Soccer won’t be the same when they’re gone. We’ve taken it as a given that Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are the poles of the soccer world, but before Lionel Messi rose through Barca’s youth system and before Madrid broke the world transfer record to bring Ronaldo over from Manchester, the balance of power was, well, more balanced. Barcelona won the Champions League in 2009, after seven different clubs lifted the trophy in the eight years prior. In the eight years since, either Barcelona or Madrid has won the Champions League five times.
They’re both living gods, but it won’t be this way forever. So, in honor of the first El Clásico on American soil, we’re adding up their shirt numbers and celebrating the 17 things you need to know about the two best soccer players in the world.
Five Best Messi Goals
5. Arsenal: March 8, 2011
Even though Messi’s game has never had any room for Ronaldo-esque stepovers or no-look passes, he’s produced more playground moments than any other player. You end a pickup game as soon as something like this happens because everyone immediately turns into spaghetti. It’s the kind of goal this GIF was made for. It’s totally disrespectful and completely necessary … and Messi did it with Barcelona down a goal in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
4. Real Madrid: April 27, 2011
This is American football. Messi takes a handoff from Sergio Busquets and takes it 45 yards, untouched and without a lead blocker, for the score. The moment he grabs the ball, Madrid already looks defeated. Ronaldo’s walking, and even though six Madrid players are closer to Messi than anyone on Barcelona, they all look like they’re in ankle weights. You’d think this was the fifth goal in a rout, but it was the second goal in a 2–0 win in the Champions League semifinals. This Barcelona vintage was Pep Guardiola’s best — it rivals the 14–15 side as the best team Messi’s played on — and according to The Guardian, this goal vaulted Messi into the pantheon: “Mention of Messi alongside Pelé, Maradona and Cruyff is starting to feel obligatory rather than merely tempting.”
3. Athletic Bilbao: May 30, 2015
Messi started out his career on the right wing, and he’s probably the best right winger of all time. But he also might be the best no. 10 and best false 9. So, as his managers realized they not only had one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the sport but also one of the greatest creators, his starting position shifted toward the center of the field. The goal against Bilbao, in the final of the Copa Del Rey, is a throwback. Look at this:
From this point on, no one else touches the ball, and Messi scores. Along with Ronaldo, he birthed the modern inverted winger — and then realized his time was better spent elsewhere. But just in case Bilbao were wondering: He still does it better than anyone else.
2. Bayern Munich: May 7, 2015
Jérome Boateng is the best center back in the world, and Manuel Neuer is the best keeper. Watch the video again, and think about that. It’s really all the context you need.
If the goal against Madrid was the one that put Messi in the conversation alongside the all-time greats, this is the one puts him on his own. Guardiola’s Bayern team may have been the deepest, most-talented, and most balanced side of this decade, but none of that mattered because they didn’t have Messi. The most exhilarating and fulfilling moment in sports isn’t when an unfancied underdog takes down an undisputed favorite. No, it’s when an incomparable master ascends above all of the merely great players around him. It was LeBron’s fourth quarter in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and it was Messi’s second half against Bayern the year before.
1. Getafe: April 18, 2007
Any list that doesn’t put this one first is trying too hard. At 19, Messi had already lived up to the Maradona comparisons. There are about 15 different moments throughout the goal where Messi does the exact opposite of what the defense is expecting. And that’s the essence of him as a player: Normally, an opposing defense is a problem that an attacker has to solve. Where’s the weak spot? Can I take on the fullback? Should I play a through ball? Do I just move the play toward the other side of the field? But since Messi is capable of anything with the ball at his feet, he becomes the puzzle, and the defense has to try to guess what he’s going to do next.
Ten years later, no one has come close to figuring it out.
Five Best Ronaldo Goals
5. Galatasaray: September 17, 2013
This was a game in which Real Madrid rattled in six goals, but at least Galatasaray pulled one back in exchange for Ronaldo turning half of their backline into ghosts. The attacking move itself is probably the most impressive thing here, but afterward, Ronaldo still had to punch through a pretty narrow window after drifting so far left. The best thing about Ronaldo goals is the resignation that washes over the faces he leaves in his rearview. Competitors would tell you the abject worst losses are the ones when you get beat despite having stood a good chance of winning. But what about the defeats that make you wonder why you even got out of bed that morning?
4. Espanyol: January 31, 2016
Also not the most auspicious goal, and maybe even an indictment of a top-heavy La Liga in which maybe even you could score a hat-trick against the bottom-rung teams. But you only believe that if you also think stuff like Bama could beat the worst NFL team and hate any time Ronaldo does a stepover. The dribbling used to be more frequent and less useful, but since evolving to apex predator, Ronaldo now only breaks out a stepover to steal more space. In other words, he uses them for the thing they were originally meant for. This was the third goal of a 6–0 drubbing, but who cares? The man took a chance deflection half the length of the field and turned it into the goal of the year barely a month into 2016.
3. Roma: April 1, 2008
I usually have the same two thoughts while watching this. The first is: “The crossbar of a regulation soccer goal is eight feet high, and Ronaldo must be at least that tall.” The second is: “There was a time when United played lively attacking soccer; when they had all three of Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, and a still-transcendent Wayne Rooney, with hundreds fewer games on his knees.” If your defense stifled one, you’d have to plug up the other two, and if you managed to keep them all at bay, pressure would build until someone got a running start and splintered the whole thing open. This was the first of two crucial away goals in a Champions League quarterfinal against Roma. An important thing to note: Ronaldo starts his run totally out of frame here, but was last seen somewhere around the center circle. Then Paul Scholes — lovable, reliable Paul Scholes — loops a ball to the back post, and Ronaldo puts both it and his marker in the back of the net. Pace, precision, power; like a great white shark breaching for an inner tube on the surface. HE COULD KILL YOU AT ANYTIME.
2. Portsmouth: January 30, 2008
I didn’t see this until EPL Review, during the wonder years when Fox Soccer Channel existed and just showed random replays and infomercials all the time. I can’t remember what I was drinking but I do recall spitting it out, rewinding, and saying, to no one, “This is not how physics work.” How can something whip and swerve and dip and somehow not move at all? Ronaldo was still sort of playing like a superhero in the first film of a trilogy during the 2007–08 season. These free kicks — his technique appeared to just be ball your toes up and belt the absolute shit out of it — were still just as likely to end up in the stands as to knuckle into the top shelf. But this felt like a turning point, an announcement. Sure it was sad David James left there helpless with his feet glued to the ground, but it could’ve just as easily been Petr Cech. Or Gigi Buffon. Or Iker Casillas. Seriously, who could’ve stopped this? Who could stop him?
1. Porto: April 15, 2009
I imagine there to be pistons where Ronaldo’s quads should be. I also honestly believe that this ball would’ve blown a hole in the hoarding and continued on out into the parking lot if the net wasn’t there to stop it. The craziest thing about it is that when Ronaldo receives the ball across his body — 40 yards out — he doesn’t even look up to see if the keeper was off his line. That’s because he had no intention of chipping or dinking or putting any English on this ball whatsoever; he was trying to kill it. The ball, I mean. Or the goal. Or the notion that he breathed the same air as anyone that could be considered an “equal.” Or me. I don’t know. To note, this was the must-win second leg of a Champions League quarterfinal, and it was the game’s only goal. If you ask me, the 80 million pounds that Real Madrid paid for him less than three months after this was a full set of zeroes short.
Low-key Best Messi Goal
Paolo Uggetti: Messi’s highlight goals — the ones we’ll remember years from now — are masterpieces of threading through entire defenses and finishing inside or around the 18-yard box with tact. He doesn’t typically resort to simply letting his left foot project a powerful ball into the net. Messi is a proactive player, not a reactive one, but in this goal vs. Getafe in 2010, he has no choice but to simply react. The result, of course, is still immaculate.
First, watch how Messi stays away from the play as long as possible. When I played soccer in high school, we used to call this role of standing atop the box and away from the cluster inside “picking up the garbage.” Once he sees that the ball has been collected by Seydou Keita, Messi begins to move into space, and the defender in front of him has already lost his position. But the pass from Keita is just the slightest bit off. It’s to the side of Messi’s path, so he can’t hit the ball in stride. But Messi adjusts and reacts on the run; the quick-footed horizontal stutter-step while his body barrels forward allows him to run up to the ball smoothly and one-touch it into the goal.
The angle and spin the ball take off his foot remind me of falling into YouTube black holes and happening upon videos where professional glassmakers bend glass as if it were Play-Doh. In Spanish, this effect is called “comba.” (The view from behind Messi is the best). It’s art, and in this underappreciated goal, Messi picks up garbage and turns it into a masterpiece.
Messi’s Best Miss
O’Hanlon: The spirit of that famous photo of Maradona sizing up six frightened Belgian defenders at the 1982 World Cup has since been debunked: Argentina had just taken a free kick, and the Belgian players were breaking out of their wall. Instead, we have this:
There’s a fifth defender, offscreen to the left … and Messi still breaks directly through the center of the box. A couple of inches keep this play from making an earlier list, but when you get quintuple-teamed and you still come out on top — think of a basketball player getting to the rim during a one-on-five, except he’s using his feet — the process matters more than the result.
Ronaldo’s Best Disallowed Goal
O’Hanlon: A near-miss from Messi feels like a temporary quirk in the natural order. A disallowed Ronaldo goal feels like Thor launching a hammer at the God of Ego. Part of what makes Ronaldo one of the all-time greats is his legendary self-absorption. Ronaldo is incredible because Ronaldo wants Ronaldo to be incredible. His team’s success is just a byproduct of that.
With Manchester United and Real Madrid, Ronaldo had two über-talented and/or expertly managed teams that served as the perfect vehicles for him to see out his personal goal-scoring fantasies. But within the scattershot nature of international soccer and the inherently imperfect designs of the Portuguese squads throughout the years, even when Ronaldo did everything right for his country, it didn’t always work. That is, until last summer.
17 Facts to Explain the Rivalry
- From 1998 to 2007, a different player won the Ballon d’Or every year. From 2008 to 2016, only Messi and Ronaldo won.
- Ronaldo finished as runner-up in Ballon d’Or voting for the first time in 2007. He’s finished either first or second every subsequent year, except 2010.
- Messi finished as runner-up in Ballon d’Or voting for the first time in 2008. He’s finished either first or second every subsequent year, with no exceptions.
- Messi and Ronaldo each have nine first- or second-place finishes. Nobody else in the history of the award has more than four.
- Let’s dig into some game stats. The 2006–07 season was the first of double-digit domestic goals for both Ronaldo and Messi. Since then (a span of 11 years), Messi has 500 domestic points (goals plus assists) and Ronaldo has 470. Among players in Europe’s top leagues, there’s more than a 100-point gap between those two and third-place Zlatan Ibrahimovic (346).
- There’s more than a 200-point gap between those two and fourth-place Gonzalo Higuaín (267).
- Messi has more points than Wayne Rooney and Luis Suárez, the no. 7 and 8 players on that list, combined.
- Ronaldo has more points than Edinson Cavani and Antonio Di Natale, nos. 9 and 10, combined.
- Since 2006–07, there are 15 instances of a player in Europe’s top leagues reaching 45 or more points in a season. Eleven belong to Messi and Ronaldo.
- The top six single-season domestic goal totals since 2006–07 belong to Messi and Ronaldo.
- Ronaldo has the most overall club goals since 2006–07, with 351. Messi comes in second with 342.
- Zlatan (245) is the only other player within even 100 goals of either of the two greats.
- Messi’s best goal-scoring season was 2011–12, when he reached 50 goals in La Liga play. That season, he scored more goals by himself than 13 La Liga, 13 Bundesliga, 13 Ligue 1, 12 Premier League, and 10 Serie A teams.
- Ronaldo’s best goal-scoring season was 2014–15, when he reached 48 goals in La Liga play. That season, he scored more goals by himself than 14 La Liga, 14 Ligue 1, 11 Premier League, 11 Bundesliga, and six Serie A teams.
- It’s not just La Liga play. Either Messi, Ronaldo, or both has won the Champions League Golden Boot in each of the past 10 years. (The two tied with Neymar in the 2014–15 competition but have either won solo or tied each other in every other season in that span.)
- And when they meet on the field, they always provide excitement. Messi and Ronaldo have never participated in a goalless El Clásico.
- That run of goals is, of course, because of the two legends thzimbemselves. While they don’t score every time they face off, they come about as close as they can: In nearly 30 meetings since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid, there have never been consecutive Messi-Ronaldo matchups in which neither player scored.
A Very Brief History of Their Public Interactions
Megan Schuster: Apart from matches, Ballon d’Or ceremonies, and the occasional “let’s all get along” piece of street art, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi don’t appear in public together. A search for the two on Getty Images returns photos from award ceremonies dating back to 2007 (when Ronaldo was rocking the spiky-hair look and Messi looked like a long-lost member of an indie rock group), as well as league and international matches, but nothing outside of those arenas. Given their different sponsors, different home countries, and rumored unfriendly feelings toward each other, it makes sense that we don’t see snaps of them out brunching or playing NBA 2K together. The most sincere public interaction we’ve seen between them comes from the 2014 Ballon d’Or awards:
Just before the start of the ceremony, Ronaldo sat with his mother and oldest son, Cristiano Jr. When Messi entered the staging room, Cristiano Jr. (a pretty good soccer player himself!) lost it, and Ronaldo explained to Messi that his son had watched a video of him on the internet and hadn’t stopped talking about it since. Though his tone sounds slightly begrudging, it’s possibly the only compliment either player has given the other publicly that wasn’t the result of a probing press conference question or tabloid report about their supposed animosity. It was a nice, cordial moment between the two. Who knows when we’ll see that again.
Who’s the Best-Dressed Best Player in the World?
Shaker Samman: Every Ballon d’Or announcement since 2008 has ended with either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo posing with a golden ball. The names announced stay the same, but the clothes worn by the man accepting the award change from year to year.
Only one of these men has ever graced the cover of GQ, and that much becomes obvious every January. Ronaldo typically opts for a simple tux. Sometimes it’s blue with black lapels. Other times, it’s a classic black. Either way, his looks are timeless.
The same cannot be said for Lionel Messi. In 2011, the Argentine donned what looks like burgundy suede. In 2012, he chose black with white polka dots. The next year, it was a red three-piece, and in 2014, it was a deep purple. I’m not here to tell you Lionel Messi doesn’t have style. He pulls off each of his wilder fashion choices. There are no faux pas here. When he does go for a plain black tux, like in 2010, he doesn’t look nearly as happy.
Timeless looks are easy, but it takes confidence to pull off Messi’s Dolce & Gabbana tuxedos. Simple is boring, and Messi’s flamboyant choices are fun. It’s said the clothes make the man. And the man taking chances is the best-dressed footballer in the world.
Ronaldo’s Best Commercials
Michael Baumann: Just as important as Ronaldo’s on-field contributions are Ronaldo’s contributions to Nike’s tentpole tournament commercials. Here they are:
Euro 2008: “Take It to the Next Level”
What Ronaldo Does: Scores vs. Arsenal, makes smoochy faces at the camera, does a dipsy-doodle thing vs. the Netherlands
Best Ronaldo GIF:
World Cup 2010: “Write the Future”
What Ronaldo Does: Takes a free kick, nutmegs Homer Simpson, gets a biopic starring Gael García Bernal, is honored with a huge statue
Best Ronaldo GIF:
Euro 2012: “My Time Is Now!”
What Ronaldo Does: Runs on a treadmill, wears a shirt that doesn’t fit, doesn’t even touch the ball
Best Ronaldo GIF:
World Cup 2014: “Winner Stays On”
What Ronaldo Does: Scores a goal, shit-talks a teenager
Best Ronaldo GIF:
Euro 2016: “The Switch”
What Ronaldo Does: Swaps bodies with a child, crashes a Pagani, marvels at his own body, nutmegs Kyle Walker, sets up a goal for André Gomes, and a whole bunch of other stuff, because this commercial is all about Ronaldo
Best Ronaldo GIF:
Messi’s Best Kobe Bryant Commercial
It’s December 2012. Barack Obama is preparing for his second term as president. The Miami Heat are the sitting NBA champions. And Leo Messi, the greatest sub-5-foot-5 team-sport athlete ever, in the midst of an eventual second-place season in La Liga, reached his pinnacle of stateside fame by appearing in a commercial for Turkish Airlines alongside NBA superstar Kobe Bryant.
The commercial — “Legends on Board” — shows Messi and Kobe in business class, dueling for attentions of an autograph seeking child. Messi juggles soccer ball; Kobe a basketball. Messi balances the ball on his forehead while juggling yet another ball. Kobe builds a pyramid of playing cards. Messi counters with a European farmhouse made of playing cards, complete with windmill. Kobe responds with a balloon animal, possibly a dog. Messi comes back with a balloon panther. The match ends in a draw, however, when a flight attendant appears with a bowl of ice cream.
1. I’m still confused about demographics this commercial was targeting. Messi is not super-famous in the U.S.; Kobe, while arguably the most famous NBA player at that time, was 34 and past his prime.
2. Messi won.
The Evolution of Their Hairstyles
Uggetti: Ronaldo and Messi long ago stopped being just soccer players. When your combined Facebook page likes surpass 200 million, your profession encompasses everything you do, including the way you cut and style your hair.
Ronaldo’s rise to hair prominence began early during his Manchester United days, starting with a messy, curly look and evolving to his current close-shaved sideburns combined with the slicked back front. Messi’s styled do was a weird, late-blooming phenomenon that, alongside his tattooed sleeve, felt more contrived than anything.
For Messi, there was the early 2005, “Emo Stage” where his long hair draped over his eyes — like here, after his first-career goal.
Then 2006 and 2007 brought some maturation as he parted the bangs to the side, but still kept the long mane, even using a thin headband to keep it all together late in 2007. It remains a mystery as to why neither Pantene nor Head & Shoulders offered him a sponsorship.
Messi’s hair kept reshaping despite keeping its length, but in Ronaldo’s early days, his curls, which were occasionally dyed blonde, began contracting more and more gel by the season. By 2006, the split between actual hair and gel used had to be 50/50.
In 2008 Ronaldo opted for the fauxhawk and the mohawk, and yes, he eventually chose to gel that up, too. By the 2009 Champions League final, Messi had matured his hair into a shorter cut as he hoisted la Orejona after beating Manchester United. The long-hair-don’t-care stage wasn’t over, though. The new decade brought about Messi’s return to the mullet-like cut that nearly hit his shoulders.
In 2010, Ronaldo adopted a peculiar look, shortening up the sides, but letting strands of hair, four in this case, hang over his forehead. I wish I could say I get it, but I really don’t. He quickly reverted back to the short mohawk. Late 2011 and 2012 brought about a big change for Messi. It looked like he actually had gotten a stylist. By 2012, at the Ballon d’Or ceremony, the result was a smooth side-part that looked very proper.
Ronaldo countered the next year by winning the award, and redeeming 2012’s weird mohawk by showing up in a modestly gelled professional look.
In 2014, ahead of the World Cup, Messi went even shorter with a slight side-part. The hair (along with his play) netted him more than a few magazine covers. Ronaldo, coming off the infamous two-cut, razor-sharp look, took it up a notch for the Cup, buzzing two winding streams into the side of his hair.
In 2015, while Messi was figuring out ways to make his short hair even more stylish, Ronaldo went back to his Ballon d’Or look, just a little bit shorter and slightly less rigid. And then, in 2016, it all happened. Messi went rogue and died his entire head of hair silver blonde. I still can’t believe it happened, and I’ve been staring at this picture for 10 minutes.
Ronaldo was actually the one with normal-looking hair this time? Man, 2016 was a weird year. Messi eventually downgraded to only streaks of blond (still weird), and now has fully gone back to a combover with a robust beard.
The overarching lesson from all of this: less blonde, far less gel, and the shorter, the better.
The Best Time Messi Humiliated an England International
O’Hanlon: Poor James Milner. He’s actually gone on to become an important member of Liverpool’s defense, but deep down, he’s been ruined. Look at this fucking suit. What the hell, man? Maybe Messi messed with his conception of time, and now Milner thinks he’s a kid again. That’s good for the longevity of his playing career, but it’s got him trying to fit into the same outfit he wore to his first communion.
In the same game, Messi also did this to Fernandinho:
Little did Pep Guardiola know that Messi would commit an even more heinous double-crime to his keeper and his center back just a couple of weeks later.
The Best Time Ronaldo Humiliated All of England
Baumann: Let’s get one thing clear: Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t get Wayne Rooney sent off in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal.
Most of the focus in the aftermath was not on Rooney crunching Ricardo Carvalho’s Ballons d’Or, but on Ronaldo’s reaction. And listen, nobody’s more hateable than the Young Ronaldo, who was a troll and a drama magnet and too beautiful to be trusted. The wink was a bit much, and everyone hates a snitch.
But Rooney wrestled a dude to the ground and stepped on his balls right in front of referee Horacio Elizondo, who would eight days later send off Zinedine Zidane in the final. Blaming anyone but the ball-stomper for the red card is delusional, even for English soccer. Don’t want to get red carded? Don’t stomp on guys’ nuts, particularly in front of the ref.
In fact, it’d be more troubling if some Manchester United omertà persuaded Ronaldo to clam up in the face of his club teammate’s crime. If you see a dude’s balls getting stomped on, you should go to the authorities, lest your own balls be stomped on and the stomper go free.
A Detailed Analysis of Messi’s Failure to Win a Trophy With Argentina
O’Hanlon: Just kidding. Hard pass. There are 21 other people on a soccer field.
The Best Messi/Ronaldo Transfer That Didn’t Happen
Donnie Kwak: Transfer rumors haven’t so much followed Messi and Ronaldo as they’ve hovered above them like drunk birds, steered by tabloids and Twitter with varying degrees of credulity. Nobody really believes Leo or Cristiano would leave Barcelona or Real Madrid during the primes of their careers, but the usual suspects are still trotted out every summer: the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, PSG, and … FC Anzhi Makhachkala?!?
The spring of 2012 was a heady time for the Russian team with the funny name. Makhachkala had been promoted to the top flight in 2009; two years later, a 45-year-old billionaire named Suleyman Kerimov purchased the club with hopes of turning it into a European powerhouse. Soon after, Brazilian left back Roberto Carlos joined Anzhi on a free transfer; that summer, Samuel Eto’o signed from Inter Milan and became the world’s highest-paid footballer. The club hired Guus Hiddink as its new manager. The international press was now forced to reckon with this oil-backed upstart from the troubled republic of Dagestan.
Carlos, who acted as an assistant to Kerimov during his time at the club, was happy to feed the fire: “I have no preference for either [Messi or Ronaldo], but certainly Anzhi will try to sign both when their contracts expire.” Messi and Ronaldo, banding together as teammates for a club based in “the most violent republic in the North Caucasus”? It was so comically far-fetched that one could only hope it would happen. (To be fair, Ronaldo was dating a Russian model at the time.)
Of course, none of it did. The bubble burst; Anzhi made it as far as the round of 16 in consecutive Europa League campaigns before Kerimov decimated the budget and the big names summarily departed. Anzhi is now back to an anonymous midtable team. It was all thoroughly mediocre while it lasted. Shanghai SIPG, you listening?
Messi’s and Ronaldo’s Best Celebrations
Chris Ryan: The best Ronaldo and Messi goal celebrations are united in their savagery. They both took place on the opposing team’s turf, in crucial matches, and they weren’t so much daggers as swords through the heart. Messi typically celebrates with a brief burst of childlike wonder (Can you believe I just did that?!), while Ronaldo tends to veer toward self-regard (I just did that). It’s a distillation of how we view them — Messi, the kid; Ronaldo, the spoiled prince. But when you watch these two celebrations, they seem a lot more alike than not.
Messi’s is a recent vintage — this past April, El Clásico, at the Bernabéu. In the waning seconds of added time, with Real Madrid within touching distance of the La Liga title, Messi floated in from the right wing and let off a slingshot that brought Ray Hudson to climax and the stadium to its knees.
Messi proceeded to run toward the stands, ripping off his jersey, turning it around so that the Real Madrid fans could see the name and number, and then crossed himself, as if to say, “Forgive him, he knows not what he does.” It was breathtaking. I remember a few people saying at the time that it was a sign of the Bernabéu going soft that Messi didn’t get more abuse — that the sport, and specifically this matchup, had become such a global phenomenon that most of the fans in the building didn’t care enough to take offense. Try telling that to Messi. I’ve never seen someone more willing to take a yellow card.
When it comes to Ronaldo’s best celebration, there should be no question about the allegiances of the fans in the stadium. It was 2013, Portugal-Sweden, in Stockholm — the second match of a two-legged World Cup qualifying tie, with the winner punching its ticket to Rio the next summer. Portugal were up 1–0 after the first leg, and pushed that margin to 2–0 in the second. Then Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored two quick goals in the second half and things got interesting. And that’s when Ronaldo shut the door.
This is my house. This is my stadium. This World Cup will not happen without me. He is saying the same thing as Messi said in April.
Remember the name.
O’Hanlon: There’s a Wikipedia page for the New Maradona, and there are over nine million Google search results for “the next Messi.” Pick any nationality and plug it in front of Messi, and you’ll be able to find something: We finally have the American Messi, there’s a Finnish Messi, there’s a Messi of darts, and even Zimbabwean politics has its own Messi. There’s probably a Messi of your shared office refrigerator, and if you think hard enough about it, you’re likely the Messi of something. There are so many other Messis now that there are none. Messi has surpassed himself, and much like Michael Jordan, become synonymous with singular greatness.
There’s never been as much talk about the next Ronaldo, and there’s something gauche about referring to anyone as the Ronaldo of something. I mean, the guy looks like this. Ronaldo resembles a superhero, and both the shape of his body and the shape of his career — from wisp-thin stepover devotee to the Mr. Olympia of game-breaking wingers to an in-the-box goal-scoring poacher — would be foolish ends to pursue.
But that’s not exactly why we never hear about the Ronaldo of backgammon. No, it’s because while Ronaldo has perfected the art of being Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi has come as close to anyone in the modern era to perfecting his sport. He’s nearly gone goal-for-goal with Ronaldo in fewer games — and he has more if you strip out penalties — plus he’s eclipsed his Portuguese rival by 39 assists over the last 11 seasons. He’s produced more than anyone, and he’s done it more efficiently than anyone. Unlike Ronaldo, Messi can play anywhere across the front four, and with the ball at his feet, he’s basically exhausted the sport’s possibilities. They say you can watch a baseball game and see something new every time; well, you can watch a soccer game, and you’ll never see something that Lionel Messi hasn’t done.
Based on that, there can never be another Messi, but who’s come the closest? I asked Ted Knutson of StatsBomb Services which players have had the most similar statistical seasons this decade. For starters, no one. But if you stretch the boundaries enough, both Lyon’s Memphis Depay and Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez have put up Messi-shaped numbers — meaning a ton of dribbles, assists, and goals, all gathered efficiently and combined with an overwhelming number of touches in the box. But Alexis doesn’t quite work because he’s already been overshadowed by Messi at Barca, and Memphis has put up amazing numbers in both the Netherlands and France, but he’s currently best known as a Manchester United washout.
Instead, the closest comparison is the guy who may or may not be sick of being Messi’s teammate: Neymar. More specifically, the closest statistical season to Messi was Neymar in 2015–16, the year Messi briefly got hurt and Barcelona made the Brazilian the center of their solar system:
Since everything is more hyped than it was 10 years ago, Neymar was more hyped than Messi, but much like his teammate, he’s managed to live up to the surreal expectations. The soccer world is his whenever Ronaldo and Messi pack up their things, but will he rule from Spain or Paris? That depends on how much you trust Gerard Pique.
If you’re Messi, you do. If you’re Ronaldo, you don’t.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Barcelona won the Champions League in 2008, after eight teams had won in the eight years prior; they won in 2009, after seven teams won in the eight years prior.