Dubai: Now in their early thirties, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — the two players who have dominated the past decade with five Ballons d’Or apiece — are almost certainly approaching what will be their last World Cup, or at least the last World Cup where they will still be capable of making an impact.
Phenomenal for their respective club sides Real Madrid and Barcelona with 11 La Liga titles and nine Champions League wins between them, their list of domestic and European goalscoring feats are seemingly inexhaustible.
One nagging criticism of both however, which prevents fans from distinguishing between the two, or comparing them to Pele and Diego Maradona, is the fact that neither has ever won a World Cup.
Ronaldo is almost excused given that his Portugal side is a lot less star-studded and have never won a World Cup. Messi though, who hails from a two-time World Cup-winning country, and is continually compared to Maradona — who had a much weaker squad around him when he won in 1986 — has a harder time of hiding with Argentina.
Some of the strain has also been relieved from Ronaldo’s shoulders after his side won Euro 2016, as he now — at least — has a major tournament win at international level.
The same cannot be said of Messi however, who has endured three Copa America final losses, the first against Brazil in 2007, and the last two against Chile in 2015 and 2016.
This followed Argentina’s defeat to Germany in the last World Cup final in 2014 making it three straight years of woe for Messi and Argentina, while Ronaldo got some respite with Portugal in 2016.
The irony is that compared to Ronaldo — who has only scored three goals in 13 World Cup appearances for Portugal over three tournaments, where the furthest they’ve reached is the semis in 2006 — Messi has scored five in 15 World Cup appearances for Argentina over three tournaments, reaching the final in 2014. Messi also won Player of the Tournament in 2014, something Ronaldo has never done.
Despite all this, without a World Cup in their cabinets, the pair will retire with the dubious honour of having failed to replicate their club success at international level, regardless of what Ronaldo did in Euro 2016, as he wasn’t even on the pitch for 95 minutes of that final against hosts France.
That distinction might plague Messi more than it does Ronaldo, but the truth is both will be haunted by that elusive lump of gold, if they can’t do something about it in Russia.
Messi’s Argentina, in a group with Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria, where they will play either France, Denmark, Australia or Peru in the Last 16, have a slightly easier start if they can avoid France. Whereas Portugal are grouped with Spain, Morocco and Iran, and could face Uruguay, Egypt, Russia or Saudi Arabia in the second round.
Does it matter if they don’t win a World Cup? Yes and no. Their club successes will always stand and because of that, they will always be considered among the greatest club players to have ever lived. They have certainly pushed each other on to form one of the greatest rivalries in sport of this generation. However, the World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport, and over time history only remembers international winners.
If they want to be included in the same breath as Pele and Maradona, they need a World Cup. Pele won his third by the age of 29 however, and Maradona got his one and only at the age of 26, so Messi and Ronaldo’s time has probably passed.
Ironically it’s the player who has been a third wheel in Ronaldo and Messi’s Ballon d’Or dominance, Neymar of Brazil — a player who had to move from Barcelona to Paris Saint Germain to get a look in — who might finally get one over on them both, this summer.