Best players in the world come and go, usually peaking for two or three years.
We love them; they decline, we move on.
For more than a decade, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have spoiled soccer fans with a level of play that no other player on the planet has come close to matching.
But who is better: the ripped pin-up Portuguese winger or the diminutive Argentine?
In the interest of debate and at the risk of considerable trolling, here’s why Messi is hands down the better player:
1. Technical ability
Make no mistake, Ronaldo is a phenomenal soccer player. He has pace, power and an incredible eye for goal. He is arguably the most high-profile football player in the world yet he manages to escape attention in the penalty box to score. He can shoot with either foot and his trademark high-speed stepover still leaves defenders bamboozled.
But to watch Messi play is to see soccer at a higher level. When he runs with the ball, it’s like it’s glued to his left foot. His scampering short stride makes it easy for him to change direction and slalom past hapless defenders. While some players are double teamed, Messi often faces three of four defenders and can still dribble pass them. And he doesn’t just score goals. His magic wand of a left foot frequently provides the killer pass to set up a teammate.
2. Goal scoring
Nothing is more prized in soccer than the ability to put the ball in the back of the net and in this respect, both Messi and Ronaldo have ripped up the record books. Before them, no player had ever scored more than 70 goals in the UEFA Champions League, arguably the highest level of club soccer in the world. Both Ronaldo and Messi have more than 100 goals in that competition. Percentage wise, that would be equivalent to raising Barry Bonds’ all-time home run record of 762 to about 1,000.
Overall, Ronaldo has scored more goals, 647 to Messi’s 603. But Messi, who has played 150 fewer games, scores his goals at a faster clip, averaging one every 100 minutes compared to Ronaldo’s 112 minutes.
A haul of 90 goals would be a decent career for many strikers. Messi scored 91 goals in a single calendar year, a number that defies belief.
3. Team player
Messi and Ronaldo are no slouches when it comes to making goals for others. Ronaldo has a remarkable 214 assists. But that is a long way behind Messi’s 248. More than any other, this stat gets to the heart of what makes each player tick. Ronaldo is the individual, the star player who demands the ball and who the team is based around. Messi is the ultimate team player, more willing to pass to a better placed teammate even when he could probably score himself.
4. The ‘greatest of all time’ debate
For decades, this debate was solely about Pelé or Diego Maradona. Other great players came and went but none was ever mentioned in the same reverential tones as the Brazilian three-time World Cup winner and the Argentine who almost single-handedly carried his nation to World Cup glory in 1986.
It’s true Messi has yet to win a World Cup or Copa America with Argentina. But a long line of soccer experts and ex-players have gone on the record that we are fortunate to be witnessing the best player ever to lace up a pair of cleats. That’s a conversation in which Ronaldo, for all his star quality, has yet to seriously feature.
5. The wow factor
Italian soccer fans call them fantasistas, those special players who combine artistry and magic on the field, who see the pass that no one else can, the players who have the whole stadium holding its collective breath every time they touch the ball.
Messi is the uber-fantasista. Even when he was just a youth team player, Barcelona’s highly-paid stars would go to watch the young wizard who seemed to have no limit to his ability. After he broke into the first team, the rest of the world got to gawk in wonder too.
His career is littered with jaw-dropping moments — that goal that began with a dribble on the halfway line, the precocious hat-trick against Real Madrid, that Champions League game when he left one of the best defenders in the world on his bum.
Such is his renown that Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant chose to wear Messi’s No. 10 on his jersey when he represented the United States at the Olympics. The gesture was to honor "the greatest athlete I have ever seen."
For all his greatness, Ronaldo just doesn’t produce the same level of astonishment. While Ronaldo certainly dazzles, Messi produces masterpieces.
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times