Alex’s expectations in dramatic fashion. The Portuguese phenomenon became known for being the first player on the training ground every morning hours before the team had to be there. He bulked up, improved tremendously, and wore the No. 7 jersey that he had inherited from David Beckham with pride. And three years after he’d been signed as an 18-year-old, he led Manchester United to the Premier League title, scoring 23 goals in all competitions and finishing second in the Ballon d’Or rankings, the award for the best player in Europe in a given year. The following season, Sir Alex pushed him to score, even more, betting Ronaldo to record at least 20 goals in the Premier League or else shave his head at the end of the season.

Ronaldo scored 31 goals in the Premier League alone and bagged 42 goals in 49 games overall. Manchester United won the league and the Champions League, and Ronaldo won his first of five Ballon d’Ors. At this point, Ronaldo had surpassed his original hype and pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an incredible soccer player. For Ronaldo, this was a dream come true, but for Sir Alex Ferguson, he knew that it would be only a matter of time before the bids started rolling in.

Argentina to La Masia

lionel messi-barcelonaNot too different than Ronaldo’s childhood, Lionel Messi was born roughly two and a half years after his Portuguese rival to a soccer-loving blue-collar family in Rosario, Santa Fe in Argentina. At the age of six, Messi joined local club Newell’s Old Boys, where he impressed even as a toddler. Four years later, however, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, and due to his family’s lack of money and health insurance, he had to find a club that would sign him and pay for his treatment. Fortunately, Messi was able to get a trial at FC Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain, where the family had relatives, and he was eventually offered a contract on a napkin. So, at the age of 13, Messi and his family moved to Spain, and the tiny Argentinian joined one of soccer’s most prestigious youth academies, La Masia.

Although homesick at first due to his quiet and reserved personality, Messi soon found friends in his teammates, including Cesc Fábregas and Gerard Piqué. He also found the ball at his feet. Messi once again shined at a young age, rapidly rising through the ranks at La Masia before debuting at the senior level in 2003 at just 16 years old. Although the match was only a friendly, Messi impressed and soon got the chance to train with both the reserve side and the first team. Once again, it was time for a young player to show his worth. Would Messi impress the first team and the coach in training? Or would he squander a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to breakthrough at one of the greatest clubs of all time? Not surprisingly, Leo impressed. In fact, he played so well that future Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho informed his teammates that this kid would be even better than himself one day.

He finally made his debut for the first team in the 2004-05 season at the age of 17 and scored his first senior goal; a magnificent lofted shot assisted by his mentor, Ronaldinho, at the end of that season. The next season was his first as a starter, but it was cut short by legal issues over his citizenship as well as a torn hamstring. The following season, although plagued by injuries for the second year in a row, Messi managed to bag 17 goals and 4 assists in all competitions. He then started the next campaign brightly, finishing in third in the 2007 Ballon d’Or rankings, but suffered another injury in the second half of that season. He ended up with 16 goals and 18 assists, but Barcelona needed to figure out a way to keep him fit so that he could reach his full potential.

The Road to Rome

fc barcelonaWanting to maximize Messi’s role at the club, FC Barcelona updated their training, nutrition, and fitness systems, even assigning Messi his own personal physiotherapist. Barcelona also sold Ronaldinho to AC Milan and brought in a new coach. A former player of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola implemented an intense style of Total Football, meshing well with Messi’s superb technical ability. Finally able to stay fit for a full season, Messi ended the 2008-09 campaign with a remarkable 38 goals and 18 assists in 51 matches, finishing second for the 2008 Ballon d’Or halfway through the season. That year, Barcelona won the league and the Copa del Rey. The Catalonian side also made it to the Champions League final, where Messi and company faced Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United.

A few months earlier, Ronaldo had won his first Ballon d’Or. Having had a quieter season than the one before due to injury, he still managed to win the Puskás Award, the accolade for the best goal of the season, with a stunning strike against FC Porto in the Champions League. United ended up winning the Premier League and meeting Barcelona in the Champions League final.

Although they had met for the first time on the pitch the previous year in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals, the 2009 Champions League final was what every soccer fan had wanted to see. The 24-year-old from Portugal and the 21-year-old Argentinian were going head-to-head in the most important match in soccer.

Barcelona went 1-0 up in the 10th minute, and Messi’s looping header with twenty minutes left to play sealed a 2-0 Champions League final victory for Barcelona as well as their first-ever treble win, the highest achievement for a European club.

A month later, Sir Alex’s fears materialized, and Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Real Madrid for a world-record transfer fee at the time of around $100 million. Messi and Ronaldo, two players, slated to be, if not already, the best of the best, would now be playing in the same league as part of one of the most historic sports rivalries of all time.

The Rivalry and the Records

champions leagueFor the nine years that Messi and Ronaldo battled it out in La Liga, Messi led Barcelona to seven league titles, and three Champions League wins, including two trebles. While Ronaldo only led Real Madrid to two league titles, he carried his team to four Champions League titles, including three in a row, and became the fastest player to score 150, 200, 250, and 300 goals in La Liga.

During those nine years, the two forwards also combined to win all nine Ballon d’Or Awards, five for Messi and four for Ronaldo, who had already won one in 2008. In total, each has been nominated and has finished in the top three for the award twelve times. Messi has won six, come in second five times, and come in third once, while Ronaldo has won five, come in second six times, and also come in third once. The two players have dominated the world of soccer for over a decade.

Overall, Cristiano Ronaldo has 729 goals and 224 assists in 1,006 senior matches, while Leo Messi has 700 goals and 296 assists in 863 games. Messi holds countless records in La Liga for his production of goals and assists, while Ronaldo claims the highest scorer in the Champions League as well as on an international level. Ronaldo has also helped Portugal to two international trophies, including the 2016 Euros, while Messi has only managed an Olympic gold medal, despite bringing his native country to the 2014 World Cup final.

Styles of Play

The craziest thing about Messi and Ronaldo, however, may not even be that they’ve managed to consistently put up absurd numbers for their entire careers, play at an elite level through their thirties, and retain the title of the two best players for over a decade, but rather that they’ve both managed to do it by playing completely different styles of soccer.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a 6’2″ monument of chiseled muscle that exhausted defenders as a winger for most of his career before transitioning to more of a pure striker role in recent years. Ronaldo can unleash a stunning strike into the back of the net from 40 yards out, as he did for his Puskás Award-winning goal in 2009, just as well as he can leap into the air, reach a height of 8.4 feet, and power home a header as he did for Juventus last year at the age of 34. Meanwhile, neither of these feats occurred during his nine most prolific years as a player for Real Madrid, during which he became Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer with 450 goals and scored one of his most famous goals: a bicycle kick in the 2018 Champions League semifinal first leg against his current club Juventus. Ronaldo’s signature moves include stepovers and the Ronaldo chop, and he’s known for his strength, speed, finishing ability, prowess in the air, powerful long shots, and leadership.

On the other hand, the left-footed Lionel Messi stands at a significantly shorter 5’7″. But what he lacks in height, he makes up for in skill. Like Ronaldo, Messi has played most of his career as a winger but is also known for dropping back and picking up a role in the midfield because, unlike Ronaldo, Messi’s greatest attribute is not his scoring ability. Messi is a playmaker. With the ability to dribble through an entire line of defense and then pick out a pass that no one else on the pitch has even seen, Messi controls games. His passing ability is unparalleled, and somehow he still manages to overshadow it with his goalscoring. Messi has remained at FC Barcelona for his whole career, and nearly every La Liga record for an individual player reflects that. His claims to fame include his otherworldly close control and nimble footwork, as well as his vision on the ball and accuracy in front of goal.

Highlights

Before we get to pure statistics, though, there are plenty of moments in both of these legends’ careers that can’t be documented in numbers. Then again, there are also many specific stats that can be displayed statistically but would make this article much too long. For example, unless we showed a season-by-season statistical analysis, there would be no other way to know that Messi somehow managed to score 91 goals in a single calendar year along with 22 assists. That was in only 69 games, by the way. And without looking beyond statistics, there’s also no way to truly understand how clutch Cristiano Ronaldo has been in the direst of circumstances for his clubs, including a hat trick against Atlético Madrid in the second leg of last year’s Champions League round of 16 to come back from a 2-0 loss in the first leg. Here are a few of Ronaldo’s and Messi’s best goals.

Ronaldo Free Kick vs. Portsmouth

The master of the knuckleball first showed his outstanding free-kick ability with this incredible laser of a shot against Portsmouth and his first goal for Manchester United. The ball rocketed off his laces with barely any spin, swerved in mid-air, and flew right into the corner of the net.

Messi Free Kick vs. Liverpool

For Messi’s 600th goal in all competitions, he came up with something special. He launched a free kick from 35 yards out, curved it around the wall, and still put enough power on it to beat Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Allison, by a mile.

Ronaldo Free Kick vs. Spain

Another free kick from Ronaldo’s collection stands out due to the circumstances and his overall performance in this game. Down 3-2 to Spain in a 2018 World Cup group stage match, Ronaldo scored a beautiful free kick in the 88th minute to snatch a point for Portugal as well as complete his hat trick.

Messi Chip vs. Bayern

One of my personal favorites, Messi left Jerome Boateng on his backside before deliciously dinking the ball up and over Manuel Neuer to make it 2-0 to Barcelona in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals. Barca won the treble that season.

Ronaldo Bicycle Kick vs. Juventus

Ronaldo exemplified the perfect form for an overhead kick with this incredible goal in the 2017-18 Champions league quarterfinals. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon could only stand and stare as the ball flew past him.

Messi Run vs. Athletic Bilbao

Messi pulled off something extraordinary with this goal in the 2015 Copa del Rey final. After starting with the ball near the halfway line, Messi skillfully left three defenders in his wake before cutting inside and slotting home a fantastic near-post finish.

Ronaldo Long Shot vs. Porto

The goal for which Ronaldo won the Puskás Award cannot be talked about enough. An absolutely unstoppable strike from 40 yards out that left the Porto goalkeeper helpless.

Messi Goal vs. Nigeria

Running onto the end of a long pass in a 2018 World Cup group stage match, Messi deftly controlled the ball with his thigh while running at full speed, took another touch with his right foot before even letting the ball hit the ground, and then scored coolly with his right foot.

Messi vs. Ronaldo (Club)

 GamesGoalsAssistsTrophiesLeague TitlesChampions League TitlesEuropean Golden BootsChampions League Golden Boots
Messi7256302543410466
Ronaldo842630194296547

Messi vs. Ronaldo (International)

 GamesGoalsAssistsTrophiesWorld Cup Golden Balls
Messi13870421 (2008 Olympic Gold Medal)1 (2014)
Ronaldo16499302 (2016 Euros & 2019 UEFA Nations League)0

Messi vs. Ronaldo (Overall)

 GamesGoalsAssistsBallon d'OrsTrophiesAverage Goals Per GameAverage Time Between Goal Contributions
Messi8637002966350.81~70m
Ronaldo10067292245310.72~85m

So, Who’s the GOAT?

Well, it depends on what you want in a player. Statistically speaking, Messi has been the more prolific goal contributor overall, but Ronaldo offers a leader-like quality that the reserved Argentinian doesn’t necessarily show. Both have come up clutch on countless occasions throughout their careers, and both have blessed the soccer world with their talent.

Personally, if you really want to know, I’m taking Leo all day.

FAQ

How many goals does Lionel Messi have?

Lionel Messi has 700 goals in 863 games, a milestone he reached just last week against Atlético Madrid. Messi also has 296

How many goals does Cristiano Ronaldo have?

Cristiano has 729 goals in 1,006 matches, along with 224 assists. Ronaldo’s goals and assists are spread among his time at

Who is the best soccer player in 2020?

There is definitely a valid argument for both Messi and Ronaldo to be the best player in the world in 2020, but as the two

How many years has Lionel Messi been playing for?

Messi has been playing at the senior level for 16 years. He is currently 33 years old.

How many years has Cristiano Ronaldo been playing for?

Ronaldo has been playing at the senior level for 18 years. He is currently 35 years old.

Where is Lionel Messi from?

Messi was born and raised in Rosario, Santa Fe, in Argentina.

Where is Cristiano Ronaldo from?

Ronaldo was born and raised in Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

  
Win, lose, or tie, Chelsea 'til I die, keep the blue flag flying high. Born and raised in New York City and an avid viewer of the English Premier League. Besides playing and watching soccer, I love to bike and write songs.

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