Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: 12 Years on from Their World Cup Debuts
It's the football rivalry that never runs out of fresh storylines.
A constant challenge to score more goals, to score better goals, to become known as the greatest of all time.
The Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi debate will never be solved—but it will soon be over. Whisper it quietly, but we could be witnessing the beginning of the end.
This tournament in Russia is probably the last time we will see these two legends of the game at a FIFA World Cup together.
So whether we're gloating over Messi's missed penalty against Iceland or insisting only one of Ronaldo's goals against Spain was actually good, we will all miss them on this stage when they are gone.
Quite where we would be without them barely deserves a moment's thought. An inspiration to millions, their place in history alongside the greats has long been secured.
"He is relentless in his pursuit of greatness," BBC Sport's Rio Ferdinand said after watching Ronaldo's opening-game hat-trick. Messi will have to wait until the next match now to have his say, following Argentina's 1-1 draw in Moscow.
Very few players have had such impact on the sport as this, and there has never been a time when two such talents have gone head-to-head in this manner.
But Ronaldo will be 37 by the time the next World Cup comes around, while Messi will be turning 35. Their quest to add that one missing trophy is undoubtedly intensified this summer by the genuine doubt over whether they will make it to Qatar in four years' time.
They have come a long way since an international journey that began 12 years ago in Germany.
Emerging in Figo's Shadow
Ronaldo had already made huge strides in the game before arriving in Germany for his first World Cup in 2006.
He played an important role in the previous major tournament at Euro 2004, where he was one of Portugal's most dangerous weapons on their way to a runners-up spot, and was improving steadily under Sir Alex Ferguson's guidance at Manchester United.
When he arrived at Old Trafford from Sporting CP, many feared he was little more than a show pony with plenty of tricks but no end product, but Ronaldo worked tirelessly on every area of his game.
That first World Cup would see him grow as both a player and a man.
"He was obviously a big star, but he hadn't reached his peak and was still developing," explains Tom Kundert, author of The Thirteenth Chapter: A Journey Through Portuguese Football.
"Portugal had other great players at that tournament who were considered at least as important as him—such as Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and an, albeit ageing, Luis Figo. It hadn't quite reached the stage where Portugal were Ronaldo plus 10 others, which would happen in subsequent tournaments."
Portugal were put in Group D with Angola, Iran and Mexico, and 21-year-old Ronaldo began to experience how it feels to have the eyes of the world judging every move.
He was substituted in a 1-0 win over Angola but then scored his first World Cup goal with a penalty against Iran. He was then rested against Mexico and suffered a kick from Holland's Khalid Bhoulahrouz in the first knockout game, forcing him off the pitch after just 34 minutes.
It was a stop-start process for Ronaldo, but his style was fascinating.
Kundert explained: "He was more untamed from a tactical point of view, dropping very deep to pick up the ball and attempt dribbles and long shots, and not having a fixed position. As is known, his evolution has seen him move closer and closer to the opposition penalty box, and in this tournament he would definitely have been described as a winger and not a striker, like today. It gave the team something special in terms of creating havoc for the opposition, although he himself was much less of a goal threat than he would become later."
Ronaldo the Winker
His big moment arrived in a quarter-final victory over England, where he was playing his club football. The display was seen by many in Portugal as confirmation of his status as a genuine superstar. While others started treating him as a pantomime villain.
Some analysts said Ronaldo deserved to win the Young Player of the Tournament award. The British media acted as though he should have been sent to prison for crimes against football.
Wayne Rooney's red card, after the England forward stamped on Ricardo Carvalho, caused uproar, and Ronaldo was central in the fallout.
There were many great talking points at Germany 2006—including Peter Crouch's robot dance, Ronaldinho and Kaka at their peak, and Zinedine Zidane's headbutt into Materazzi's chest in the final that saw Italy go on to become champions. But the image of Ronaldo's wink at boss Phil Scolari is also still talked about to this day.
Ronaldo went on to score the winning penalty in a shootout against England, and though his side lost to France in the next game, Ronaldo had moved onto a new level.
"Portugal got a heroes' welcome after returning from Germany," journalist Marcus Alves explained. "Thousands of fans gathered in the centre of Lisbon as the team rode in an open vehicle to celebrate the fourth place in the World Cup.
"Cristiano Ronaldo was next to Figo most of the time. He had a Portuguese guitar in his hands and a different look in his eyes. I still have no clue how it happened, but it felt like he returned home a player transformed. He changed from a boy to a man during Portugal's campaign.
"No one ever doubted his potential. He was already known for his mental strength. But this was a 21-year-old who had lost his father a few months ago. Still, he feared no one on the pitch, was targeted by the media like never before and is remembered to this day for the way he played against England in the quarter-finals.
"Perhaps, that was the turning point for him. He became a leader in Gelsenkirchen."
His alteration was not lost on his teammates at United.
Gary Neville explained in the Daily Mail in 2012: "I remember when he came back from the World Cup after all that controversy with the Wayne Rooney red card. He walked into the dressing room and I thought: 'Jeez, what has happened to him over the summer?'
"When he had come to the club he was this thin, wiry boy. Now he was a light-heavyweight. He'd been on the weights over the summer and it was like watching someone grow up in a matter of weeks.
"What ensued for the next two years was astonishing. I can't believe anyone has ever seen anything as extraordinary in the Premier League.”
A Slow Intro for Messi
For Messi, the 2006 World Cup was testing in other ways. He had emerged at Barcelona as the prospect everyone believed he could be, turning in brilliant displays, particularly in the Champions League: His showing in a 2-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the round of 16's first leg still lives in the memory for many.
He missed their European final against Arsenal with a muscle problem, but there was much anticipation about seeing him in an Argentina shirt that summer.
"There was already a huge sense of expectation around Messi in 2006 thanks to his performances with Barcelona," explained Andy West of messiworldcup.com. "That Chelsea game really launched Messi to the wider world, and everyone was very keen to see how he would play in Germany."
South American football writer Youssef Amin told B/R of Messi's style of play back then. "He was a fast, quick dribbling right-winger," he said. "He liked to stick to the line and take on players; he didn't drop deep like he does today. He also didn't possess the same goalscoring threat as current Messi. "
His World Cup debut came as a substitute in a 6-0 win against Serbia and Montenegro on June 16 in place of Maxi Rodriguez.
"Despite only playing 15 minutes, Messi managed to get himself an assist on Argentina's fourth goal (Hernan Crespo the goalscorer) and he managed to find the back of the net himself for Argentina's sixth of the match. It was a dream debut for the 18-year-old," recalls Roy Nemer, owner of Argentinian football site Mundo Albiceleste.
"Maybe it was the difference in class between both teams, but Messi tormented the Serbia and Montenegro back line. Quick dribbles, change of pace and just Messi doing what Messi does."
Messi played three matches at the World Cup, but in two of those he came on as a substitute.
"He didn't have the burden which he currently has of creating and scoring," says Nemer. "He didn't shoulder all of the responsibility."
But when he did not feature in Argentina's defeat in the quarter-finals, many were unhappy.
Learning the Hard Way
Argentina managed a 2-1 extra-time win over Mexico in the first knockout game, after Messi entered as an 84th-minute sub for Javier Saviola.
But a Messi-less Argentina team were then beaten in a penalty shootout by Germany in the last eight, and a nation began to question why their wonderkid had been left on the touchline.
"It resulted in a huge amount of criticism for Argentina boss Jose Pekerman, whose hands had been tied by losing his goalkeeper to injury and therefore having one less outfield sub to use," explained Messi expert West.
"Pekerman would have surely introduced Messi from the bench if he'd had another substitution available, but the consensus in Argentina was that he should have brought on Messi anyway.
"From that summer onwards there was no doubt that Messi would be a key player for Argentina."
It was to serve as a catalyst for Messi, and he would never be seen as a fringe player again.
He had moved on from the boy who had been named named player of the tournament in Argentina's World Youth Championship victory a year earlier and had dealt with the frustration of missing a Champions League final with injury.
"He was starting to gain firsthand experience of the bittersweet nature of professional football," is how West describes that period in his career. "Messi learned from the World Cup, and from 2006 in general, that he was ready to compete at the highest level, but also that he'd have to encounter hardship along the way."
Becoming the GOAT
Fast forward to today, and somehow Messi is still having to prove himself.
His long career at Barcelona speaks for itself, but he is once again under the spotlight on the international stage.
Ronaldo's hat-trick against Spain on Thursday moved him onto 84 international goals; more than legends like Pele and Diego Maradona. In the eyes of the watching world, it also put pressure on Messi to react with a wonder show of his own against Iceland. But he didn't. He was closed down, sometimes by three players at a time, and when he did get a chance to score from the spot, he fluffed his lines.
He will surely score in this tournament, which would make him the first player to score World Cup goals in his teens, 20 and 30s. But this fascinating battle between Messi and Ronaldo is taking on extra spice right now—because it could truly be their final chance to get their hands on a trophy neither has ever won.
The Germany World Cup in 2006 was the beginning, and now we are approaching the end. The two have become different players, supreme athletes, and we can't rule them out of somehow playing on at Qatar 2022, given their professionalism and ability to change their games.
But there is every possibility that their form will drop off over the next four years, or they will pick up niggles, or their age will begin to take a toll.
This really could be the last tournament in which Messi and Ronaldo go head-to-head, so whichever camp you are in, it is worth trying to appreciate the other side of the battle, too.