Back when Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were locking horns in LaLiga like two wildebeest on the Serengeti, one of the things the Real Madrid player immensely disliked was that while he was always at the centre of the debate about who was the best now, when the discussion turned to who was the best of all time, he wasn’t included.
Aged 35 Messi has reminded us at this World Cup – where he set up a stunning third goal – why he does belong to a different argument, and he is now one game from settling it once and for all.
If he wins the World Cup it will come 13 years after he won the 2009 Champions League final with that header that left Edwin van der Sar aghast and beaten.
Debate of whether Lionel Messi (left) or Cristiano Ronaldo (right) is the GOAT rages on
The Greatest of All Time debate has been raging for years between them (pictured in 2008)
Sportsmail’s Pete Jenson watched both of them hundreds of times during their LaLiga spells
It’s the longevity of the brilliance that Ronaldo, nor anybody else, can’t really match.
I watched them both in the same league from 2009 to 2018 and so often there was almost nothing between them.
With one invariably playing prime time on Saturday night and the other prime time Sunday night, weekends became a never-ending loop of ‘anything-you-can do-I-can-do-better’. If one scored twice on the Saturday, the other would get a hat-trick on the Sunday.
When they met in ‘Clasicos’ there were games when Ronaldo had to look on in disgust as Messi stole the show. In the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2011 he was left fuming by Jose Mourinho’s negative tactics – a game-plan that worked for an hour before Pepe was sent off and Messi scored twice before going on to win the European Cup that season.
Messi’s stock is sky high after he played a starring role to get Argentina to a World Cup final
The pair’s careers have dovetailed together, with both sweeping up many Ballon d’Or awards
On other occasions Ronaldo had the last laugh. His towering back post header in extra time of the 2010 Copa del Rey final from an Angel Di Maria cross, left Madrid with their first Spanish Cup in 18 years and Messi head bowed in defeat.
There were things that Ronaldo did better than Messi. You would always want him, not Messi, at the back post in the dying minutes if your team needed a goal. And if your life depended on a spot-kick being scored you would want Ronaldo to step up and not Messi for all that he’s only missed one so far in Qatar.
But Messi was able to make a team play better and that’s a quality that never really showed itself in Ronaldo. In this World Cup – the last for both of them – we have seen it again.
Perhaps it’s a product of Messi growing up at Barcelona. Mourinho has often made the point that Ronaldo had it tougher, always arriving into a new league and a new team having to make this name while Messi was nurtured at the same club from age 13 and played the same way for almost 20 years.
Messi’s brilliance has been sustained for so long, not even Ronaldo (left) is able to match him
But in Qatar he has done it with Argentina. The way he has made Alexis Mac Allister, Julio Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez – kids who grew up idolising him – find another level alongside him has been the difference between a functioning orchestra and Messi just a one-man band on his farewell tour.
The team ticks to the sound of the Messi metronome as he gives it and gets it back from the youngsters around him. Until of course it’s time to burst 40 yards on his own to create a goal.
Contrast all that with Ronaldo at this tournament. There is no real sense that Rafael Leao, Goncalo Ramos or Joao Felix look up to him in the same way, and much less Bruno Fernandes.
Insisting on still being the centre of attention for club and country Ronaldo has been pushed to the margins by both, while everything still revolves around Messi for Argentina.
Ronaldo’s right about the injustice of him not being included in that debate about who’s the best of all time because his own endurance also goes far beyond many of the other candidates for the title.
Ronaldo (left) has felt an injustice when his name has been kept outside of the all-time debate
He came alive for Manchester United in the 2006-07 season and it was 10 years later when he won the Euros.
He then top scored in the same competition in 2020 and was still scoring almost a goal a game at Juventus the following season. He could make a case for having dominated for the same time-span as Messi, but only the Argentinian will be able to say his 13 years are bookended by a Champions League and the World Cup, if he wins it on Sunday.
Wayne Rooney tweeted ‘Nothing has changed’ after Messi’s semi-final’s appearance on Tuesday night. It was above a retweet of something he said in 2012: ‘Messi is a joke. For me the best ever.’
These players know how hard it is to sustain brilliance. It’s tough enough to turn a run of positive performances into a good season. To do it for a decade in the most competitive of club competitions while also winning international tournaments is astounding.
And to win a Champions League and then a World Cup 13 years later would be football’s greatest ever feat.