Most soccer fans have an answer. Not necessarily that they outwardly support one player or the other. Instead, they just believe one of the players is simply better than the other.

The Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate has dominated the world of soccer for the last decade and a half. Their frequent duels between Barcelona and Real Madrid allowed fans to see the two best players of their era with regularity. Dominance on the score sheet and in competition made it those two then the rest in the ranking of modern era players.

Messi and Ronaldo made the Ballon d’Or almost insignificant. From 2008 to 2021, the French Football awarded the golden ball 13 times. Messi won it seven of those, and Ronaldo won it five. Only Luka Modric could stop the hegemony of the Ballon d’Or.

There remains a legitimate case for both players to claim they top their individual rival. Messi supporters point to those Ballon d’Ors or his remarkable goal contributions via goals and assists. Also, The Argentine managed the best season of individual play in perhaps the history of the sport. His 92 goals in 2012 is unmatched.

Then, Ronaldo supporters note that no player in the history of the game scored more goals. Plus, Ronaldo helped Portugal to its first international trophy. At the same time, he emerged as by far the best player in the history of the UEFA Champions League.

Now, Messi has the chance to do something Ronaldo never got truly close to: win a World Cup. Could lifting the only trophy he has not won be the final argument to put Messi fully on top of Ronaldo?

International success

Messi and Ronaldo never played in a World Cup. It prevents the two from having tangible evidence in the debate to say whether one is better. It is not like the multiple meetings in LaLiga, 18, Champions League, six or the other competitions.  

Instead, the World Cup serves as a marker in the Messi and Ronaldo debate. The ebbs and flows in both Messi and Ronaldo’s careers have seen the Argentine light up Spain and Europe. A couple years later, no one could stop Ronaldo from doing the same. Each player has Ballon d’Ors, LaLiga titles, Copa del Reys, Champions Leagues, Club World Cups, Pichichis, Golden Boots in Europe and more accolades.

The one dividing point was Ronaldo’s success with Portugal. Success in this case is simply winning a major international competition. Messi may be more consistent with three Copa America finals appearances and a World Cup Final loss in 2014. Yet, Ronaldo’s crowning moment was in 2016. He helped Portugal win its first major international trophy at Euro 2016.

Messi did not have that moment. That is, until, he matched Ronaldo with the 2021 Copa America title. At that tournament, Messi was the top scorer and top assister in the tournament. Unsurprisingly, he won the tournament’s most outstanding player award, his second time winning that.

How the World Cup fits into the Messi vs Ronaldo debate

In the 2022 World Cup, Messi looks his brilliant best. His five goals has him tied with Kylian Mbappé for the most goals at the tournament. Three assists has him tied atop that leaderboard, too.

Depending on what happens against France, Messi could win his second Golden Ball at the World Cup as the best player of the tournament. Of course, he will care more about lifting the World Cup trophy than the Golden Ball award.

Moreover, winning the World Cup would be the greatest achievement for the little Argentine’s illustrious career. In fact, back in early 2016, after winning his fifth Ballon d’Or, Messi said he would trade all five of those individual awards for one World Cup with Argentina.

“The World Cup is the highest thing you can reach as a player,” Messi said. “So the World Cup, definitely.”

The World Cup is the only international competition that Messi and Ronaldo can directly compare themselves against. Ronaldo is the first person to score in five World Cups. Messi becomes the competition’s all-time appearance leader with his 26th in the 2022 World Cup Final. They are in the record books of the tournament.

Messi winning the World Cup would give him an unrivaled upper hand in the debate against Ronaldo. Certainly, Ronaldo could climb back in 2026 at the ripe age of 41 to win with Portugal. He is not one to shy away from the opportunity to play at the top level.

Still, it would take a monumental effort and performance to match what Messi has done with Argentina in this World Cup. In the Final, with a win or loss, he goes out in the biggest game of his career.

Competing legacies

Portugal’s greatest player of all time is Cristiano Ronaldo. There is little to no doubt over that, as the best competitor would be Eusebio. Eusebio dominated at the 1966 World Cup, Portugal’s best-ever finish at the tournament with third place. Ronaldo did finish fourth at the 2006 World Cup as a 21-year-old star. That included the decisive penalty against England in the quarterfinals.

Yet, Portugal’s expectations are tame compared to Argentina’s. Portugal has never been in a World Cup Final. The 2022 Final is Argentina’s sixth. Therefore, the importance of the World Cup for Messi greatly exceeds what it means for Ronaldo.

A World Cup win would do immeasurably more for his legacy than just getting to the Final for a second time. Argentina fans often compare Messi to his predecessor atop Argentine soccer, Diego Maradona. Many supporters say Messi can never be on the same caliber as El Barrilete. Never mind the fact that Messi singlehandedly carried Argentina to the 2018 World Cup. Disregard Messi being the nation’s all time top scorer in all competitions and the World Cup.

Argentinians care about one thing: Argentina winning the World Cup. If Lionel Messi and Argentina can win it, he will go beyond Cristiano Ronaldo’s achievements with Portugal. On the way, he will have eclipsed the personal accomplishments of the Portuguese, bar simply goal scoring. All that matters now is the World Cup, and it is the biggest piece of history a player can achieve.

PHOTO: IMAGO/ Icon Sportswire – Richard Gordon