The current era of soccer is dominated by two giants: Juventus, Real Madrid and Man UTD (and Portugal) legend Cristiano Ronaldo and Paris Saint-German’s (and Argentina’s) Lionel Messi. The two nemeses have scooped almost every individual award over the past 17 years or so, and despite their advanced ages (37 and 35, respectively, as of 2022), they show no signs of slowing down. Each of their performances in the 2022 World Cup, especially Messi, who’s team is heading to the finals, confirms that they are still in their prime. However, as there can be only one, which of them is the best? The phenomenal Ronaldo or the one-team man Messi?
Here are three arguments for each side:
Advanced statistics proves Messi is better
Both Ronaldo and Messi have impressive stats, but a closer look at them proves Messi makes better decisions and, more importantly, brings greater value to his team. Using a framework that was originally developed for baseball, The Economist once rated Messi’s and Ronaldo’s goals based on their context and importance. These stats, called Expected Points Added (EPA), rate goals by their added win probability. Meaning, a winning goal in the last minute of the game is rated higher than the fourth goal scored in a 4-0 win. Messi’s recent EPA stood at 59.5 while Ronaldo’s was 50.4.
Moreover, Messi makes better decisions. Using a complex algorithm, a company called GoodCall values a player’s decision-making and Efficiency Per Match (EPM). This entails valuing each pass, shot, chance created or a dribble made by players, and then rating the player’s decision-making and efficiency. In 2019, Messi’s EPM was 238, and he was making good decisions 0.63% of the time. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s EPM was 118 and his decision-making rate was standing at that time only on 0.43%.
Messi is a better team player
Messi is not only an incredible scorer and gifted playmaker, he also makes everyone around him a better player. A true leader, he brings his team together. Not only does he have more assists and key passes than Ronaldo, he is always using his phenomenal vision to keep his teammates involved. He has great tactical intelligence, finding free spaces to move into, receiving the ball and then laying it off to a team-mate, to build attacks.
While Ronaldo is a more of an executor, who plays high up the pitch and scores great goals when given the chance, Messi, who can do that just as well, is also comfortable dropping deep and keeping possession of the ball with his team. From these positions, he can send his colleagues on dangerous runs with pin-point passes, like he recently did in the World Cup game against Croatia. This versatility makes him that much better than Ronaldo.
Messi and Ronaldo differ mostly in their style. Ronaldo is a machine. He is an explosive player, with abnormal physical abilities and a huge amount of talent. Tall and strong and certainly one of the greatest players, Ronaldo doesn’t possess Messi’s magic. The Argentine is a greater natural talent. He is a virtuoso, a magician. His dribbling is considered to be the best the game has ever seen, and he passes and shoots the ball with the precision of a brain surgeon. He makes eye-popping moves that leave people speechless and overwhelmed. Seeing him weave his way through a team’s defense and then put the ball past the keeper is just something special.
Ronaldo is more advanced player
Nowadays, soccer is more dynamic and athletic than ever. The game has become faster, stronger and more demanding in most aspects of physicality. While Messi might have more talent, Ronaldo’s combination of physical and technical abilities just makes him better. He is 6’’1 of pure Portuguese muscle. This means he’s very hard to push off the ball. Ronaldo’s combination of dizzying pace, great dribbling and powerful shooting with either foot terrorizes defenses.
He is simply a better fit for today’s game. His athleticism is second to none; he combines dizzying pace with powerful shooting and a jumping ability of an NBA star, which makes his headers a serious threat to the opposition. And he’s doing it at the same level even in his late-30s. Ronaldo, more than Messi, is the ideal model of the next generation of players.
Ronaldo is the driving force behind his team
Messi has an advantage over Ronaldo: Messi has won more titles mostly because he plays for a better team, not because he is a better player than Ronaldo. Throughout his entire career, Messi played for arguably the best side to ever play the game. Unlike Ronaldo’s team experiences, Messi’s Barcelona teammates know each other blindly, since most of them have played together since they were 10 years old, always the same style and formation.
This is not to say that Ronaldo’s teammates on both teams were bad. They were great, but just not as great as Messi’s during the majority of his career. For example, Messi has played with Neymar Jr. (who is arguably the best player following Messi and Ronaldo) and Luis Suarez, two of the best forwards of the century, and with Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, two of the most dominating center-midfielders of our era. While Messi has the added value of an unforgettable team, Ronaldo is the driving factor of his teams. Messi is like Tim Duncan of the Spurs, while Ronaldo is like LeBron James in Cleveland.
The international paradigm:
Ronaldo’s international career puts him on a higher level than Messi. In fact, Messi has never won an international trophy, although this may change in the coming days. He lost finals in both the Copa America (the South America championship) and the World Cup 2014. Meanwhile, Ronaldo led his Portugal side to win the 2016 European Championship. Unlike other sports, international trophies in soccer are the ultimate glory. Ronaldo’s three World Cup trophies fixed Pele’s stature as the best player ever, and Diego Maradona winning it for Argentina puts him before Messi, though this may still change.
The Bottom Lines: Ronaldo or Messi? On one side, Messi is a better team player and simply more talented. On the other hand, Ronaldo is a more complete athlete with a better international career. Let us know you stand, Team Messi or Team Ronaldo?