They can seem each other’s constant companions, paired in references, contrasted in comparisons trying to prove the unprovable: which is definitively better. Even in disappointment, they are bracketed together. A shared ambition in effect ended within the space of six hours. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will probably never be World Cup winners.
If they are, it will be largely due to the efforts of others. Messi will be 35 when the 2022 tournament starts, Ronaldo almost 38. There is little sense either Argentina or Portugal are rearing world-beating generations so even men who have redrawn the limits of what is possible may sense their chance is gone. Instead, two who personify their clubs in a polarising, sometimes poisonous rivalry may join the Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff and the Real Madrid greats Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas in the group of the greatest players never to win the greatest prize.
The final acts were different, Messi floating a sumptuous cross on to Sergio Aguero’s head to give Argentina fleeting hope against France, Ronaldo barking at referee Cesar Ramos to collect the caution that would have brought a quarter-final suspension. Messi’s dejection was quiet, Ronaldo’s vocal.
Yet they are twinned again. They have combined total of 1,286 goals for their clubs and countries but none in World Cups' knockout stages. Ronaldo scored a superlative group-stage hat-trick against Spain and Messi was distinctly fortunate to be named the 2014 tournament's best player but their impact is best measured elsewhere.
Yet they have had wildly differing international careers. Messi’s, forever framed by the context supplied by the 1986 World Cup winner Diego Maradona, is one of disappointment, notable for three major final defeats. Ronaldo’s is as indisputably his country’s finest player in their colours, a man who did what Eusebio and Luis Figo could not and won a major tournament and who may yet end up as the record scorer in international and Uefa Champions League football, as well as for Real Madrid and Portugal.
Being Portuguese has conditioned expectations. Being in a team with Jose Fonte meant it was unrealistic he would have won this year’s World Cup; their reliance on Ronaldo was too pronounced. Being semi-fit in 2014 limited the captain’s effectiveness in one tournament when he was at his peak. He was a rookie semi-finalist in 2006. Perhaps 2010 represents the big disappointment; even though eventual champions Spain put Portugal out, Ronaldo seemed to blame manager Carlos Queiroz.
GALLERY: Argentina bow out to France 4-3
Messi has suffered more from managerial missteps. Jose Pekerman has been castigated for not bringing him off the bench in the 2006 quarter-final exit to Germany. In 2018, Jorge Sampaoli, an unqualified success with Chile, proved a mismatch for an ageing, slowing Argentina side ill-equipped to press or adopt a high defensive line. In 2010, Argentina had the least suitable of candidates in Maradona. They were still worse tactically.
Then, unlike now, they had a squad to equip them to challenge. There has rarely been an international side with such an imbalance as the 2018 Argentina, their attacking riches cancelled out by the paucity of their resources in goal, defence and parts of the midfield. They were so manifestly flawed.
For some, there was always the thought that Messi’s sheer Messiness could compensate for the mess of Argentine football. It rarely works that way, however. Even in 1986, a solid base and astute tactics gave Maradona a platform to perform. He did not quite win the World Cup single-handedly, whereas it felt Ronaldo and Messi needed to. And so, in a team game, and the two greatest individuals of the past decade, the players who defined a generation, are out.
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