I’ve considered writing this article for quite a long time, because at least among my own athletic community, it is one of the most highly contested debates around, and has been for years. Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are considered among the greatest to ever play the game of soccer, and each has their own cult following. Ronaldo has over 1000 club matches, messi is within 100 games of the same mark (he is two years younger). Both score 30-40 goals a season minimum to this day, despite being 36 and 34, respectively. Both have countless titles and legacies that will be remembered forever. So who is the better player? In this article, I’ll go facet-by-facet through the game of soccer, and compare each’s abilities on the field within each category. At the end of each section, I’ll render my verdict on who takes the victory, and end the piece with my personal (hot) take on who should be remembered as the superior player of the pair.
Why not begin with a bang? Both Messi and Ronaldo are renowned for their goal scoring abilities. At the time of writing, Messi has scored 752 career senior goals, while Ronaldo has 790. However, Messi has accomplished this feat in 145 less games, giving him the superior goals-per-game ratio of 0.80. So, maybe this case seems simple enough: Messi for the win? I think not. Or at least, this comparison is not so simple. A number of other factors should be considered. For example, Ronaldo has more international goals (115, a record), Champions League goals (138, also a record) and World Cup goals (7). So, one could make a very convincing argument that Ronaldo has done more on the bigger occasion than Messi. He also has a habit of scoring in the more important games in these contexts, with over 60 of his Champions League goals coming in the knockout rounds, which feeds this narrative. For this reason, I give Ronaldo the nod in this category. He has more cumulative goals, and despite his worse goals-per-game return of 0.73, he has blossomed into the most natural goal scorer we have ever seen, and does it when it matters most.
Just as important in the attack as scoring goals is creating them. Thus, we ought to also examine creative statistics like assists. Messi jumps out to a lead here, with 315 career assists, the most in history, and a number which is continuing to grow. Ronaldo is also world class in this metric, perhaps against the popular narrative, with 227 assists to his name. So again, is Messi the clear cut winner here? Perhaps, but we ought to look closer.
The two have progressed into two very different roles throughout their careers. Ronaldo started as a tricky winger, running at defenders and whipping shots at goal or crosses into the box, while Messi began as a false 9 responsible for using his close control to receive, run at defenders and create goals for himself or others. Both in their youth were elite creators, even if in different ways. Nowadays, as they near the end of their careers, these roles have changed. Age has seen Ronaldo become a more lethal striker, playing centrally and responsible for scoring more and creating less, while Messi has dropped into a deeper, more facilitating role (at least before his move to PSG), driving the team forward and creating chances from further back on the pitch. Thus, Ronaldo has the less creatively demanding role. The question then becomes, can he be faulted for his lack of creativity in recent times in comparison to Messi?
Messi transitioned into a creator when age began to affect his legs because footballing intelligence was simply best suited to that role; while he is a natural scorer as well, he has an incredible capacity to see the entire field and create chances for others. Ronaldo also maintains this level of skill, but in another area of the game (that we have already covered): goal scoring. The reason Ronaldo has fallen behind Messi in terms of creativity in recent years is precisely because his role was adapted to maximize his best strength (scoring) and minimize the skill that was diminishing with age (creativity). Ronaldo relied on speed and skill to create, whereas Messi has always relied more on intelligence, and thus has retained creativity as he ages. On this ground, Messi edges it for me.
Though I may have hinted at this topic in my previous two sections, it is now time to address the question directly of which player is more skilled on the ball. The problem with this question is how broad it is. Technical skill incorporates all facets of the game: passing, dribbling, striking, beating defenders, retaining possession, and more. Thus, the plan is to have a few brief subsections in this section to discuss each area of skill, and then I will make an overarching conclusion for technical skill as a whole. I think, given the prowess each has shown in the goal scoring area of the game, it is appropriate to begin with analyzing who has more skill at finishing chances. In a very one-sided, contest, I think Ronaldo takes this one. He is by far the better finisher on his weak side, scoring 20% with his weak foot compared to Messi’s 12.5%. He also scored far more headers as a result of his superior height and athleticism. This skill is a toss up, really. These two have very different styles of dribbling. Messi much prefers to use body feints and keep the ball close; it almost appears stuck to his foot at times.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo sends defenders for a hotdog with his mesmerizing bag of tricks and flicks. Each is arguably the best in history at the way he dribbles. But which is more impressive? In all honesty, I can’t pick a winner here. Both are simply a joy to watch and elite dribblers. It’s a draw.
In the same way Ronaldo took finishing, Messi takes passing by a country mile. As I slightly alluded to in the section on creativity, Messi’s eye for a pass is almost certainly unmatched in football history. The reason he has the most assists of all time is because he could put the ball on the surface of a dime from 50 yards whenever he feels the need, and does so regularly.
Ronaldo may have been an elite crosser in his youth, but Messi’s passing is simply on another level. As a result of Messi’s close control and low center of gravity, he is almost impossible to take off the ball. It really does seem glued to his foot at times. Ronaldo is much more of a risk taker, which does hamper his reputation for giving the ball away more often; but even so, if he played the same role Messi has taken on, he would have a far harder time with it, not as a result of his own lack of skill but simply down to Messi’s otherworldly ability to keep the ball.
Ronaldo takes another win in two-footedness. This is clear to anyone who has ever seen both play. Ronaldo is renowned for being dangerous going both left and right; he has more highlight reel-worthy goals on his weak foot than most players do on their strong foot. Messi, while technically superior, rarely (if ever) touches the ball on his right side is not 100% necessary. Most goals come on his stronger left side, and even those he does score on his right are usually far from convincing, trickling through the goalkeeper’s hands with far less power than his strong foot.
Ronaldo routinely looks as though he’ll rip the net with his left footed strikes. Case closed. My overall verdict for this section is a draw. Both excel technically in some aspects, and struggle (in comparison to the other) in other areas. Thus, neither seems a clear favorite to me, and I’ll call it a tie.
In this final section, I’ll address a number of intangible factors that impact performance on the field.
For physicality, Ronaldo takes the win. He is taller, faster, stronger, more explosive, and simply a physical specimen overall. Moving on.
Ronaldo wins in leadership ability, too. He far more commonly steps up in tough games to make a difference. Not only does this manifest in his superior goal record in big games, but he also can be seen leading from the front in these matches.
In the decisive example, look at the 2016 Euro final versus the Copa America final from the same year. In the former, Ronaldo was injured in the first half and had to come off, but was still seen throughout the match coaching from the sidelines and encouraging his teammates. Messi, on the other hand, missed a penalty in the shootout of Argentina’s defeat to Chile, and was seen sitting alone on the bench while his teammates went about consoling one another. He also retired from international play briefly in what honestly seemed like a bit of a tantrum, only to return within a year.
As promised, I’d like to end by making my judgement of who I believe is the better player, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. And in a decision that may shock some, I’m choosing Ronaldo. At the end of the day, the skill level and statistics of each match up pretty well. Messi has more assists, Ronaldo has more goals and more goals in big games. Messi is a better passer, Ronaldo a better finisher, and both dribble at an elite level. So, the deciding factor for me comes down to the intangible factors. In the end, Ronaldo just seems to me to have more of a capacity to change games. He scores more goals in important games, he has the leadership skills to drive his team on in close matches, and he has athleticism that simply cannot be matched, even at age 36. Simply put, both are among the best in history, but Ronaldo edges it on the difference he makes and the impact he has on his teammates when it really counts. He takes the win for me.