Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo: An era-defining rivalry and a final shot at World Cup glory
They’ve broken all the records but can they win a World Cup?
November 18, 2022
Top illustration: Nazario Graziano / agencyrush.com
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have defined each other’s careers, legacies and the world of football for more than a decade.
They have managed to match each other, scaling previously unmapped heights, yet they embody different philosophies.
There is Messi — shorter, more introverted, a natural footballing genius who shares his creativity with the team, assisting almost as much as he scores. And then there is Ronaldo — taller, a physical specimen who bulldozes his way through defenses, grafting and training until he was simply better than anyone else on the field.
But for all their accolades, neither has won the World Cup. The Qatar 2022 competition could be their last chance to determine whether one of them can finally win the biggest trophy of all.
See how the star players match up, going back to their professional debuts.
Ronaldo makes professional debut at 17 years old, playing for Portuguese side Sporting Clube de Portugal.
Wins first Portugal cap at 18, coming on as a substitute against Kazakhstan.
At 17 years old, Messi makes first of 778 appearances for Barcelona. At the time, he is the youngest to represent the club in an official game.
Makes Argentina debut, at 18 years old, as a substitute in a friendly match against Hungary, but is sent off just two minutes later.
Nets first of seven World Cup goals, scored across four tournaments, to become — at 21 years old — the youngest Portuguese player to score in a World Cup.
Becomes youngest player to represent Argentina at a World Cup and scores within 13 minutes, becoming sixth-youngest goalscorer in the tournament’s history.
Scores arguably his greatest goal as he weaves past multiple Getafe defenders. One of 672 strikes for Barça.
Inspires Barcelona to beat Ronaldo’s Manchester United in Champions League final, his second of four titles. He finishes the tournament as its top scorer.
Joins Real Madrid from Manchester United for a then-world record $130 million fee.
After inspiring Barça to a historic three trophies in one season, the 22-year-old becomes first Argentine to win Ballon d’Or.
Wins the inaugural Puskás Award for his electrifying 40-yard goal — the ball traveled an average speed of 64 miles per hour — for Manchester United against Porto.
Argentina knocked out of the 2010 World Cup by Germany in the quarterfinals. Messi is named in the Team of the Tournament, but he suffers accusations of caring more about club than country.
Time magazine names Messi as one of the most influential people in the world for the first of two consecutive years.
At 24, he breaks Barcelona’s scoring record and scores a record 91 goals in the same calendar year.
Time magazine names Ronaldo among the 100 most influential people of the year.
Argentina loses to Germany in the World Cup final. Messi wins a tournament record of four man-of-the match awards in a single World Cup and accepts the Golden Ball award for player of the tournament with seven goals.
Messi becomes La Liga’s all-time top scorer after a hat-trick against Sevilla, breaking Telmo Zarra’s record of 251 goals.
The CR7 galaxy is named after the soccer star, at the end of a season where he enjoyed the most prolific campaign of his club career, scoring 61 times in 54 games.
Becomes Real’s all-time leading scorer with 324 goals. He ends his Madrid career with 450 goals in just 438 games.
A goal in the Copa América Centenario quarterfinals establishes him as Argentina’s all-time leading scorer. After La Albiceleste’s loss in the final, he announces his international retirement, a decision he reverses shortly afterwards following pleas from Argentina’s president.
Wins first major international trophy at the European Championship in France, but is carried off injured in tears after just 25 minutes of the final.
Initially sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax fraud, but escapes with $2.3 million fine instead. Messi — along with his father Jorge Messi — was found guilty of defrauding Spain of $4.6 million between 2007 and 2009.
Scores a hat-trick against Bayern Munich to become the first player to score 100 Champions League goals.
Scores his 100th Champions League goal, reaching the milestone in fewer games than Ronaldo. Only he and Ronaldo have scored at least 100 goals in the competition to date.
First player to win the Champions League five times. He won his first with Manchester United in 2008 before winning the competition with Real Madrid in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
At Russia 2018, becomes first man to score in eight consecutive major international tournaments.
At the age of 33, Ronaldo signs for Italian team Juventus in a reported $117 million transfer deal.
Accused of rape by Kathryn Mayorga, who claims she was paid $375,000 to sign an NDA; case later dismissed. He denies the allegations.
Messi sent off in the 37th minute of the third-place Copa América playoff. He refuses to accept his third-place medal and receives a three-month ban from international football as well as a $50,000 fine.
Returns to Manchester United and finishes first season as the club’s top goal scorer. Relationship with team implodes after explosive interview in November 2022.
Signs on a two-year deal for French team Paris Saint-Germain, bringing his long-term association with Barça to an end with the Catalan club suffering financially.
Breaks international scoring record with two goals against Ireland, taking his tally to 117 goals in 191 internationals and cementing his status as an all-time great.
First person to reach 400 million Instagram followers.
Wins record 164th Argentina cap and scores 90th international goal, moving him to third on the all-time men’s international scoring chart.
Aiming to win a first World Cup after four failed attempts. If he scores, he will become the first man to score in five World Cups. He needs three more goals to overtake Eusébio and become Portugal’s all-time leading scorer in the competition.
Aiming to win a first World Cup after four failed attempts. Should he take to the field in Qatar, he will enter elite company as only three other players have previously competed at five World Cups.