Rivalries are a great way to understand sports. Whether they are team rivalries like Celtics vs. Lakers, Red Sox vs. Yankees or individual rivalries like Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, Frazier vs. Ali, we love creating these types of narratives to interpret sports. The rivalry that shaped the narrative of the last 15 years in soccer is no other than the individual rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
As the first half of the Champions League round of 16 match-ups came to a close, a devastating statistic was revealed. This year’s Champions League quarter finals will be the first one to not feature either Ronaldo or Messi since 2005. This means that for the first time in 16 years, the top eight soccer teams in the world do not include Messi and Ronaldo’s team. This only means one thing: With Messi being 33 and Ronaldo being 36, their era is slowly coming to an end.
Soccer has featured incredible players and rivalries for the past century. What made Ronaldo and Messi’s the greatest in the history of soccer? Logistics, I would say. Messi has been playing for Barcelona since he was nine years old, and Ronaldo had his most glorious days when he was a part of Barcelona’s archrival Real Madrid. So the rivalry of these two players shaped, arguably, the greatest team rivalry in soccer. The El Classico, the name of the fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid, historically meant right-wing vs. left-wing, Spanish vs. Catalans, nationalists vs. democrats, but in the last 15 years it meant something even bigger: Ronaldo vs. Messi. The whole political, ideological and cultural rivalry was summed up by the rivalry between these two players.
Being able to see the best players of our generation play against each other (at least) twice every year was an unmatched opportunity in the history of soccer. The other great player rivalries like Pele vs. Maradona, Fontaine vs. Puskas never featured two players that were at their primes in the same decade, let alone playing in the same league at the same time. There has never been another era in soccer history where more than one player dominated the game. Puskas single-handedly won the World Cup in the 1950s, nobody came close to Pele’s level in the 1960s, Cryuff was the best in the game in the 1970s and Maradona was unstoppable during the 1980s. It is certain that it is either Ronaldo or Messi who dominated the 21st century, but picking one of them is an endless debate.
And honestly, there is no correct answer. Ronaldo won the Champions League trophy five times, three of them being in consecutive years, scored 134 goals in Champions League in his career, which is double the amount of goals scored by the third place Robert Lewandowski and more than what some major teams in Europe scored in total, became the second highest goalscorer of all time with 760 and counting and led his country to international success in EURO2016.
Messi, on the other hand, won the Ballon d’Or, given to the best player in the world every year, six times, broke the record for most goals scored in a calendar year with 92 goals in 2012, scored 644 and counting goals in total for Barcelona F.C., which is the record for the most total goals for one club, and led his country to the World Cup final and lost the final to Germany after Gonzalo Higuain missed an open goal chance in the last minute of the game. As you can see, there is evidence for both sides, and there is no right way to argue.
As mentioned in the beginning, however, their era is coming to an end. Both stars are not strong enough anymore to lead their teams into major successes on their own, and both lack the high profile teammates that would help them reach success. They are still capable of displaying crumbs of the “magic” they were able to produce before, as Messi scored an absolute stunner against PSG and Ronaldo scored a hat-trick for Juve against Cagliari last weekend, but they will never compete in the same level again.
As the soccer world began to realize that the Ronaldo vs. Messi era was coming to an end, a search for a new narrative to shape the 2020s began. Fortunately, two players are offering immense potential to replace Messi and Ronaldo. French striker Kylian Mbappe, who has recently passed Messi to become the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the Champions League, has been demonstrating his remarkable pace and astonishing dribbling skills for the French side Paris Saint-Germain for the past three years. The Norwegian wonderkid Erling Braut Haaland, on the other hand, has become the quickest player to reach 20 goals in the Champions League and has been having an incredible season with Borussia Dortmund with 31 goals in just 30 games. While it is still too early to say if these players can replace Ronaldo and Messi, if there is, ever, going to be a rivalry that can compete with the level of Ronaldo and Messi, it is fair to say it will be Haaland vs. Mbappe.
Perhaps, we’ll get to a point in soccer where Haaland vs. Mbappe rivalry will surpass Messi and Ronaldo’s, or perhaps neither of them will live up to their potentials and a talented youngster we haven’t heard of yet will be the most influential player of the 2020s. One way or another, my grandfather was mesmerized by Pele, my father always told the stories of Maradona and my generation is defined by Ronaldo and Messi’s rivalry. Honestly, with the improvements in sports science and training methods, it is likely that the next generation of players will be even more talented than the current one. But I don’t think that my generation will ever have the same emotional attachment to any other rivalry than Messi and Ronaldo’s. Most likely, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be the last time we see both of them competing for a major trophy. Until then, all we can do is enjoy whatever time they have got left in their careers.