The final word on the Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate is about to be spoken. If Messi’s Argentina win the World Cup inside the gleaming golden bowl of the Lusail Stadium today then it’s over once and for all. Those of us that lean Messi-wards already would argue the debate should be done anyway but a World Cup winners’ medal for the little master would finish this once and for all.
Should Messi lead Argentina to their promised land even the most loyal of Ronaldo-worshippers will surely have to see the light. Messi was still a twinkle in the eyes of his parents Jorge and Celia in the Rosaria suburbs when Argentina last won the World Cup in 1986.
The following year little Leo, their fourth child, arrived, to complete the family. In a small backyard behind the modest two-bedroomed home that Jorge, a builder, had constructed, Messi first learned to kick a ball with his brothers. He liked the feeling so much he slept with the football at his feet every night.
Two hundred metres away, on a rough patch of grassland, those in-house games turned into neighbourhood football. ‘La Pulga’ – or ‘The Flea’ as Messi was known because of his stature – dribbled past much bigger kids with the ball seemingly attached to his left foot. His swerve and acceleration left them hacking at thin air.
In this ordinary, working-class community an extraordinary talent revealed itself. A natural genius yet also a product of the soil he grew in. In Argentina they call his type a potrero – literally a ‘player of the uneven ground’.
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Thirty years on, the smallest guy on the pitch is still conjuring the same spellbinding tricks only on the pristine, desert-proof surfaces of Qatar ‘22. He has been a force of nature for Argentina at this World Cup, dragging them – single-handedly at times – out of the abyss of their opening defeat to Saudi Arabia.
The goals and the assists that place him at the top of the Golden Boot charts have been invaluable – if the pass for Nahuel Molina’s goal in the quarter-final was spectral in the clarity of the vision, the run that set up Julian Alvarez’s second in the semi-final was like a savage zig-zagging chainsaw. But what should not be overlooked either is the leadership he has provided to much younger team-mates who worship at his altar.
He is a hero to many of the squad as well as Argentina at large so anything he says and does within it carries an enormous impact. A natural introvert, Messi is not a song-and-dance man but his determination that Argentina would overcome in Qatar has been infectious. His team-mates and his manager Lionel Scaloni have all referenced it.
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An often-hidden side to him has been revealed. His combativeness in, and after, the feisty clash with the Netherlands, was unfamiliar. In Argentina they said he was summoning the spirit of Diego Maradona. Messi’s desperation to close the deal this time after being a losing finalist in 2014 has shone through.
He has won every individual accolade the game has to offer but true fulfilment in a team sport comes through team accomplishments and this is the big one. His career with Argentina stretches back 17 years to an inauspicious debut as a teenager against Hungary when he was sent off two minutes after coming on as a substitute.
He has played 171 games since and scored 96 goals. He has led the side to the Copa America. But the World Cup is the big one. The Messi-Ronaldo argument often revolves around their individual numbers. Who has scored the most goals (Ronaldo)? Who has provided the most assists (Messi)? Who has won the most Ballon d’Ors? (Messi).
Ask both of them and they would tell you they would swap all the individual stuff for team success. Even if you might not entirely believe Ronaldo, his tearful reaction when his World Cup dream ended in Qatar showed what playing for Portugal meant to him.
For him to fall short in his last hurrah – and as a bit-part substitute by the end too – was tough to take; perhaps made even tougher by having to watch his career-long rival march on to the final. At club level Ronaldo has won more Champions League trophies than Messi (5-4) but Messi has more domestic titles (11-7) and cups (16-13).
At international level it is a score draw in major championships – one Copa America for Messi, one Euros for Ronaldo. A World Cup winners’ medal would skew the balance undisputedly Messi’s way. He has one more shot with Argentina today.