Despite both men’s attempts to downplay its importance at various points, the Ballon d’Or has cut to the heart of the Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo rivalry like nothing else. As is possible in a team sport, it was a battlefield where teammates, coaches and their collective achievements took a relative back seat.
You might think it added an artificial and rude peacocking element to the ongoing debate about who was the best in their era, who was the GOAT and such. But when it comes down to deciding the best player in the world, he cuts through all the noise with a glittering golden ball.
After Messi once again extended his lead in the personal battle for the Ballon d’Or as victories in 2019 and 2021 took his record haul to seven, he admitted that Ronaldo had stung when he reached the level of his fifth achievement in 2017.
“On the one hand, I appreciated having five and being the only one to do it,” Messi said. “When Cristiano leveled me, I have to admit that it hurt a bit. I was no longer alone at the top. But it was logical, although it is nice when you are alone in the top five.”
Ronaldo’s desire to chase Messi – with the Ballon d’Or laid out as the central pillar of his argument for greatness – was on display for all to see when he bizarrely bellowed the original “SIIIUUUUU” from the podium before presenting the 2014 award.
“To win this trophy and an award of this kind is something unique,” he said before taking everyone by surprise. “Obviously it’s something I always think about, to be considered one of the greatest players of all time. It takes a lot of effort and I hope to get there.”
One of the greatest of all time? Ronaldo can consider it very much a mission accomplished. However, we can remove the “one of” from any discussion surrounding Messi.
Ronaldo won major international honors ahead of Messi at Euro 2016, helped him equal the Ballon d’Or tally and has five Champions League winners’ medals to his rival’s four.
But throughout their dual dominance of the global game, the likes of which will likely never be seen again for their incomprehensible brilliance and longevity, they always felt like Ronaldo was stalking them. It elevated him to greater heights and gave Messi a pointed nudge to a higher plain.
The World Cup victory, which saw Messi emotionally complete his career mission, came as Ronaldo stormed out of Manchester United before leaving Portugal. It suggested a gap, which is a bit unfair.
Their titanic back-and-forth, especially during imperial periods at Barcelona and Real Madrid, was unlike anything that had come before it. But in the predicament familiar to dozens of elite defenders trying to contain Messi, Ronaldo was often the one nipping at the great man’s heels as he slipped the other way.
During 2023, they each decided to go in very different directions; Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia and Messi to Major League Soccer. There will no doubt be money-spinning friendlies between Inter Miami and Al Nassr, but their days as rivals are over. As such, the debate is over and has been for some time before Monday’s ceremony in Paris.
Ronaldo didn’t even make the 30-man shortlist this year, another strong signal of the end of an era. Messi is poised to fend off nearest challenger Erling Haaland to reach the top step of the podium. He definitely won’t be able to do that again.
When he won in 2021, Messi did so on the back of Argentina’s Copa America triumph. This time it will be at the World Cup, which means a shift to the autumn of this affair. The club has of late more weight than the country.
If Ronaldo and Roberto Martinez’s revitalized Portugal fight their way to Euro 2024 glory next year, they may once again enter the winner’s circle. Messi still has plans to defend the World Cup with Argentina in 2026.
Whether they score plenty of goals in Riyadh or Miami, Messi and Ronaldo have now left the elite club competition for reasons beyond sheer wealth. They relax, the argument is settled.
Ronaldo is almost indefinably great, but Messi is the greatest – whether you count it in hundreds of goals, dozens of medals or eight Ballon d’Ors.