Messi vs. Ronaldo: Ending the 'Greatest Footballer in the World' Debate

Dan Talintyre@@dantalintyreSenior Analyst IIMay 17, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 21:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona (L) and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF shake hands prior to the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou on April 21, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. Real Madrid CF won 1-2.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

Who is the greatest footballer in the world—is it the player with more goals, or the player with more trophies and awards? Is it the player that can perform in big matches, or is it the player that has more of an impact on games week in and week out?

The debate has divided the football world with new arguments for and against the respective players emerging faster than Joey Barton can get himself sent off. 

On one hand, there's Lionel Messi—Barcelona ace and hottest prospect in world football. In 55 appearances for Barcelona this season, Messi netted a staggering 74 goals and 21 assists. In La Liga, he scored 50 goals and 16 assists in 36 matches. 

Messi's dominance on the modern game is phenomenal; he is the reigning UEFA Best Player in Europe Award and FIFA Ballon d'Or champion and was named in TIME's Most Influential People in 2012.

Yet on the other hand, there's Cristiano Ronaldo—Real Madrid champion and football superstar. In his 53 appearances for Los Blancos, Ronaldo scored 60 goals and 15 assists and picked up 19 man of the match awards. He also became the only player to score against every club in La Liga in the one season in 2012 and established himself as one of the most superior players in world football.

But is Ronaldo the greatest, or does Messi surpass the Real Madrid star?

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MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 25:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid celebrates scoring their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg between Real Madrid CF and Bayern Munich at The Bernabeu Stadium on April 25, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.  (
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At one level, the question is flawed because both players are affected and impacted by the success or failures of their respective teams.

If Barcelona didn't have such a dominant midfield, would Messi be as dominant? If Ronaldo played on Bayern Munich, would he have the same success as he does in Real Madrid?

The answers to those questions we simply cannot know because they will never come to fruition and as a result, cloud our ability to judge who the better player in the world truly is. We simply cannot take Messi out of his Barcelona context nor Ronaldo out of his Real Madrid environment.

Yet I wonder what would happen if we did.

Say that we did take Lionel Messi out of Barcelona and we did take Cristiano Ronaldo out of Real Madrid—who would have had the superior season? Who would have won El Classico and who would have ended up taking the La Liga title?

As mentioned above, it's near impossible to measure their impact and it's also difficult know what it would look like to take either player out of their side. But for argument's sake, let's take every goal and assist that either player scored and examine how their team would have finished.

Just for fun, and not as the final solution to the Messi-Ronaldo debate.

Barcelona 2012 Regular Season

Barcelona finished the year in second place with 91 competition points. They won 28 matches, drew seven and lost three—finishing with a goal difference of 85.

Barcelona 2012 Regular Season without Lionel Messi

Without Messi, Barcelona would have finished the year in sixth place with 58 competition points. They would have won 16 matches, drawn 14 and lost five and finished with a goal difference of 19.

Real Madrid 2012 Regular Season

Real Madrid finished the year in first place with 100 competition points. They won 32 matches, drew four and lost two—finishing with a goal difference of 89.

Real Madrid Regular Season without Cristiano Ronaldo

Without Ronaldo, Real Madrid would have finished the year still in first place, but with 75 competition points. They would have won 22 matches, drawn nine and lost four and finished with a goal difference of 31.

A few interesting observations can be made from the numbers above—the most significant being that Messi is more significant to Barcelona that Ronaldo is to Madrid, at least on the scoresheet anyway.

Real Madrid would still maintain their La Liga title but for Barca, they'd drop out of UEFA Champions League qualification and finish sixth—spending some time in the Europa League next year. Their overall goals is significantly down and their losses higher.

However, the real question is—does this help us anymore in finding an answer to the debate surrounding who the greatest footballer in the world is? And the answer?

Not really.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 05:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on May 5, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Yes, there is an argument to be made that Messi matters more to Barcelona than Ronaldo does to Real Madrid and the statistics would prove that to be correct.

However, more important doesn't necessarily mean better. A goalkeeper that saves the penalty in the shootout to win the match may be more important than the striker who scored in regular time but it doesn't mean that he is necessarily better.

The same goes for our debate.

Just because Messi scores more goals and Barcelona win more games because of him doesn't make him better than Ronaldo—it just makes him different.

Which, at the end of the day, they are.

They are two very different players.

They might score great goals and dazzle us with their skills and they both might be incredibly important to their teams, but at the end of the day, they are different players with different roles in the context of different teams.

And that means that there can be no real winner in the debate.

The Ballon d'Or will go to one of these two men at the end of the season but it won't truly give us an answer to the debate; there is no answer to the debate.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both products of different teams and subsequently have varied roles and objectives in mind. They are both, without doubt, two of the greatest footballers ever to grace our presence and will surely go down as two of the most memorable players in history.

But to say that one is greater than the other doesn't do them both the justice they deserve.

They are both magical, they are both incredible and they are both irreplaceable.

Not even by each other.

What do you think about the Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo debate?

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