There was an odd moment during the ceremony last month awarding Cristiano Ronaldo FIFA's Ballon d'Or award, and it wasn't the Portuguese striker's meme-worthy scream in celebration of being recognized as the best soccer player in the world (for the third time). It was something else: a heartwarming meeting between Ronaldo’s son and Lionel Messi in which the four-year-old greeted the Argentinian with nothing less than visible awe—a video of which has since gone viral. It was especially poignant considering the constant mudslinging between both players’ fans, who are constantly embroiled in a debate over which star is better (there's even a site dedicated to it), instead of acknowledging the sheer excellence of both of them. In fact, Messi and Ronaldo (who turns 30 today) are beginning to look like the two best players in the history of the sport.
That statement may induce heart palpitations in longtime fans of the beautiful game but, barring a sudden career collapse on either side, Messi and Ronaldo will go down in history as the two greatest players to have ever graced a soccer pitch. And as their careers approach their final acts, with the awards and accolades piling up higher than Bellatrix Lestrange's Gringotts stash, any statements decrying this claim will increasingly be impossible. A statistical examination of both players, who've been peaking for almost a decade now, reveals just how far ahead of their peers—and some of their predecessors—they are.
Most detractors of this notion exclusively subscribe to the annals of soccer history; for them, placing anyone over Brazilian legend Pelé or Argentina’s Diego Maradona is ignorant at best and a sin at worst. But it isn't just the fans—former players have also been hesitant to heap lavish praise on the pair. Portuguese legend Luis Figo recently claimed that the two wouldn’t have been the best in his era (from the 1990s into the mid-2000s). Other naysayers might point to Ronaldo and Messi’s failure to win the World Cup, soccer’s greatest—but not necessarily its most challenging—prize.
The case for recognizing Ronaldo and Messi as soccer’s greatest players starts with the general scope of the pair's excellence. Since 2008, they’ve been the only people to win the World Player of the Year Award—a level of supremacy previously unseen in the sport. Many critics argue the award is flawed—citing its inherent bias toward attacking players (goals and assists are easier tracked than contributions from defenders). Even fellow footballers, like the ever-annoyed Franck Ribery, have been outspoken in their dissatisfaction, calling the whole shebang a farce.
Pundits like The Telegraph’s Paul Hayward have identified the Spanish League, where Messi and Ronaldo ply their trade (for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively), as a kind of goal free-for-all, where anyone with a smidgen of talent would be able to score almost at will. It’s a belief that comes from a bias in favor of the English Premier league (the most popular league in the world), and an argument lobbied by its most ardent supporters. Yet a look at the numbers quickly dispels this notion: The average number of goals scored in both leagues sits at around 2.77 a game. Messi and Ronaldo’s impact on Spanish football becomes clear in an analysis of the number of goals scored by the league’s top scorers over the past decade.
There's been a considerable rise in the highest single-season totals since the duo started dominating the sport. Each season has become an arms race of sorts between Messi and Ronaldo, where week in and week out each attempts to one-up the other. The two are inextricably linked; even Ronaldo has acknowledged the role they’ve played in each other’s success.
Some critics point to Barcelona and Real Madrid’s domination over the rest of La Liga (though Atlético Madrid’s recent rise has threatened the duopoly). The two are undoubtedly the best teams in the country, but this supremacy isn’t a new phenomenon. Both clubs have always had a slew of world-class players at their disposal. A look at the difference in goals-per-season shows the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on the two historic clubs.
Note the stark change around 2009-2010 in terms of both team’s goal-scoring numbers. Despite the fact that they've always had top-level players, it wasn’t until Messi and Ronaldo began their meteoric rises (represented in the highlighted area of the chart) that the numbers became so high. Since 2010, both Messi and Ronaldo have broken the single-season scoring record in Spain three different times.
And if dominating the Spanish football league is deemed “too easy,” what of the UEFA Champions League, a tournament at the highest level of the club game? Since 2008, Ronaldo and Messi have been the only players to lead the tournament in goals each season. Compare that to the seven years prior, when there were five different players who finished as top scorers. In 2003 Ruud Van Nistelrooy scored 12 goals, at the time a feat that hadn’t been bested since the tournament’s re-conception in 1992. That record stood until Messi tied it in 2011 and broke it the year after to the tune of 14 goals. Not to be outdone, Ronaldo himself tied the old record in 2013 and then obliterated it last year with a total of 17 goals. To put it in perspective, of the six highest goal-scoring seasons in the history of the tournament, Messi and Ronaldo have had four of them. It’s no wonder then that both became the top two scorers in UEFA Champions League history before the age of 30: Messi with 75 goals, Ronaldo with 72.
Perhaps both players' most impressive achievement is how they’ve completely shifted the paradigm of what makes for a good season. In the pre-Messi/Ronaldo era, 30 goals was seen as the pinnacle of success. Yet the pair have made a habit of achieving this before mid-season. In fact, neither Messi nor Ronaldo has scored below that number since 2009. For the last five seasons they've both averaged more than 50 goals a season.
It’s their consistency that sets them apart from the other top players of the world, and it’s something modern-day soccer has never seen before. Even the greatest players have had their momentary lapses. For a brief moment in the mid-2000s, the Brazilian player Ronaldinho looked certain to cement himself as the world's greatest, but his career arguably succumbed to his lifestyle and a waning work ethic. Most conversations about Ronaldinho now are equal parts reminiscence about his actual brilliance and reflections about what could have been. The likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane, and the “original” Ronaldo all deserve their accolades as well.
Scores of players have been comparable to these two in the short run, but no one outside of Pelé and Maradona has been this good for this long. Pelé, for all his innovation, largely competed against players who pale in comparison to the modern-day game, with the advances in training and the sheer growth of soccer worldwide.
Much of Pelé’s mystique evaporates under scrutiny: Last year, The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew debunked many of the myths surrounding the superstar. Thus, Maradona likely remains the only true challenger; he ticks all the boxes. He dragged a Napoli team to their most successful period, and of course his heroic World Cup performances for Argentina made him a cultural icon.
That said, Messi and Ronaldo surely aren’t perfect. No player is. Truthfully, Messi has already been pegged as a legend. His 2011-2012 season, in which he broke a 40-year-old record for the most goals scored in a calendar year, may have been the best 12 months of soccer ever played. Ronaldo has always been seen as playing in Messi’s shadows, a mere mortal doing well to compete with a true genius. But in the past two years, Messi’s injury issues have resurfaced while Ronaldo has steadily improved both his performances and his trophy haul. Off the pitch, Messi has become larger than life at Barcelona to the point where his influence over the club has been deemed detrimental at times. And Ronaldo’s attitude, or lack thereof, has come under scrutiny, most recently with a bizarre outburst that has him currently suspended for two games.
But the biggest strike against the two has been on the pitch: their failure to bring home the biggest prize of all, the FIFA World Cup. It’s an argument routinely used to detract from their achievements—the fact remains that historically the world’s best players have almost always managed to win the trophy. Messi did come close last year, and he’ll surely have at least one more chance in three years' time. Ronaldo’s chances, however, are much slimmer. He’ll be 33 in 2018, and since Portugal isn’t the strongest team, barring a massive influx of talent over the next few years it’s hard to see them truly competing.
But this argument relies on certain fallacies and ignores the changing nature of soccer. For all the luster of the World Cup—sprawling in scope and romantic in nature—the level of competition pales in comparison to the club game. Sure, with the tournament only occurring every four years the stakes are higher, but the squads that countries put together during the World Cup are a mish-mash of players who only come together for serious training weeks before the final tournament. The game on the club level is in a different realm altogether. Teams train week after week and are fully cohesive units. When they play each other in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, the squads are made up of the greatest players in the world. (Both Messi and Ronaldo have won the Champions League multiple times.)
But here lies the problem with reducing Messi and Ronaldo to mere numbers, and it’s firmly weaved into the essence of the sport. Soccer analysis isn't bound to the data in the way other sports usually are (the game didn’t even seriously start recording assists until about a decade ago.) There are so many unquantifiable micro-moments that occur during a game that can't simply be squeezed into any statistical category: the sheer precision in the way that Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo retains possession or the ooo-ahh-inducing moments of Brazilian star Neymar in full flight. A player can have an amazing game and have zero stats as proof; soccer just works that way. Yet, when the numbers are this overwhelming, they're impossible to ignore.
It’s this persistent success that’s contributed to the jaded reaction fans have every time Ronaldo or Messi wins another FIFA Ballon d'Or. Much of the recent campaigning against the pair, mostly in favor of Manuel Neuer—who finished third in the voting—was a consequence of voter fatigue. This isn't to detract from what was a fantastic year for the German goalkeeper, highlighted by his excellent performance—and victory—in the FIFA World Cup. But had any other player in the world achieved the heights of Messi and Ronaldo in 2014, there wouldn’t have been an argument as to who should have been recognized. Messi and Ronaldo aren’t merely being rewarded because they're scoring a lot of goals, they're being rightfully lauded because they're literally making history week in and week out. It’s this persistent success that’s contributed to the jaded reaction fans have every time Ronaldo or Messi wins another FIFA Ballon d'Or. Much of the recent campaigning against the pair, mostly in favor of Manuel Neuer—who finished third in the voting—was a consequence of voter fatigue. This isn't to detract from what was a fantastic year for the German goalkeeper, highlighted by his excellent performance—and victory—in the FIFA World Cup. But had any other player in the world achieved the heights of Messi and Ronaldo in 2014, there wouldn’t have been an argument as to who should have been recognized. Messi and Ronaldo aren’t merely being rewarded because they're scoring a lot of goals, they're being rightfully lauded because they're literally making history week in and week out.
It’s this, the banality of their excellence, that has in some ways belittled it. Regular players receive acknowledgement for their good moments and praise for their fantastic ones. Messi and Ronaldo, however, have to meet sky-high expectations. Their good moments are acknowledged with slight apathy; their more amazing moments are expected. But their historic greatness deserves far more than a collective shrug.