The GOAT Debate: Ronaldo or Messi?


Eden Aulov

Seventeen: a ripe age for the youngsters of football. At age seventeen, Cristiano Ronaldo made his debut for Portuguese club Sporting Clube de Portugal, bursting onto the scene with a hibernating legacy unbeknownst to the fans at the time, but visible to billions around the globe today. Two years later, a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old Argentinian by the name of Lionel Messi made his first appearance for Spanish side F.C. Barcelona. At the time, it seemed impossible to have guessed that that little boy from Rosaria, Argentina, would become a Barcelona legend, almost symbolic of the crest carried by the century-old team. 

For decades since their debuts and their rises to popularity, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been compared, criticized, and picked apart by fans and critics alike. From trophies and awards, techniques and pace, the age-old question is: which of the two is truly the greatest of all time?

While this essay will be solely opinionated, it seems necessary to mention that each may have their own view. Plenty goes into the weighted title of “the greatest of all time,” and it is not a phrase to be taken lightly. It is also necessary to mention that other football legends, such as Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, R9, Zidane, and Pele, among others, are considered for the title. Nevertheless, for pure comparison of the two current, undeniably talented, legendary players we have been blessed with decades of beautiful athleticism from, I will consider the factors between Ronaldo and Messi I deem important to settle this debate. 

Lionel Messi, on December 18th, 2022, along with the rest of the Argentina soccer team, won the World Cup, in a nail-biting victory against France, the reigning champions since the 2018 World Cup held in Russia. Looking at facts, this is one of many achievements Messi has that Ronaldo simply doesn’t. It is true that Messi is decorated with the highest achievement of football: winning the World Cup for one’s country, while Ronaldo is not. However, there are other factors that go into this. For one thing, without denying Messi’s genius on the pitch, Ronaldo was not blessed with a team as talented and historically gifted at football as Argentina. Portugal, though reaching the quarter-finals in the 2022 World Cup before losing 1-0 to Morocco, is not known for its gift of football. In fact, Portugal has only qualified for eight total World Cups, Cristiano Ronaldo being in five of these squads. Argentina, in comparison, was present at eighteen World Cups, third in appearances only behind Brazil and Germany. Argentina’s expertise is visible, as well. There is no denying the genius of Messi and Argentina, but there is denying the genius of Portugal’s. Already, in my opinion, was it a feat for Cristiano Ronaldo to have created such incredible results, put such an fruitless football country on the world map within his twenty years of World Cup play. Though Messi has more World Cup goals and one more title, Ronaldo does not have the same amount of extremely talented players on his team to match his expertise, and as a result, no World Cup title.

Ronaldo and Messi are also difficult to compare strength-wise. Ronaldo rose to fame for strengths of his pace, his technique, his ability to outplay defenders as if they were nothing more than children. His long-range goals, free-kicks, and heading ability constituted the ideal player. Prime Ronaldo was also known for his dribbling skills; since his Portuguese league days, defenders dreaded his quick feet and even quicker way of dribbling almost through them, like a hurricane, as if they weren’t there at all, as if it was a common Portuguese street game with his friends instead of the prestigious Premier League. Messi was composed of the characteristics Ronaldo was missing, but made an ideal player in a different way. Known for his vision, his knowledge of the game, Messi is an anomaly in that he has sight beyond the common man. His innate ability to see openings where there shouldn’t be openings, to fake out defenders and play mind-games with his shrewd intellect and quick feet, were and are the stuff of legend. Other than his extraordinary goal-scoring ability as a result, Messi’s dribbling poses a skill perhaps outweighing Ronaldo’s (dribbling wise). There are few players fans will ever see again in the game of football who can dribble the way Messi can, create chances and goal-scoring opportunities the way only the genius of an Argentinian embodying the late Maradona’s spirit can.

I could get into individual club appearances and their goal-to-appearance ratios, their Ballon D’Or and Golden Boot wins, their goals scored in various championships and different leagues, different results with different teams, etc. but that would take hours. Messi, statistically, wins, though not far at all from Ronaldo’s statistics. In my opinion, what makes a great player, though, is not only their results, but what they do to achieve those results. Messi and Ronaldo, both self-made, both coming from poor backgrounds in their respective countries, worked to the bone to get where they are today. This, looking at their results, already makes them the GOATs in my eyes. Yet Ronaldo wins for me mentality-wise. The man who lost his father in the middle of a match, lost his newborn son and was flamed by the English press for not participating in the preseason of the Premier League as a result of his grief, the child who begged McDonald’s girls for burgers at the end of  a hot, Portuguese day after being hungry all day, sleeping on the floor, dreaming of a better life. Ronaldo’s mentality was always to be the best, the stuff of legend. He is there hours before every training session, and hours after everybody leaves. A man who worked from the ground up to make a name for himself, to make it out of poverty, to create a legacy comparable to prominent historical figures, inspiring young and old with just the syllables of his name, in my eyes, becomes the GOAT not just through technique, but through mentality, through desire, through hard work. 

The answer to the GOAT debate is this: Ronaldo and Messi are the GOATs in tandem, not in rivalry. They are both the greatest because they deserve the titles of being the greatest, because they put their hearts and souls into careers that they are criticized on the daily for. They gave viewers twenty years of arguably the best football known to man, of entertainment and inspiration beyond our wildest dreams. More so than their talent, these men have succeeded in inspiring generations upon generations of billions of people around the world, creating a joint legacy that will never be forgotten.