Lionel Messi
Argentina’s Lionel Messi during training at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on November 14, 2022, ahead of the friendly match with the UAE. The Qatar World Cup could be the last chance for the 35-year-old to win a world title. Image Credit: Reuters

Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo: Who is the greatest footballer of the modern era? Andres Iniesta, I said. My friend wasn’t happy with the answer. “Be serious. Between Messi and Ronaldo, who’s your favourite?” he rephrased the question.

Undoubtedly, these two geniuses have been the most outstanding players of the last decade. In terms of talent and achievement, no one else comes near. Not even Neymar. So it’s little surprise that much of the football conversation veers around Messi and Ronaldo. Hence the debate.

There is no clear winner. The contrast is stark: one is abundantly talented, and the other has honed his skills to perfection. And the two have lit up football leagues in Europe with their displays.

Diego Maradona’s successor

Who’s my favourite? I gravitate towards pure talent. I love players who can win a game independently; it’s tough in a team sport like football. Not just that. The footballer should be a natural. So natural that the execution is effortless. So graceful that it gives me goosebumps.

This is why I love Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Ronaldinho. And I’m not a huge fan of Franz Beckenbauer and footballers of his ilk despite their achievements. No disrespect at all. They all are great players, but they don’t appeal to me. They are too clinical and sometimes too perfect.

I like the creative sort. Footballers like Zinedine Zidane, Andres Iniesta, Kevin de Bruyne and others who create goals with their imaginative play. With deft passes that split watertight defences, these players pack so much ingenuity that goals materialise from nowhere. That’s creativity.

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Messi belongs to that breed. I have watched him in awe, squeezing shots through tiny gaps in rival defences in the La Liga, threading goals through tight angles when it would have been easier to score at the far post. He’s done that repeatedly for Barcelona.

Yes, for Barcelona. Not for Argentina. At least not in the same vein. That’s the Argentinian gripe. Messi is the anointed successor to Maradona, a huge responsibility that became a millstone around his neck. Every time a World Cup or Copa America came around, Argentina expected Messi to conjure magic to lift the trophy.

That hasn’t happened for a long time. Messi earned a reprieve when Argentina won the Copa America last year, that too after a lapse of 28 years. That hasn’t stopped the carping critics, who point out that he hasn’t won a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal’s forward Cristiano Ronaldo warming up prior the UEFA Nations League, league A, group 2 football match against Spain, at the Municipal Stadium in Braga, Portugal, on September 27, 2022. The 37-year-old will be in Qatar for his fifth FIFA World Cup, the last chance to win a world title. Image Credit: AFP

Is World Cup win a measure of true greatness? Lots of great players haven’t won the World Cup. Cruyff hasn’t. So did players like Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and many other stalwarts. That in no way diminished their stature.

World Cup wins help burnish the reputations of some footballers. The ones who lack individual brilliance. They have been vital cogs in the team, but these players could never alter the course of a game with creative play. All World Cup-winning squads have had such players, and we only hear much of them. A case in point is Marco Materazzi: a World Cup winner, the Italian is best remembered by Zidane’s headbutting incident.

A World Cup medal doesn’t automatically bestow greatness on all winning team players. So why do we insist that Messi win it to enter the pantheon of greats? Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t face that predicament since Portugal never realistically had a chance of winning the Cup.

Eusebio's Golden Boot

That brings us to the question: Is Ronaldo the best player to come out of Portugal? Eusebio fans would disagree. More so, if you know about Eusebio’s four-goal burst to overturn the three-goal lead of North Korea in 1966. He won the Golden Boot (top scorer) and led Portugal to third place: Portugal’s best finish in a World Cup.

Ronaldo is yet to produce something similar. But Portugal’s 2016 Euro win helped him ward off criticism. With five Ballon d’Or trophies, Ronaldo is undoubtedly one of the best of his generation. I admired his dribbling skills and speed on the wings of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Ronaldo’s goalscoring skills peaked during his stint with Real Madrid. Yet, he’s not my kind of player.

CR7, as he’s called, is like a well-oiled machine. He’s trained so well that he doesn’t miss much. His speed and positioning in the penalty box always threaten rival defences. His finishing is lethal. No doubt about that. But he’s not a creative player. He’s not Messi.

Messi and Ronaldo take centre stage

Messi and Ronaldo are in the twilight of their careers. Ronaldo is warming the United bench, while Messi turns out for Paris Saint-Germain. Both are away from the glare of spotlights.

The two players step onto the centre stage in Qatar, carrying the hopes of their countries. More than Ronaldo, Messi will be under scrutiny. Can he deliver a World Cup to Argentina? That’s the question on everyone’s lips.

A genius he may be, but Messi’s magic is not enough to haul Argentina through the maze of World Cup matches. His teammates should weigh in, particularly at times when Messi is off-colour. If they do, Argentina can win. They are one of the favourites.

A win will confirm Messi as a true great in the eyes of the Argentinians. And it will be a befitting crown on a glorious career.