The last decade has produced some of the finest moments in the history of football, and this is in no small part due to the efforts of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — the game’s extraordinary duo whose domination of European football has gone unchallenged since as far back as 2008.
The curse of one-sided greatness
Though it can be difficult to recall a time when the European game wasn’t governed in some way by the Ronaldo-Messi axis, there was a time before the prodigious duo’s rise to prominence when other names reigned supreme. Some excelled at club level, while others shone on the international stage — outside of a handful of Brazilians, most notably Ronaldinho and Kaka, few have done both.
Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff of the Netherlands are perhaps the most fitting examples of this dichotomy. Where the former single-handedly took a nation to glory, the latter shaped a club and dominated a nation, and, to a lesser extent, a continent. In all of Maradona’s exploits for country, he achieved relatively little with his club sides, Barcelona and Napoli. Indeed, “the golden boy” can count only two Serie A titles on his resume, and La Liga is notably absent from his list of honours. By contrast, Cruyff possesses a truly staggering club record: 3 European Cups and 8 Eredivisie titles with Ajax, a La Liga title with Barcelona, and a further Dutch league title with Feyenoord. But despite his near-unprecedented exploits at club level, Cruyff’s finest achievement with the Netherlands is World Cup runners-up medal from 1974.
A chance to stand out
However, two players who belong to the elite group of contenders for the tag of “greatest of all time” remain modern wonders, still close enough to their primes. And each still has a chance to stand out from a pack that includes not only Maradona and Cruyff, but also Zidane, Van Basten, Pele, Beckenbauer, Eusebio and others.
Cristiano Ronaldo, for one, has won just about everything there is to win in football, except for the World Cup. And Lionel Messi has followed suit, falling short only in the Copa America and the World Cup. But whether or not there are other players who surpass Ronaldo and Messi in particular areas, the two stand out as the most decorated of all the greats — both in terms of club honours and Ballon D’or awards. They claim 9 Champions League titles between them, and each has received the Ballon D’or a record-setting five times.
But notwithstanding the enormity of their achievements, their shared failure to secure a World Cup for their respective countries stands as a black-mark on their otherwise immaculate records. Winning the tournament may is all either player needs to cement his legacy as the Greatest Of All Time. Were one of them to achieve this feat, the debate would be closed, likely to never re-open. He would instantly join an elite group of only eight players to win a FIFA World Cup, European Cup, and Ballon D’or in his career — and if the ninth member were to be one of Ronaldo and Messi, he would possess a record far surpassing anything held by the other eight.
Last chance for the duopoly
Messi, of course, has come closest to achieving the feat. He led Argentina to the final in 2014, but a Mario Gotze goal put paid to his dream to emulate his mentor, Maradona. Ronaldo, while falling shorter at the World Cup, led Portugal to a European Championship win.
Failure to win the WC has remained the biggest blot in their resume as far as the race for the greatest ever is concerned. Russia 2018 therefore presents a unique opportunity for the duo as they wind down their illustrious careers. At 30 and 33, Messi and Ronaldo are not getting any younger. This may very well be their last World Cup, and seizing the opportunity to settle this argument once and for all may be the biggest achievement for any of them in the round leather game.