It was one of those great 'will they, won't they' moments in football but when it was all done and dusted, Argentina and Lionel Messi emerged as champions of the world, cementing a legacy that will surely take generations to be bested. The day he retires will be one of the saddest days in world football, but as of now, Argentina fans and Messi fanatics all over the world have earned the right to celebrate and rejoice in his 'last dance', at least at the World Cup, a dance which was one to remember for the ages.
Argentina were second-best for almost the entire tournament, yet they somehow had destiny smiling over them throughout. If the disastrous opening against Saudi Arabia taught us anything, it is the virtue of losing the first game of an important tournament, especially if your team is one of the favorites. But this was a tournament that was always going to be about resilience, more often than flair, and the two teams that played in the final displayed that attribute in abundance.
Contrasting fortunes for both Messi and Ronaldo in recent World Cups
The 2022 tournament will be remembered as the 'Lionel Messi World Cup,' a momentous occasion where he finally seemed to have cemented his legacy as the greatest footballer to ever kick a ball. In truth, very few Argentine enthusiasts, even the optimistic ones, never envisaged such an outcome. They may have dreamed and pined for it, but Lionel Messi winning a World Cup seemed a step too far. His dejected face after the Round of 16 defeat against France in 2018 spoke a thousand words, and we wondered then if it was to be his final farewell on the world’s biggest stage.
Surprisingly enough, 2018 had been a wonderful year for Messi’s arch-nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, who had his best World Cup on a personal level, even though he missed out on that year’s Ballon d’Or to Luca Modric. His 93rd minute equalizer against Spain, which also completed his hat-trick that night, has garnered 94 million views on FIFA’s official Youtube channel till date.
It had proved to be Ronaldo’s best ever World Cup, even if he could not lead Portugal to the coveted title. The saving grace for the Argentinian captain back then was that both the Portuguese and himself exited the World Cup in the same round.
Messi has outperformed Ronaldo in World Cup history
So, the 2018 World Cup left a bad taste in the mouth for Argentina and especially Lionel Messi fanatics. It seemed as if Ronaldo had finally managed to outperform his greatest rival on the biggest stage. Had their journey ended there, the debate to declare the Greatest Player of All Time would have truly been open. But god had other plans.
Lionel Messi not only had a better World Cup in 2022 than Ronaldo’s performances in 2018, but he was also able to lead his nation to their third World Cup title. In truth, some Messi worshipers have not yet fully digested this wonderful reality, including the author of this article. That destiny gifted Messi another chance to lift that coveted trophy eight and a half years after his legacy seemed to remain incomplete in Brazil is nothing short of miraculous.
Squad comparison: Argentina had a weaker squad than previous editions of the tournament
To make matters even more preposterous, the great moment (Messi lifting the Cup) came when few people were expecting it to happen. Sure, Argentina won the Copa America last year, beating Brazil in the final, but a World Cup triumph was surely too much for them. It was, after all, not a team made up of world class talent who played for big clubs. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez himself has said that their team was 99.9% comprised of Messi.
Players such as Marcos Acuña, Gonzalo Montiel, Enzo Fernandez, Alexis Mac Allister, Emiliano Martinez, German Pezzella, Alejandro Gomez, Guido Rodriguez and a few others are not exactly ’world beaters,' and definitely not of the quality you associate with World Cup winners. This becomes especially true when we compare these players, all of whom formed a core part of the triumphant Argentina team, with the core group of World Cup-winning players from France in 2018, Germany in 2014 and Spain in 2010.
The gulf in quality between these previous World Cup-winning players and the Argentina players of 2022 is almost laughable, such is the gap. And yet, for some reason, after December 18, these players were suddenly elevated to the status of World Cup winners.
Few people knew Emiliano Martinez three years ago; now he is the most sought-after goalkeeper in the world, with Bayern Munich of all clubs interested in him. This only goes to show how much they have grown in the last couple of years, not only as players but as people. Their lives have changed. They have become immortals.
Squad comparison: Portugal had a stronger side than Argentina but they failed to click
Their achievement becomes even more incredible when we look at some of the other sides in the World Cup. How about we look at the Brazil squad? Or England’s?
Just to add more fuel to the fire of the Messi-Ronaldo GOAT debate, let's take a look at the Portugal team and the cast of characters Cristiano Ronaldo had with him. Players such as Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo, Diogo Dalot, Rafael Leão, Ruben Neves, and William Carvalho are almost all household names, and definitely play for much bigger clubs than their Argentinian counterparts.
It is a star-studded line-up, as any football-follower worth their salt will tell you. The squad ranks only below Brazil and England in terms of quality and star-power and can rival that of Germany and France.
This Portuguese core-group is one of the strongest on paper we have seen in many, many years. I have not even included Gonçalo Ramos here, although he has already established himself as an integral player for Benfica. In comparison, Argentina’s Julian Alvarez was only included in the squad to be the understudy of Lautaro Martinez and was a bench-warmer for Manchester City.
We just saw, at least on-paper, that Cristiano Ronaldo was given a better squad to fulfill his ambition of winning the World Cup. It is a shame that he chose an ill-timed moment to sit down for the Piers Morgan interview.
It is also unfortunate that in Fernando Santos, Portugal had a manager without a clue on how to get the best out of the embarrassment of riches he had at his disposal. The harsh truth is that Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo have nobody to blame but themselves, even if Pepe accused the Argentinian referee who was in charge of his team’s match against Morocco of bias.
Lionel Scaloni deserves a lot of credit
Let's put aside Lionel Messi for a moment and look at the other Lionel, the manager. Scaloni was the youngest coach in the Qatar World Cup, and many doubted his ability to guide the team to big silverware, most famously by the now deceased great Diego Maradona. Yet, his biggest challenge was not to win the World Cup but the ability to glue the team together after that morale-sapping loss against Saudi Arabia, a test he has passed with flying colors. It is so easy for teams to just bicker against one another in such situations, to completely fall apart. But Scaloni, helped by the ever-capable duo of Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel, knew how to deal with the challenge.
What makes Messi different from Ronaldo?
The biggest difference between Messi and Ronaldo is simply this: Ronaldo needs to score goals to stay relevant, whereas Messi may go without scoring or assisting in a single game and yet emerge as the best player on the pitch. What we saw in this year’s World Cup was no mere accident. Ronaldo failed to score against Morocco even after he had more than half an hour to play in the match. In fact, he failed to make an impact throughout the tournament, with ‘impact’ here being goals. Without goalscoring, much of the sheen from his performances wears off and he becomes irrelevant in the game.
Messi, on the other hand, does not even need to score to have an impact on the game. He may play a through pass or he may slalom past a couple of defenders and that will be enough to distinguish him from the others. His game is a lot more esthetically appealing, for it has firm roots in Latin American flair, highlighting the beautiful aspect of the beautiful game.
Ronaldo’s football is output-oriented; he is a machine churning out mind-boggling numbers. Messi’s football is not about churning out numbers but about solving tactical problems that opposition teams create in a game. And yet, his numbers are just as mind-boggling, if not more. Simply put, when Ronaldo stops scoring, people will forget about him pretty quickly.
Messi, on the contrary, has a higher-level of footballing intelligence when compared to any other player, making him relevant even when he does not seem to "provide" anything. Perhaps the biggest difference of all is that as their careers progressed, Ronaldo needed to be served on a platter to score goals whereas Messi turned into a playmaker/winger/striker. It is difficult to pin creator down to a single position and even define him.
His movement, his style of football makes him 'sui generis' or unique. Perhaps the biggest indictment of his greatness is that his ‘average’ performances, which are not many in truth, are equal to the best performances of other players. He has a habit of doing something extraordinarily, entertainingly outrageous in every single game, be it a lofted through pass or a chipped shot that we remember for some time to come.
Is the GOAT debate settled?
For all the debate surrounding the greatness of the two players, the Argentinian is just the better player when it comes to the opinions of most world-class footballers, managers and other elite athletes. He does seem to have a strange effect on people. Those who watched him for the first time rediscovered why they fell in love with football in the first place. There is something unique about him, his movement, his first touch and the way he simply caresses the ball into doing what he wants with it.
His vision and his through-passing ability, not to mention his dribbling, set him apart. The Argentinian is, as Xavi once pointed out, the best player in every position, even if they hadn’t put him as a goalkeeper yet. He is a playmaking creative midfielder cum second striker and right-winger. Further touted as a captain, a leader and a shape-shifter. Also a dreamer, a visionary, and a recon soldier spying on defenders while taking a walk. He is the most intelligent player on the pitch at any given moment. He is an icon. He is eternal.
Ronaldo is a European footballer, highlighting European ideals of hard work, discipline, strength and self-centrism. Messi’s football highlights the Latin American aspects of flair, diligence, skill and community-feeling. This can be seen in the way in which he is a team player, whereas Ronaldo gives us the impression that he plays only for his individual accolades and success.
Ronaldo’s football is about hard power, Messi’s is about soft-power.
For any neutral, the debate for the better player should have been settled by now. But with football being a contentious topic in itself, it is hard to believe that any true Cristiano fan would buy the Messi narrative. But the proof is there for all to see. Even FIFA has declared Messi as the better of the two in a tweet. As for his adoring fans, this debate was over the moment it began. With only one winner: Messi.