Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick for Juventus in their 3-0 Champions League victory over Atletico Madrid puts him level on par (not second best), with Lionel Messi as the two greatest players of our generation.
In greatness stakes, the celebrated pair is now ahead of Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, and behind only Edson Arantes dos Nascimento aka Pele.
Comparisons between CR7 and Messi are a global obsession that just won’t go away thanks to their ability to keep reinventing themselves.
My own opinion in this argument has oscillated over the years. A little bit of chest thumping is in order as I was a very early believer in CR7’s potential to conquer the football world.
The very first day I set my eyes on Ronaldo was in Manchester United’s pre season friendly against Sporting Lisbon sixteen years ago. I was astounded by the skills set of the then 18-year-old Portuguese winger.
I remarked to my colleagues at Daily Monitor that Sir Alex Ferguson must immediately recruit the boy. It turns out the entire United squad felt the same. On the plane back home, the club’s senior players implored their manager to ensnare Ronaldo from under the noses of Arsenal who had also offered him a trial.
Portugal and Real Madrid’s record scorer took his time to make an impact at Old Trafford but there was no mistaking his talent.
Recall checking Wikipedia in 2004 for his official weight and height because I was astonished by the sight of a teenage footballer with so much physical strength. If my memory serves me right, Ronaldo was already 75kgs of muscle and 1.85m tall. I told my sports editor at the time that his talent and strength were a lethal combination for Premier League defenders.
Throughout his long stellar career, Ronaldo has been the world’s strongest, fittest and most self driven player.
Make no mistake about it. CR7 isn’t blessed with the natural born talent Messi possesses. But he is a driven man, who by his sheer will, refused to be second best to anyone, bar none.
The power of the Juventus star’s inner self drive meant by 2007 he was the world’s third best player behind AC Milan’s Brazilian Kaka, before eclipsing him a year later by helping Manchester United to the Premier League and Champions League double. The same year, 2008, saw him lift the first of his five Ballon D’Ors.
Arguments of who was better between the Portuguese king and Argentine maestro reached a crescendo ahead of the 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.
At the time, I felt CR7 was the better individual player, only to be blown away by the mesmeric Messi as Blagruana made light work of fielding a weakened side to triumph 2-0. I have spent the last decade in the Messi camp.
The shift to the Messi camp was helped by the Argentine’s better all round contributions as Barcelona won eight league titles in eleven seasons, compared to just two for Ronaldo’s Real Madrid.
Messi is both a playmaker and goal scorer per excellence. His goals involvement (assists + goals) is on another planet. That is why Barcelona has dominated Liga Santander.
However, Ronaldo’s five Champions League crowns compared to Messi’s three mean he has atoned for his inadequacy as a front man in quests for league success.
2019 is not a World Cup year, so whoever guides his team to Champions League success, stands a strong chance in the race for the Ballon DOr.
Paris Saint Germain’s Champions League implosion implies Kylian Mbappe, the only other player who could have eclipsed Messi and Ronaldo, has dropped out of contention.
Lionel Messi’s stats for Barcelona are far superior to Ronaldo’s figures for Juventus. The Argentine therefore still leads the race for world football’s top individual accolade.
But if Ronaldo matches his incomparable goal scoring record in the tournament’s knock out rounds, we might be reading from a different script come next June.
A summary of each player’s strengths points to a statistical dead heat between the pair. In years to come, Messi will be remembered as the more gifted, more entertaining football artisan, but the race for who the greater of the pair is won’t be settled until after three more Champions League seasons and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
For now, Ronaldo and Messi are on par.