On Saturday night, Lionel Messi will play surely his last match for Paris Saint-Germain, against little Clermont. He has been looking as if he can’t wait to finish.
The achievement of his chief career goal — winning the World Cup with Argentina in December — appears to have drained him of motivation. PSG recently fined him for making an unapproved one-day promotional trip to Saudi Arabia, Parisian fans regularly jeer him, and he skipped last weekend’s title celebrations to attend a Coldplay concert in Barcelona. On June 24 he turns 36. He may add one last stage to his top-level career by returning to FC Barcelona, who might sign him with Inter Miami in an unusual player-sharing deal, or he may join his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo, now 38, in the elephants’ graveyard of the Saudi Arabian league, where an unprecedented salary of $380mn reportedly awaits him.
Whatever Messi decides, football’s greatest individual rivalry is drawing to a close. Measured over the length of their careers, he and Ronaldo are the two highest-achieving footballers the game has ever seen. Their rivalry made each man better than he would have been without the other. Our generation of football fans was blessed to witness them. Here we’ve tried to quantify their greatness across their entire careers, and to rank some other contenders.
The two could have been teammates. In summer 2003, when Messi was the star of Barcelona’s youth academy, the club eyed the purchase of 18-year-old Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon. Instead, the boy from Madeira joined Manchester United. “We thought €18mn was too high a price,” Barça’s then chief executive Ferran Soriano admitted later.
Though Ronaldo is 28 months older than Messi, they reached the top almost simultaneously. In 2007, the Brazilian Kaká won the Ballon d’Or for world’s best footballer. Second in the voting was a straight-backed Portuguese, and third a tiny Argentine with a flowerpot haircut, each making his first appearance on the podium.
A year later, the Portuguese won his first Ballon d’Or, and his agent Jorge Mendes hosted a sumptuous buffet. In May 2009, Messi’s leap to head home against Manchester United in the Champions League final marked his ascent to top spot. When he won that year’s Ballon d’Or, his family served supermarket pizzas.
That summer, the two men became direct rivals in the Spanish league. Real Madrid signed Ronaldo from United in essence as the antidote to Messi. For the next nine years — their joint prime — they went head-to-head in Spain.
How to compare great with great? Goals may seem a crude measure but they are the point of football. Breaking open modern defences is the most important and difficult thing in the game. By that measure, at first glance, Ronaldo is just ahead — but only because of his superior prowess at penalties. “Penaldo”, as mockers call him, scored 152, for a conversion rate of 84 per cent; Messi netted 108, converting just 78 per cent. Leave out penalties, and Messi has fractionally outscored Ronaldo, 660 to 657, despite a shorter career.
Add in assists — goals they laid on for teammates — and the verdict is clear: Messi was the greater player. Whereas Ronaldo is merely a brilliant goalscorer, Messi is a brilliant scorer and a brilliant creator. He long assisted more goals than the Portuguese, but the gap widened after about 2015, when Ronaldo, entering his thirties and warned about chronic damage to his left knee, converted himself from roving forward into penalty area-dwelling scoring machine.
What sets them apart from all past greats — except Alfredo Di Stéfano, Real Madrid’s leader of the 1950s and 1960s — is that they sustained their greatness for nearly 20 years. That’s largely because they timed their careers perfectly. In the decade before the duo arrived on the scene, football was redesigned to favour the superhero.
The prompt was television. Before the 1990s, few matches were televised live. Salaries were relatively modest, and the best players lived like rock stars, with little thought for the long term. George Best was an alcoholic, Johan Cruyff a chain-smoker, and Diego Maradona a cocaine addict. Then moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi built pay TV channels on football. Suddenly, clubs became content providers, and stars were premium content. Clubs offered stars a new deal: we’ll pay you fortunes if you’ll eat and train and work like professionals. Messi and Ronaldo accepted the offer.
Spurred by TV, football changed its rules to protect the stars. Referees cracked down on fouls, and tackles from behind were banned. Even if a referee missed a foul, the culprit still had to worry about being caught on camera. Messi said in 2005: “In professional football nothing really happens because there are referees. At school was where kicks were real kicks.” Once he and Ronaldo were recognised as international treasures, from about 2008, they received extra protection.
Meanwhile, nutrition and training improved. Messi, the more natural genius, only turned spartan once his body began to decline. Looking back, aged 30, he said: “I ate badly for many years — chocolates, soft drinks, everything. That was what made me vomit during games. Now I take better care of myself with fish, meat, salads.” Ronaldo from the start spent hours exercising at home. In 2016, he further tightened his brutal diet, dropping from 82kg to 79kg to regain some speed.
The two kept going so long partly because they motivated each other, competing for the status of world’s number one. French striker Kylian Mbappé explains that the best footballers keep tabs on each other. He told me: “You do always compare yourself with the best in your sport, just as the baker compares himself with the best bakers around him. Who makes the best croissant, the best pain au chocolat? I think Messi has done Ronaldo good, and Ronaldo has done Messi good. For me they are the two best players in history, but I think that one without the other might not have remained the best far ahead of the others for 15 years. Maybe they would have let themselves go at some point. But to have an equally good player in the rival team of the same league, I think the motivation is at a maximum.”
When Mbappé himself was in contention for highest scorer in Europe in the 2018-19 season, he noticed that Messi kept outscoring him. “I’d score two, he’d score three; I’d score three, he’d score four. It was so crazy that I talked to Ousmane [Dembélé, Mbappé’s friend who plays for Barcelona]: ‘It’s not possible! Is he doing it on purpose? Does he check how many goals I score?’” Dembélé told him: “Of course he’s watching you!” Messi finished that season as Europe’s leading scorer, with 36 goals, three more than Mbappé.
The Messi-Ronaldo rivalry has a parallel in the almost simultaneous and equally enduring rivalry in men’s tennis, between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer needed time to get used to having competitors of equal quality — Nadal, Novak Djokovic and sometimes Andy Murray — but, he says: “At one point you tip your hat — ‘You’re very good.’ I take joy after realising you cannot just be alone at the top. You need rivals. I’m thankful to these guys, to make me a better player.”
Conversely, John McEnroe felt robbed of a rivalry when Björn Borg unexpectedly walked out of tennis in 1983, aged just 26. McEnroe reflected later: “I always wished we had played more. I know he made me a better player and I hope I made him better at some stage . . . I tried to talk him out of stopping many, many moons ago. Even if I had lost my number-one ranking, I would have preferred he kept playing.”
Messi and Ronaldo forced each other to weekly greatness.
But brilliance on demand can become strangely dull. Whereas the drug addict Maradona offered the spectacle of the footballer’s struggle with the inner man, the inhuman consistency of Messi and Ronaldo seemed automatic. The only thing that both men lacked was an interesting persona. Perhaps it’s impossible to develop one if you devote your life to sporting greatness.
Of the 13 Ballons d’Or awarded between 2008 and 2021, Messi won seven and Ronaldo five. (The only other winner was Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić in 2018.) No player before them had won more than three. Sitting beside Ronaldo in Monaco at the draw for the Champions League in 2019, Messi told an interviewer: “It was a beautiful rivalry, especially when he was at Madrid.” Ronaldo listened intently, then added: “I was curious, because we’ve shared this stage for 15 years, me and him. I don’t know if this has ever happened in football. And of course we have a good relationship. We’ve not had a dinner together yet, but I hope in the future . . . ” and he trailed off, laughing, perhaps embarrassed by the temerity of his suggestion.
In fact, they may never have that dinner. Their rivalry wasn’t underpinned by love — not like the one between Federer and Nadal, who wept together at Federer’s farewell match, or between the longtime queens of women’s tennis, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova, who decades after their careers still called each other late at night when one of them needed help. But Ronaldo was surely the contemporary whom Messi most respected — which doesn’t mean he regarded him as an equal.
Messi always cultivated his place in football history. Early in his career, he began consciously constructing his lifetime oeuvre. Much as players deny it, football is also an individual sport. Messi measured his greatness in goals, personal awards and team trophies. Our statistical assessment of his career would make sense to him. Until he was well past 30, his unspoken agreement with his coaches was that they wouldn’t substitute him even when his team was winning 5-0, in part because he was always pursuing personal scoring records — sometimes trying to break his own. After Messi scored his 600th club goal in 2019, Federer marvelled: “These are unheard-of numbers, and we see the same thing happening in basketball now, with all these records being broken. People are just more aware of them and I think they push harder, become more professional.”
If you’re too good for top-level football, you end up competing with the greats of the past. Messi’s chief rival, ahead of Ronaldo, was arguably Maradona. Just as LeBron James in basketball has always measured himself against Michael Jordan, Messi battled the ghost of his compatriot.
His club career soon outclassed Maradona’s, but Messi spent 16 years trying to match his predecessor’s feat of winning Argentina the World Cup. The moment on December 18 last year when he stood on the field of Qatar’s Lusail Stadium waving the trophy — or at least a fake that he’d accidentally been given during the celebrations — his career was complete.
Ronaldo had walked out of the tournament in tears after his team’s elimination, and then in effect exited top-level football by leaving Manchester United for Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia. Yet it’s wrong to cast Lusail as Messi’s ultimate triumph over Ronaldo. The sample size of matches is tiny, and it’s unfair to judge Ronaldo on his performance aged 37 when hardly any past great even played a World Cup at that age. Moreover, Portugal has just 10mn inhabitants, versus Argentina’s 46mn. Ronaldo did help his country win its first major tournament, Euro 2016.
Still, Argentina’s victory is remarkable in that no other team from outside Europe has even made it to the podium — the top three places — in the past five World Cups. Six different western European teams and Croatia reached the podium. Even fourth-placed Morocco last year had a squad that was mostly born and/or raised in Europe. That’s how special Messi is: he can beat the best Europeans.
Now that we can place the two men’s careers in historical context, it’s clear: they towered over all other footballers who ever played, and would have done so even had they retired in about 2019. It’s absurd to mock Ronaldo as a Salieri, Mozart’s inferior rival. In almost any other era, the Portuguese would have reigned supreme. Kevin Keegan, Allan Simonsen and Michael Owen all won Ballons d’Or as Europe’s best player, Keegan and Simonsen admittedly in a time when non-Europeans weren’t yet eligible for the prize. None was in Ronaldo’s class. Even the three-time winner Michel Platini probably wasn’t.
Partly because almost every match Messi and Ronaldo played was televised worldwide, they overshadowed all their contemporaries. The best players of Cameroon, Japan or Bulgaria — who before global TV would have been revered in their own countries — looked mediocre by comparison.
But imagine, for a moment, that Messi and Ronaldo had never been born. In that case, the most prolific goalscorers in Europe’s biggest leagues since 1980 would have been Robert Lewandowski (of Poland and Barcelona) and Karim Benzema (of France and Real Madrid).
Judging by their career scoring trajectories (excluding penalties), those two aren’t better than all past greats. But they have kept going for longer. Both are still banging in goals — Lewandowski at 34, Benzema at 35 — presumably aided by their self-care. The two have elaborate home gymnasiums, while Lewandowski also has a sleeping coach and follows a diet that entails eating meals backwards, starting with dessert.
Benzema won last year’s Ballon d’Or — quite a feat in the era of Messi and Ronaldo — which means that no man currently aged under 35 has won the award. That will probably remain true this year, when Messi, buoyed by last winter’s World Cup, is expected to lift his eighth Ballon. The next generation will probably take over only in 2024.
The two leading contenders, Mbappé (PSG and France, aged 24) and Erling Haaland (Manchester City and Norway, aged 22) have easily outscored Ronaldo and Messi at similar ages. (The Portuguese and Argentine took time to translate their obvious genius into goals.) Yet Mbappé says he knows he isn’t as good as they are. “It’s not only me who knows that,” he laughed. “Everyone knows it. If you tell yourself you’ll do better than them, it’s beyond ego or determination — it’s lack of awareness. Those players are incomparable. They have broken all laws of statistics.”
Still, it’s conceivable that he and Haaland could end up rivalling the rivalry of Messi and Ronaldo, if they can keep going for another 15 years or so. But scanning the graph of great young goalscorers across history, one man stands out: the Brazilian Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, “O Fenômeno”, not to be confused with his Portuguese namesake. Admittedly, he scored his early goals in Brazil and the Netherlands, for Cruzeiro and PSV Eindhoven, but in the 1990s those leagues were relatively strong — probably comparable to today’s French league, where Mbappé has scored his goals.
In 1997, aged 21, the Brazilian became the youngest man to win the Ballon d’Or. Then, perhaps weakened by his love of eating and partying, he suffered several serious injuries. Even after that, whenever he was three-quarters fit and not too fat, he was still the best, as witness his domination of the World Cup 2002. Without injuries, playing in today’s more professional era, could he have been better than Messi?
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist; John Burn-Murdoch is the FT’s chief data reporter
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend on Twitter