It may have taken a while, but the most pointless, facile (and often petulant) debate in football has now reached the world’s biggest international competition. It’s Ronaldo v Messi: World Cup Edition.
Lionel Messi is taking an inordinate amount of flak for Argentina’s dismal World Cup thus far, but in many ways, the narrative was set before he’d even kicked a ball. Cristiano Ronaldo – hardly a World Cup legend in his own right, let’s not forget – stormed through the Spanish defence to score a hat-trick in Portugal’s opening match. Top that, Lionel.
The sad fact is, he couldn’t.
His teammates (either by design under orders) took the cowardly way out against Iceland and tried to play everything through him (despite the presence of Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero on the pitch) while one can’t really say for certain what the plan was against Croatia, only that it didn’t work.
This is not about which player is better; frankly, that argument is redundant as there will never be a clear winner, only the loud screeching of dogmatic fanboys so entrenched in their views that even acknowledging the other player’s greatness would be ten times worse than cheating on a spouse.
It’s Pele v Maradona for the Fortnite generation.
No, this is about the mitigating circumstances that have allowed one player to thrive while the other has devolved in a ball of frustration. The Portugal and Argentina camps could not be more different right now, and that is reflected in the performances of the teams and their respective star players.
“Ronaldo is dragging Portugal through, so why can’t Messi do the same with Argentina?” is too simplistic an argument. Portugal, though they may not be the most exciting team in the world, are, at the very least, functional.
Their attacking players may not have the same star quality (on paper) as Argentina but they do have tremendous team spirit, a strong work ethic and, crucially, a tactical setup that is conservative when it needs to be, yet allows Ronaldo to perform to the best of his ability.
These are the qualities that saw them crowned champions of Europe two years ago – Ronaldo’s presence turns a well-drilled, functional, very good team into an excellent one. The Real Madrid man might drag them over the line more often than not, but the spirit the team showed when he went off injured at the Stade de France in 2016 proves at least that they won’t turn into a crumbling mess without him.
And then we have Argentina, that roaring dumpster fire of a team.
Portugal’s structure allows Ronaldo to thrive, whereas Argentina’s is holding Messi back. Anybody that is surprised by Thursday night’s capitulation, don’t be. This was coming.
To anybody suggesting that Messi doesn’t drag Argentina through the tough times, they obviously weren’t paying attention when the rest of the squad effectively downed tools during the qualification campaign.
As the camera panned across the Argentina starting lineup in Nizhny Novgorod, none of them looked remotely happy to be there, least of all Messi. A footballer lining out for his country at a World Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle of his career, and yet it couldn’t have looked further removed from that on Thursday.
No matter what Messi does, he will always be fighting a battle against his own nation’s fans. The spectre of Diego Maradona will forever hang over him and on some level, he knows that. Even if, by some miracle, Argentina go on to win this World Cup – so what? Maradona’s already done that.
There’s no freedom, no enjoyment to be had in playing for a group of hyenas waiting to tear you to shreds for not being Maradona.
Now compare that to Ronaldo with Portugal. Theirs is a country with no shortage of legends, of course, with the likes of Eusebio and Luis Figo down the years, but Ronaldo surpasses all of that. He is the greatest Portuguese footballer of all time and his place in the nation’s heart is solidified. There is no pressure – brilliance is lauded but relative failure is met with a far greater sense of empathy.
The comprehensive defeat to Croatia – that’s on Sampaoli. A year into the job in charge of the national side and still throwing tactics at a dartboard, genuinely believing that Javier Mascherano (old) and Enzo Perez (clogger) is a viable central midfield while Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia and Giovani Lo Celso kick their heels on the bench, going from one extreme to the other in terms of how often the ball goes through Messi, and ensuring the play went through the most uncreative players in the side while Messi and Sergio Aguero were left isolated.
How is any player supposed to play in a tactical setup so muddled and aimless? It’s not a case of putting eleven robots onto the pitch and expecting them to play to the best of their abilities regardless of managerial instructions and external factors. This isn’t FIFA.
The problem with this sort of argument is that the detractors tend to pin the failings of a whole team on one player. If, for example, Morocco had scored an equaliser and drawn 1-1 against Portugal, is it Ronaldo’s fault that they didn’t win? If they defeat Iran but he has no part in any of the goals, is he still the main reason for the victory?
Messi will be vilified for his performances, both in a homeland that continues to worship at the altar of Diego and the glorious cesspit that is social media, where every player is either the GOAT or a fraud and moderation doesn’t exist.
Messi is doing as much as he can here, but there’s only so much he can do against the backdrop of plummeting squad morale and a manager throwing an avalanche of shit against the wall and praying that some of it sticks.
In terms of the external factors and managerial confidence/tactical structure, Ronaldo’s foundation is much stronger, and he is reaping the benefits as a result.