Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have reset the standard for the modern player and have been pitted against one another in a greatness debate for years. But with age creeping up, Russia may well be their final World Cup bow.
It is a measure of their historic quality that Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo have been widely acknowledged as the world’s two best soccer players every single year going back to 2008. The last person, other than them, to win the Ballon d’Or: Brazil’s Kaká. That feels like eons ago.
Such staying power atop the planet’s most popular sport is nothing short of miraculous, especially considering the ferocity of modern defenders, the temptations of becoming satisfied, and the desperation of rivals trying to unseat them.
They share one blemish though: Neither has won a World Cup, and Russia 2018 is each star's last real chance at the (kinda, sorta) height of their powers. Perhaps each's last chance, period.
Messi has come closest. In 2014, his team took Germany to extra time in the final, only to fall on Mario Götze’s late winner. And now it is a lasting image of that tournament: Messi gazing at the World Cup trophy as he walked past it afterward, so tantalizingly close that he could have touched it.
Ronaldo reached the semifinals as a young pup, in ’06, but unlike Messi he has at least won a major trophy with Portugal after its unlikely triumph at Euro 2016.
By the day of the final in Moscow, Messi will be 31; Ronaldo will be 33. It is possible that they could hang on until ’22, though Messi has indicated this could be his international swan song. He has already retired once from the national team (temporarily, after defeat in the 2016 Copa América Centenario final), and his disdain for the beleaguered Argentine federation is legendary.
While Ronaldo stays in marvelous physical condition, which may allow him to play in a fifth World Cup at 37, he has already lost one step on the field and is sure to lose more. In 2022, he is less likely to be starting for Portugal than he is for David Beckham’s MLS team in Miami.
So enjoy them now. Let’s see if Messi can put the Albiceleste on his shoulders and will it to victory, just as he did with a hat trick in a must-win final World Cup qualifier in Ecuador. Let’s see if Ronaldo can re-create Euro 2016 and spearhead a surprising championship run by taking “survive and advance” to the extreme again.
For Messi, a World Cup victory would put to rest nearly every question about his legacy. He would be viewed as the greatest player of all time. For Ronaldo, it would at least put him in that conversation. Neither outcome will be easy, though. Argentina has been the world’s most underachieving national team; it last won a major title in 1993. And Portugal has no other player even remotely approaching Ronaldo’s talent level.
The end is nigh for these enduring superstars who have sat astride the sport for so long. In time, perhaps sooner rather than later, players like Brazil’s Neymar and Egypt’s Mohamed Salah will overtake them. But because we have a soft spot for our memory-makers in their waning years, it will be impossible not to root for Messi and Ronaldo in Russia.