It’s something that soccer fans around the world debate until they are out of breath: who is the best player on the planet? Although decent cases can be made for players like Paul Pogba or Neymar, the real conversation boils down to just two names: Is it Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who also represents Argentina on the international stage? Or is it Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for Portugal? There is no question that Ronaldo is always fighting neck-and-neck to dethrone Messi, both in La Liga and the Champions League, but there is a strong argument to be made that Messi is simply better. Here are eight reasons why.
According to John Dorsey of ESPN, “in a game built on speed and agility, there are few soccer players faster or more agile than Argentina’s Lionel Messi.” Where Messi can shine the most is in his initial acceleration. According to the Telegraph, Messi can burst, “out of the blocks and reach full speed within five yards.” Messi’s amazing speed also allows him to dribble the ball with remarkable ease on the pitch, making him very difficult for defenders (even those who try to double team) to stop him. There is no doubt that Ronaldo’s size makes him a more physical player, but Messi’s smaller stature allows him to utilize his speed more frequently.
Messi is highly praised for his innovation and imagination while playing soccer. According to former England manager Fabio Capello, who also spent three years in charge of Russia’s national team, Messi has more creativity than Ronaldo. An example of Messi’s creativity is his strong vision of his surroundings that allows him to get the ball to the best possible place so his team can develop an attack. According to Gerardo Martino, his former manager at FC Barcelona, Messi’s creativity is as important as his ability to score goals.
6. Passing Ability
In the last full La Liga season, Messi had more assists than Ronaldo (9 to 6). The season before that, Messi won again (16 to 11). Typically, Messi also boasts a higher assists-per-game ratio as well. In his remarkable 2011-12 season, Messi scored an incredible 77 goals in 70 games for either Argentina or Barcelona, and he had 27 assists compared to Ronaldo’s 16. Messi has also been highly praised for keeping his teammates more active and involved while on the pitch than Ronaldo. It’s one of the reasons that Messi routinely came out ahead in Ballon d’Or voting, although Ronaldo has since closed that gap.
According to WhoScored.com, Ronaldo’s most obvious weakness is his play away from the ball. In the 2016-17 La Liga season, Ronaldo was more likely to commit a foul than generate an interception and produce a successful tackle. He had 0.6 fouls per match, compared to 0.3 interceptions per match and just 0.2 tackles. Messi had much better defensive metrics than Ronaldo. He committed only 0.4 fouls per game, but was more likely to generate a tackle (0.7 per game). Those are La Liga numbers, but both players had consistent numbers in the Champions League as well. Messi’s defensive ranking last season was 8.42 (out of 10), while Ronaldo’s was just 7.61.
4. More International Accolades
Over the last ten years, only two players have won the coveted Ballon d’Or, given to the best player in world soccer at the annual FIFA awards. Messi was the first to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or five times, although Ronaldo recently caught up by winning the 2016 and 2017 version of the award.. To be recognized by coaches and captains of international teams, as well as worldwide journalists, is a significant achievement.
Prior to Messi’s remarkable run, no soccer player had ever been named the FIFA Player of the Year four times, and Messi won the award four years in a row! Messi’s best year came in 2012, when he scored 91 goals in a season, the most ever by a player in a single year, and a record that Ronaldo has not yet matched. In an era where we judge athletes by what they put in their trophy cabinet, Messi’s gold shines brighter.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was originally written, Ronaldo helped Portugal to the 2016 European Championship, giving him a major international trophy that Messi lacks. Of course, Argentina is not eligible for the Euro tournament, although Messi has an U-20 World Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal to his name. This category is closer than ever as the 2018 World Cup looks ahead.
3. Leadership and Team Play
Since 2011, Messi has been the captain of the Argentinian national team and captained Barcelona for the first time in 2013 (although Iniesta remains the regular captain). Argentinian manager Alejandro Sabella gave the captaincy to Messi because he was impressed with his maturity. Over the years, Messi has been highly praised for his ability to keep his teammates involved in the game by not holding on to the ball too long when he has possession.
Ronaldo, who has been the Portuguese captain since 2008, has meanwhile been criticized in the past for falling on the pitch too easily. Even though the move is considered by some as an important tactic to generate a scoring chance, there are many who suggest that there is no place for diving in soccer. Ronaldo has also been criticized for trying to do too much with the ball and not utilizing his teammates enough. Both Ronaldo and Messi have been counted on significantly for their respective national teams, with Ronaldo finally leading his nation to the Euro 2016 final — a game he missed due to injury. Messi helped Argentina to the 2014 World Cup Final, where they lost to Germany.
Since arriving in Spain in 2009, Ronaldo has picked up 46 yellow cards and four reds in La Liga and Champions League play. While he’s hardly a dirty player, his discipline record can’t compare to Messi’s. The Barcelona superstar has just 35 yellows and zero red cards in the same time span (although he did get sent off in his Argentina debut after about two minutes in 2005 as an 18-year-old, after coming on as a late substitute).
Keeping your composure is very important in soccer because of its team component, and it seems that Messi has the historical edge in this category. When you’re the most important player on the pitch, it’s imperative you don’t get sent off. Messi also didn’t pick up a yellow card in the entire 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Ronaldo has had ten red cards since his rookie season in 2003, including four while with Manchester United. His other two were in Spanish cup competitions.
One of the most significant statistics when comparing two players is their shooting accuracy. Ronaldo scored 25 goals in 2016-17, but needed 5.6 shots per game to achieve them (160 total). In contrast, Messi scored 37 goals on fewer shot attempts, notching just 5.3 attempts per game (178 total). Those shooting percentages work out to about 21 percent for Messi, and just 16 percent for Ronaldo.
Messi has a higher percentage of his shots hit the net, forcing the keeper to make a save. An amazing 82 of Messi’s shots were on goal, meaning that 46 percent of his attempts could have led to a goal. For Ronaldo, only 40 percent of his total shots were on goal. Even though Ronaldo is still a remarkable player, he is off target on more occasions, making him less dangerous than Messi when he delivers a shot toward the goal.