5 reasons why Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi is the greatest rivalry in football history

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
Anantaajith Ra

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are two names that are synonymous with the thrills of modern football. The duo's rivalry has defined the sport over the last two decades. Seldom has such an individual battle grabbed the headlines like the one shared by Messi and Ronaldo.

Over the course of the sport's history, football has seen several rivalries between teams. Barcelona-Real Madrid, Liverpool-Manchester United and AC Milan-Inter Milan are just some of the illustrious battles we have been treated to over the last few centuries.

Despite football's status, there are times where individuals seem to influence games more than their teammates and counterparts. In the past, the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff set a template that was then improved upon by Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo Nazario. None of these players were inherent rivals, but many compared these players' revolutionary styles of play with their era-defining approaches to football.

But one duo has seemingly emulated them all in the sense of a fierce rivalry that has constantly evolved over the last two decades. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the greatest players to ever grace football. Messi and Ronaldo have faced each other numerous times domestically as they have spent the majority of their careers at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.

They also met once when Ronaldo was at Manchester United in the 2009 UEFA Champions League final. Messi scored a header as Barcelona beat the Red Devils 2-0 to lift the trophy in Rome, following which Ronaldo made his way to the Spanish capital.

With both players now at clubs away from Spain, their chances of clashing heads are considerably lower. However, the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry remains the most illustrious one in football history. Here, we give you five reasons why Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest rivalry football has seen.

#5 Messi and Ronaldo's decade-long Ballon d'Or duopoly

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2015 FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2015 FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala

Cristiano Ronaldo began a fascinating battle when he clinched the 2008 Ballon d'Or. The Portuguese star was incredible for Manchester United in the 2007-08 season, winning the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League while scoring 42 goals in 49 appearances. Messi finished second, 165 points behind Ronaldo. But the Argentine bounced back to brilliantly win four successive Ballon d'Or awards as Barcelona established themselves as kings of European football.

Messi first contributed 38 goals and 19 assists in the 2008-09 season as Barcelona won the continental treble. He then helped the Catalans extend it to a sextuple, scoring 47 goals and 12 assists in the following season. Messi won the Champions League again in 2011, recording an astounding 53 goals and 25 assists during the 2010-11 campaign. The Argentine rounded it all off with a record-breaking 2011-12 campaign, scoring 73 goals and providing 34 assists in just 60 matches.

Ronaldo then bounced back, winning the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Ballon d'Or, before Messi responded with one of his own in 2015. The Portuguese proceeded to win the award again in 2016 and 2017.

Ronaldo's Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric finally broke the duopoly by winning the coveted award in 2018. But Messi's incredible 2018-19 campaign saw him win the award for a record sixth time in December 2019, one more than Ronaldo's tally.

#4 Longevity and consistency

FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2015
FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2015

Consistency is key in any sport and few have embodied the definition of the word more than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Messi made his Barcelona debut back in 2003 in a friendly against Porto. His official league debut for the club came a year later against cross-city rivals Espanyol. Since then, the Argentine has put up incredible numbers. Messi has scored 672 goals and contributed an incredible 305 assists in 778 club games. He also has 76 goals and 53 assists in 151 matches for Argentina, taking his career goal contributions to a staggering 1,106!

During his career, Messi has scored 40 goals or more in every season but one since the start of the 2009-10 campaign. He has also registered 50 or more G+A in every season since 2008-09, which is the ultimate testament to his longevity and consistency.

Cristiano Ronaldo's numbers also defy human belief. Known to be the fittest footballer of all time, the Portuguese's career numbers are absolutely staggering. Ronaldo has managed a barely believable 674 goals and 229 assists at club level since making his debut for Sporting Lisbon in 2002. Additionally, the 36-year-old also has 109 goals and 41 assists in 179 matches for Portugal.

Ronaldo scored 40 or more goals in all but three seasons between 2007-08 and 2017-18. While not always praised for his creative abilities, the Portuguese has also registered 10 or more assists in numerous seasons.

#3 Messi and Ronaldo's collection of major trophies

The collection of trophies Lionel Messi secured at Barcelona
The collection of trophies Lionel Messi secured at Barcelona

Both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have an incredible number of major trophies to their name which only further cements their legacy.

The Argentine won an incredible 10 La Liga titles, seven Copa del Reys and four UEFA Champions League titles with Barcelona, including two trebles. Additionally, he also secured eight Spanish Super Cups, three Club World Cups and three UEFA Super Cups. This takes his tally to 35 trophies in club football, making him one of the most decorated footballers of all time. Messi won the 2021 Copa America and also secured the U-20 FIFA World Cup and an Olympic gold medal with Argentina.

Ronaldo's trophy haul is equally impressive as well. Over the course of his career, the Portuguese has won domestic competitions in four different countries. Ronaldo first won a Portuguese Super Cup with Sporting Lisbon. He then went on to win three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, three League Cups, a Champions League title and two FA Community Shields in England.

Ronaldo followed it up with two La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys, two Spanish Super Cups and a staggering four Champions League titles with Real Madrid. Finally, he has also won two Serie A titles, two Italian Super Cups and an Italian Cup with Juventus.

Ronaldo also has five Champions League titles, three UEFA Super Cups and four Club World Cups, taking his club honors tally to 33. With the Portuguese national team, Ronaldo won the 2016 European Championships and the UEFA 2019 Nations League. That takes him up to 35 career honors - one less than Messi - but an equally impressive haul nonetheless.

#2 The inability to decide who is greater

Cristiano Ronaldo (center) and Lionel Messi (right) at The Best FIFA Football Awards show in 2017
Cristiano Ronaldo (center) and Lionel Messi (right) at The Best FIFA Football Awards show in 2017

One of the defining features of the rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo has been the inability of critics and pundits to definitively decide who is better. There are a host of footballing legends who believe Messi's creativity and artistic approach to the sport make him the superior footballer. But there are others who find it difficult to look beyond the all-round goalscorer that Ronaldo is and the fact that he has scored numerous clutch goals.

For instance, Pele, who has changed his mind numerous times, seems to lean towards Ronaldo. Meanwhile, Ronaldo's United teammate Paul Scholes prefers Messi. Similarly, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane and Iker Casillas have chosen the Portuguese over the Argentine. But at the same time, the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Marco van Basten and Fabio Capello tend to feel Messi's genius is a notch above Ronaldo's.

The common aspect in all of these legends' opinions is that they believe both Messi and Ronaldo are a level above the rest. At the end of the day, that is what makes them so special. The division in opinion simply proves there is no definitive way of saying one is better than the other. And that is the beauty of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry that has dominated our TV screens for so many years.

#1 The manner in which Messi and Ronaldo revolutionized El Clasico

'El Clasico' is one of the most celebrated football clashes of all time. The rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid has seen several memorable moments over the last century. The matches between the two sides are always sprinkled with magic, controversy and intensity.

Who can forget Ronaldinho's incredible brace that got him a standing ovation at the Bernabeu? Or when Real thumped Barcelona 5-0 at the Bernabeu in 1995 with Barca's very own Michael Laudrup and Luis Enrique dropping a masterclass against their former side?

The introduction of Messi into this rivalry came back in the 2006-07 season. On his Clasico debut, the diminutive Argentine registered a hat-trick to give Barcelona a share of the spoils. On the whole, Messi played 45 matches against Real Madrid for the Catalans, scoring 26 goals and providing 14 assists.

Ronaldo entered the scene in 2009, featuring in a 1-0 loss for Los Blancos. While his introduction was not as impressive as Messi's, the Portuguese has had his fair share of moments in football's biggest rivalry. Overall, he played 30 matches for Real against Barcelona, scoring 18 goals and recording one assist.

The introduction of both players increased El Clasico's popularity significantly. What began as a sub-plot soon became the definitive cause for attraction. Fans tuned in in massive numbers for the matches, even if their club loyalties lay elsewhere across Spain and even Europe just to see the two magicians at work.

Beyond their statistics and results, Messi and Ronaldo provided sheer joy for football viewers and pundits through these matches. Both players have had several memorable moments and have single-handedly won Clasicos for their respective teams. But the major attraction was the phenomenon that involved two legendary footballers butting heads, fighting it out with the stakes flying through the roof.

Edited by Vishal Subramanian
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