Ask anyone who the greatest footballer of all time is and it’s always either Pele or Maradona. And you can’t argue with that. Pele is the only footballer to win 3 World Cups, the first of which was at just 17 years of age, and Maradona singlehandedly led Argentina to glory in 1986.
In the last decade however Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have staked claim to the title of greatest of all time. Between them, they have won the last 10 Ballon d’Ors. That’s a mindboggling piece of trivia and might never be repeated but the fact still remains that for all their individual brilliance and all the trophies they’ve won at club level, they never led their country to World Cup glory. And as far as the question of the greatest of all time is concerned, one of the main criteria is to have won the World Cup with your country.
Ronaldo won the European Championship with Portugal in 2016 while Messi was part of the Argentina team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He came within a whisker of winning the 2014 World Cup but was cruelly denied in the final at the hands of Germany.
When the next World Cup comes around in 2022, Messi will be 34 and Ronaldo will have turned 37. This in turn means that Russia 2018 is the last realistic shot the two of them have of staking their claim as the greatest ever.
And for all their titles and trophies with their respective clubs, it’s quite evident that both of them desperately want to win titles for their countries. Ronaldo was in tears when his participation in the 2016 Euro final ended through injury while Messi immediately retired after the defeat in the 2016 Confederations Cup. A third straight defeat in a major final with Argentina had left him distraught and disillusioned.
But all that is in the past. Both of them arrive in Russia with nothing to prove and yet with everything to play for. Their place in the pantheon of football’s greatest is undisputed but if they lift the trophy next month, their legacy will be unshakeable. They know that it’s in their hands. But can they go all the way?
Portugal is perhaps the strongest one-man team at the World Cup while for all the star power within their ranks, Argentina don’t really feel like a complete team that can stake claim as one of the favourites. Which is why Ronaldo and Messi will have to play out of their skin to take their teams to the final and then to the trophy.
Everything they have won so far is irrelevant in the face of the World Cup. All that remains is the golden trophy up for grabs in Moscow on July 15. And the big question is: which one of them is going to do it?