It is fair to say that Lionel Messi has been on top of the footballing world for 13 years along with Cristiano Ronaldo. A generation long debate of who is the better player between Messi and Cristiano, with some of the nostalgic fans excluding both player and choosing players like Pele, Ronaldo, Maradona, and Zidane as the top choices, but these 2 players have a stronger case to be 1 and 2 in football history.
It is always difficult to compare players in any sport, especially when playing positions matter and where each position has its own attributes. Lionel Messi has transcended football when it comes his position on the pitch, he played with many icons like Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Iniesta, Xavi, Thierry Henry, and others who had special attributes that defined who they are. Eto’o decisive scoring, Xavi’s pinpoint long passes, Iniesta’s composure and overall vision, Henry’s clinical finishing, but Lionel Messi has basically had all of these attributes combined throughout his career. We can discuss goal scoring statistics between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but that would not really have that much of an effect on the GOAT status or at least does not determine who is better since both are on another planet in that category, with that said, let us see the statistics regardless.
Messi has scored 707 career goals vs Cristiano’s 742 career goals with Messi playing 142 less matches. Messi has contributed 299 career assists vs Cristiano’s 217 career assists.
Stats by competition:
Champions League (Messi: 116 G, 34 A / CR7: 131 G, 39 A)
European Leagues (Messi: 445 G, 183 A / CR7: 453 G, 137 A)
League Cups: (Messi: 53 G, 32 A / CR7: 43 G, 10 A)
National team: (Messi: 71 G, 42 A / CR7: 101 G, 28 A)
It is clear that both legends have close statistics regardless of the number of matches played, the 1 thing that can’t be put into a statistical form is actually watching the 2 play, it is about the eye test and knowing how they both achieve such spectacular stats.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal scoring shows that he is the greatest player ever in terms of positioning, the way he locates free space between defenses is unmatched and makes football fans wonder why he is alone in the box when in fact he is not as opponents know that CR7 is obviously the main threat, it’s his ability to find the space where the goal scoring opportunity is staring him in the face. That is not even including his unbelievable precision, shot power, heading, and speed that were barely stopped. His assist ability is underrated with the statistics that were shown compared to Messi, he knows when to distribute the ball and when to take it on himself, but as a skilled passer he is still not nearly as good as Lionel Messi in that aspect of the game. When it comes to his role on the pitch with his teammates, it can be said that he is the primary target for crosses and through balls in every match he plays which is why he is a right winger on paper but not on the pitch, on the pitch he is the striker/second striker as we all watched with Real Madrid when most of the time Karim Benzema was the decoy striker who attracted defender on him for Cristiano to take advantage and score unlimited amount of goals. When CR7 left, Benzema has become one of the best strikers in the world, along with Lewandowski, in the 2 seasons he has played as a main target, not saying Real Madrid are better without CR7 obviously, but we can’t ignore Benzema’s major improvements without CR7. Cristiano with Juventus has also been the main target as he should since this is not about lessening the effect of his teammates, it is about the attributes the he brings to the table and he is possibly the greatest goal scorer in football history.
Lionel Messi ability to dribble past defenses constantly has been spectacular to watch, he has lead the top 5 European leagues in overall successful dribbles in the past 12 years which is insane. A couple of historic dribbles include his dribbles against Real Madrid in 2010–2011 Champions League semi-final 1st leg, and against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa Del Rey final during the 2014–2015 season. His playmaking ability is also unrivaled, statistics are great for context but they don’t show the whole story, Cristiano is close to Messi in career assists, but the type of assists being provided are much more to look at than statistics. Messi has been synonymous with chances created, he can thread a through ball between 3+ defender whether it a ground pass or a long pass, he can locate teammates in narrow spaces and attempt a crazy pass so accurate that you couldn’t believe that it was successful, an attribute that Cristiano Ronaldo never had. With Goal scoring, Messi has played as a false 9 under Pep Guardiola where he was much more of a goal scorer than playmaker, he has scored 91 goals in 1 year (2012) a record that will probably never be broken, he then transitioned to right wing under Luis Enrique when Barca signed Luis Suarez and Neymar and Messi knew he needed to sacrifice his role for Suarez, this made him start dropping back to midfield and become a playmaker first, goal scorer second. From that season onward, Messi has been one of the best midfielders in football history, just in 2019–2020 he has provided 25 assists in Laliga which was the most assists provided in a single season ever in any league by surpassing Henry’s 20 assists with Arsenal in 2002–2003. Lionel Messi can change from striker, to winger, to central and attacking midfielder whenever he wants, and that is what separates him from his footballing rivals throughout history.
Many people who believe Cristiano is the better player may have the argument that when comparing both players in competitions like the Champions League, they mention Cristiano Ronaldo’s 5 trophies to Messi’s 4 trophies and one of them being in 2006 which Messi did not play in. Both player are the ones who should make their teams qualify to later rounds because of their impact, which is why the knock on Messi might be the Roma, and Liverpool matches, but this is still a team game. In 2018, Barcelona were eliminated by Roma (quarter-final) in embarrassing fashion while Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich (semi-final) to reach the final, the difference was shown between both teams, Messi has created chances that should’ve been goals and Valverde played a very defensive formation which let Roma relax offensively and Barca ultimately lost. Real Madrid was getting bombarded by Bayern Munich with every chance but Bayern couldn’t finish at all, Ulreich who was at goal for Bayern, commits a massive mistake for Benzema to score which was the difference, now Bayern and Roma are completely different, but the idea is that there is a lot that goes into a Champions League match. Barca should have won by talent but their tactics were very flawed, Real Madrid should have lost heavily, but they won from bad finishing and mistakes. Real Madrid then won the final vs Liverpool with Cristiano having an average performance for his standard in both the semi finals and final, Mohamad Salah was injured in the first half and out of the match as well, making Liverpool’s attacking threat disappear. In 2019, CR7 was with Juventus and he was doing what he does best in the CL, but then got knocked out in the quarter-finals by Ajax despite scoring 2 goals to keep Juve in it all by himself, that shows how big football is when it comes to team sports. Not that Messi performed well vs Liverpool in the 2nd leg, he missed an easy tap in which was very surprising, but he also was a Dembele tap in away in the 1st leg from his 5th CL final, and he has already performed great in all 3 finals he has been in.
Even while comparing individual trophies, it does not really give the comparison much service as they have contributed immensely to the sport of football, and have earned their individual achievements. Other than what statistics give you, it is important to watch both play and see how they both end up finding the net. Let us add the national team argument to that, the world cup does not really indicate where the player is ranked in football history, would Messi or Cristiano be excluded from the top 3 best ever because they haven’t won a world cup? the world cup is a tournament held every 4 years which needs an almost perfect team to win it, not an individual player, teams like Spain 2010 were brilliant defensively + Villa’s goals, 2014 Germany were brilliant on both ends all tournament, 2018 France were loaded in every position and fully deserved it, we can even go back in history and look at Maradona, who had a brilliant tournament, in the final of 1986 when they won 3–2 vs Germany, Argentina scored 3 goals and none of them were Maradona even though he assisted the 3rd goal. The world cup argument is not very effective.
Overall, it is always going to be controversial when comparing players from the same and different eras, it will constantly be a discussion of attributes, trophies, statistics, head to head, and even when it comes to defenders who deserve much more recognition, some fans who value defending the most think Maldini or Beckenbauer is the GOAT which is hard to debate. From an attacking sense (midfielders and forwards), Pure goal scoring wise: Lionel Messi has been compared to iconic scorers like Gerd Muller, Ronaldo, Pele, Maradona, Romario, Eusiebo, Cristiano Ronaldo etc. Pure playmaking wise: Lionel Messi has been compared to iconic playmakers like Zidane, Bergkamp, Xavi, Iniesta, Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Lampard, Gerrard, etc. Messi has been on both ends of scoring where he ranks in the top 3 best goal scorers ever, and top 5 best playmakers ever which is not the same as assist providers. He is the greatest player in football history.