Messi or Ronaldo? Who is Better?

By: Gabriel Munoz-Morris

Who are the five men who are considered to be the best soccer players of all time? The list has been discussed and debated by many but the general consensus is that, in no particular order, Di Stefano, Maradona, Pele, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer are the greatest players to ever play the game. The problem is that the beautiful game has been both blessed and cursed by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s complete dominance in the past decade. These two men have destroyed record after record, winning trophies for club and country while being lauded with individual awards from almost every international soccer organization there is. Their goals have decided more than just games and their cunning has made even the best defenses forget how to properly function. The two are incredibly talented and extremely fit. They’ve dedicated their lives to becoming the greatest player they could be. The brilliance of their game is only elevated by the constant, and frankly natural, debate over who is better. Real Madrid fans, and even some who are not Real fans, argue that Ronaldo is more complete physically and therefore better while Barcelona fans and others will contradict them and say that Messi is the more complete player due to his natural talent and vision.

The beauty of this debate is that it can happen every weekend. Imagine if only one of these men were playing professional soccer right now. Imagine instead of comparing present day Messi to present day Ronaldo we were to compare Messi to Maradona. This would be much more difficult because the two men in question would have professional careers that were separated by a generation. The game is not the same now as it was thirty years ago. This difference is what makes comparing Messi and Ronaldo to past legends so difficult. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, players were not in the shape that they are in now and defenders’ focus was about getting the ball away from their goal instead of playing it forward with class. Players were not as protected by the referees and regulation. Plus, stronger tackles were made more frequently then than they are now. It was a rougher game. This evolution of the game makes the fact that two men who are currently at the top of their game and who will most likely end up in the “top ten all time greatest players” list mind-blowing.

The issue then becomes: which of these two men is the better player? Although it is an important factor, one cannot simply count goals scored in order to determine who is best because these men are not the typical center forwards that were, for so long, considered the best/most exciting players on the field. These men are responsible for both scoring goals and creating them for their teammates. Their vision with the ball is just as important as their ability to turn chances into goals. These men must know how to escape a defender’s persecution but also how to identify when they should pass instead of trying to dribble their way out of a tight situation.

Let’s discuss the numbers. Messi has scored a total of 455 professional goals in his career while Ronaldo has scored 488 goals. It would seem that Ronaldo has the advantage there but one must consider that Ronaldo is two years older than Messi and began his professional career two seasons before Messi did. It is entirely plausible to consider that they are equal in this respect as Messi will likely to score 33 goals in two seasons. The other key factor reducing Ronaldo’s apparent lead here is the fact that he has notched his 488 goals in 742 games while Messi has scored his 455 in just 577 games giving him an overall 0.78 goal/game average while Ronaldo just reaches 0.66 goals/game. This difference may seem small but when you consider that these men play between 50-70 games a season you can see how fast one goal more every 8-9 games adds up. These figures are all-time figures but if a true comparison is to be made, then one would argue that the numbers that matter most are goals scored by each since Ronaldo’s move to Madrid in 2009. From then till now, both men have played against the same teams every year in league and cup. This provides the most accurate comparison of the two men’s scoring prowess. Since 2009 Ronaldo has scored 313 club goals in 300 games (1.04 goals/game) and Messi has scored 330 goals in 319 games (1.03 goals/game). These numbers are ridiculously close. There is no person that can reasonably argue that one man is better or worse because of a one-hundredth of a goal per game. These extremely close numbers lead us to take a look into the second most important aspect of these men’s game: assists. Since his move to Madrid, Ronaldo has dished out 84 assists over his 300 games while Messi has handed out 120 dimes. If you add these totals to each player’s individual goal totals to create a “total goals generated” category Ronaldo’s coefficient jumps to 1.32 goals generated/game while Messi’s lunges up to 1.41 goals generated/game. Again Messi is about ten percent ahead of Ronaldo just as he was in the all time goals scored/game comparison. The most interesting part about this is that we need to sit down and compare the two this way. These two men have both generated almost a goal and a half for their team every single game for 5 years and we sit here trying to figure out who did it better. The numbers give it to Messi but I doubt that presenting staunch Ronaldo supporters with those numbers would change any minds. That is because “goals generated” is not the only thing that fans think of when they see these players. They see men who are a cut above the rest of the world’s players.

Soccer fans are interesting because they are not like typical American sports fans. Statistics matter very much in the “big three” American sports. Baseball is basically all about statistics and fans do not stop quoting an NBA player’s averages when considering him for the annual MVP award. Soccer fans do not really consider statistics as much when judging if a player is good or great (Cruyff was not known for his goal totals but is considered one of the all-time best). No one immediately starts spouting off numbers like I did above when comparing Messi and Ronaldo because, as I demonstrated, they are too similar. One’s opinion about which man is the better player is based off how that man plays when he is on the field. The intangibles are what make fans decant one way or another in this debate. I argue that because of this, there really should not be a comparison.

Messi and Ronaldo both score a lot of goals. They both assist their teammates often. They also both lead their teams every season (mostly to various titles). Barcelona and Real Madrid are the world’s most popular teams because these two men play for them. At the end of the day one may think that Ronaldo is better because he is a physical specimen but it does not matter because someone else will just argue that Messi is best because of his innate ability with the ball. The fun thing about it all is that both men are clearly at the top of the charts right now and we all get to watch them play every week. They are both amongst the top ten players ever to play the game in my book and they have not even finished their careers. I think that one of them may even make it to the top five. Who that ends up being is for history to determine. After all, there are plenty of people with an opinion out there and you can be sure that at some point someone will open the debate seriously. It’s probably why Diego Maradona takes every chance he gets to say that he was better than Messi is. He knows that soon he will be considered the second best Argentinian player of all time. Everyone says that Messi and Ronaldo need to win a world cup to really be considered amongst the greats but the national teams they have around them are constantly out-played by better teams. And let’s not forget that Holland never won a world cup with Cruyff at the helm. They should have won in both finals they played but they did not. So people need to stop saying that a world cup is the ticket into the top five and just sit down, turn on the TV, and enjoy the way Messi and Ronaldo make the beautiful game that much prettier every week.