DOHA, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup has felt like a ‘Last Dance’ for two of football’s biggest stars, neither of whom have ever won the sport’s biggest prize. Lionel Messi, 35, told the media back in August that it would be his last while Cristiano Ronaldo, who turns 38 in February, seems determined to keep going.
Yet the two icons have endured very different tournaments: Messi is one game away from ensuring that Qatar 2022 will forever be known as his World Cup as Argentina face France in the final on Sunday. But for Portugal‘s Ronaldo, the man with whom he’s shared the sport’s biggest stage for more than 10 years, it’s one he would rather forget.
Ronaldo left Qatar with a record when he became the first male player to score at five World Cups, but it said everything about the two players’ differing impacts that when Messi set benchmarks during Argentina’s semifinal victory over Croatia, they were treated as little more than a side-note. He equalled Lothar Matthaus’ record (25) for most appearances at a men’s World Cup and passed Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s top scorer in the competition when he scored No. 11 against Croatia on Tuesday. Yet the only story on the night was that Messi has given himself the chance to win the trophy. For Ronaldo, his dream ended three days earlier when Portugal were dumped out by underdogs Morocco in the quarterfinals.
However it ends for Messi, the storylines around the two most recognisable players on the planet have been markedly different since they arrived in the Middle East.
While Messi sat in his first news conference at the Qatar Convention Centre nearly a month ago, talking about feeling “calm” and praising the spirit in the Argentina camp, the mood was very different across Doha at Portugal’s training centre at Al Shahaniya Sports Club.
Ronaldo’s bombshell interview with journalist Piers Morgan — which prompted Manchester United to threaten legal action before a hastily arranged “mutual termination of his contract — had aired a week earlier. When Bernardo Silva held Portugal’s first news conference in Qatar, the questions, understandably, were not about the World Cup. The Manchester City midfielder has a reputation as being relatively mild-mannered, but it wasn’t long before he grew tired of the barrage of questions about his teammate.
“The news that comes from England has nothing to do with the national team, so I won’t say anything,” he said.
A couple of days later, Ronaldo — who had snuck into an early morning news conference unadvertised to avoid the media circus — made a plea to reporters to stop asking his teammates questions about the mess he left behind in Manchester. It didn’t help, and there was always a feeling that Ronaldo was hanging over everything Portugal did.
During the group stage, Ronaldo tried to claim a goal that wasn’t his against Uruguay. (Bruno Fernandes, who was eventually awarded the goal, said post-match that “We are happy with the victory regardless of who scored.”) When Ronaldo was replaced early against South Korea, he was caught by television cameras mouthing that coach Fernando Santos was “in a rush to sub me” — something Santos would later say he “didn’t like at all,” before dropping the star to the bench for Portugal’s remaining games.
Santos would regularly sit in news conferences shaking his head and rolling his eyes when questions about Ronaldo came up. Ahead of the quarterfinal with Morocco, Joao Felix made another demand that questions about the striker stop. Santos went a step further, saying that it was time the 37-year-old was “left alone.”
While Ronaldo became a distraction for Portugal, Messi’s influence on the Argentina squad grew as the World Cup went on, with the No. 10 keen to portray a unifying presence. As Portugal fans began to doubt their hero, Argentines have further embraced theirs.
Journalists covering Argentina have been used to media blackouts during recent World Cups, but this time it’s been different. Following the shock 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game, Messi even made a point of stopping in the mixed zone to talk to reporters in what was a difficult moment. “My message to the supporters is to have faith,” he said. “We won’t leave them stranded.”
Messi has done more than just talk. In Argentina’s second match against Mexico — a game that for more than an hour descended into which team could kick the other the most — Messi was the difference, producing the first moment of real quality with a stunning touch and finish from 25 yards.
His mazy run in the semifinal, beating Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol twice before squeezing past the centre-back on the byline to tee up Julian Alvarez, will be replayed again and again. It gave notice that the skill and technique that has seen him crowned the world’s best player a record seven times is still there, even at age 35.
Steve Nicol and Stewart Robson are dubious that Cristiano Ronaldo’s comments about Portugal winning the World Cup are truly genuine.
The uncomfortable truth for Ronaldo — who still attracted thousands of fans to Portugal games just to watch him — is that he didn’t come close to matching Messi’s impact on the pitch in Qatar. He got his goal, a penalty against Ghana, but offered little else. Dropped by Santos ahead of the round-of-16 tie with Switzerland, his 21-year-old replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat trick in a 6-1 win.
Left on the bench again for the quarterfinal against Morocco, Ronaldo came on early in the second half, but his one chance to equalise was fired straight at the goalkeeper. It was the kind of opportunity he would have taken with ease during his peak years at Real Madrid, but he’s not that player anymore.
Performance-wise, it’s even clearer as to who has lived up to expectations, with Messi managing five goals — tied with Kylian Mbappe for the Golden Boot award given to the World Cup’s top scorer — and three assists and 1.26 G+A per 90, while Ronaldo has managed just one goal and a 0.31 G+A per 90 in limited minutes off the bench.
Following Portugal’s exit, there have been suggestions from family members that Ronaldo could carry on until the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, by which time he would be 41. (With news Thursday that Santos was stepping down as manager, the Ronaldo conundrum will be a big order of business for his eventual replacement.) Messi, meanwhile, has already said that Sunday’s final against France will be his last game in the competition — his 26th appearance, setting a record for a men’s World Cup. He has the chance to go out on a high, lifting a trophy won by two other greats in Brazil‘s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona, and the only prize that has eluded him during a career that has seen him collect everything else.
Ronaldo remains the only other active player with a CV that comes close, although the 2022 World Cup may yet be remembered as the defining difference between this generation’s two superstar rivals.
Messi or Ronaldo? The question asked by football fans for more than a decade might soon get a definitive answer.