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FC Yahoo Mixer: The Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi debate

Henry Bushnell: We’re back! Or at least I am. Most importantly, so is The Mixer, a new series we at FC Yahoo launched earlier this week of debates among staffers leading into the 2018 World Cup. And one of those debates, inevitably, is the most enthralling, tiresome, stupid, impassioned and entertaining debate in soccer: Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo. Who’s better?

In search of an answer – *whispers* but really in search of a Ronaldo stan to vanquish – I invited the honorable Ryan Bailey into The Mixer to discuss. And Ryan, I’ll let you start. Give me the (incorrect) case for Ronaldo.

Ryan Bailey: I cannot do that, dear boy, because the “(incorrect) case for Ronaldo” is a contradiction in terms, like “Messi’s personality” or “brilliant Messi headed goal.”

The latter leads me to my opening argument: Ronaldo is a better athlete than Messi. His perfectly chiseled, 6-foot-2 frame affords him the ability to score a greater variation of goals. Headers where he jumps two meters in the air! Overhead scissor-kicks that leave Juventus defenders contemplating the meaning of life!

This physicality means there is more variation to his attacking prowess – he can do much more than just lovely free kicks and pretty meandering runs into the area.

This makes him a more complete player.

And it is worth noting how much his body shape has changed since his acne-ridden days in a Manchester United shirt, and how this has helped him evolve as a player: he has transitioned from a winger who did one million step-overs every time he received the ball to an infallible world-class striker.

Ronaldo is a consummate professional – a clean diet, ice baths at 3 a.m. after away games and all manner of other miserable things are part of his routine, to optimize every last fiber of his physical being. No one looks after themselves more than he … and I don’t just mean in terms of hair products.  

Henry Bushnell: Alright, alright, so Ronaldo might be human perfection personified. Fine. Messi, though, is soccer perfection.

You want to talk about variety? How about Messi’s 0.81 goals per game throughout his career compared to Ronaldo’s 0.72 … AND Messi’s 0.33 assists per game compared to Ronaldo’s 0.23? He’s an otherworldly goalscorer AND a lethal creator. That’s variation. That’s a complete player.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi are the consensus two best players in the world heading into the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

And Messi, by the way, has evolved as well. And I’m not talking about immaterial characteristics like beards or tattoos. This isn’t a beauty pageant. Messi grew up as a lightning-quick, dribbly winger who left entire teams with mud all over their shorts. When he took those skills to a central role, à la Ronaldo, he had the greatest year of any footballer, ever: 73 goals and 29 assists in 2011-12. Ninety-one – 91! – goals in the calendar year 2012. I almost just passed out writing that.

Now, after another spell on the right wing, he’s a more traditional No. 10, and he’s still singlehandedly dragging withering Barcelona teams to domestic doubles. His greatness is impossible to refute. But, I suppose, I have to let you try …

Ryan Bailey: You can bore me to tears with stats all day, but you have to concede that their respective headline career numbers are pretty darn similar. Besides, 87.7 percent of statistics are made up on the spot.

One of Ronaldo’s biggest advantages over Messi cannot be measured with your empirical nerd data: He is a big-game player who always shows up in big moments.

Sixty of Ronaldo’s 120 Champions League goals have come in the knockout stage. That’s more knockout stage goals than Neymar and Messi have managed combined.

So, while Messi pads out his stats in 7-1 group stage wins, Ronaldo is delivering when it truly matters.

The same can be said for Ronny on the international stage: Look at the way he dragged an incredibly average Portugal side to Euro 2016 glory. How have Leo Messi’s last three major finals with Argentina gone down? Was he the difference maker?

Henry? You there? You’ve gone quieter than Messi in a major final!

Henry Bushnell: I’m just calm, that’s all. Because I know I’ve got this debate won.

So the argument for Ronaldo over Messi, I see, has come down to three games. Which is about as laughable as the idea that Messi is responsible for Gonzalo Higuain’s love affair with wayward shots into row Z.

Even if we ignore the fact that Messi was not at all responsible for those three high-profile losses – even if we ignore the photographic evidence that his teammates’ inadequacies rendered him a one-man show – how can we just ignore the fact that Messi got to those finals? More international finals in three years than Ronaldo has been to in his entire career.

Ronaldo, by the way, was shut out in one of his two major finals by Greece. And he “dragged” Portugal to his lone title by scoring one solitary knockout round goal, then limping off injured 25 minutes into the final. THAT is how we’re going to define the greatest player of a generation?

Ryan Bailey: Henry, if you bend facts any more than this you’ll be White House Press Secretary by the end of the day! Ronny was only 19 when he lost the Euro 2004 final – so not exactly a talisman – and Messi has been to all those major finals because he plays for Argentina, who boast incredible World Cup pedigree and a squad far, far, far, far, far superior to Portugal’s!

Henry Bushnell: Well then let’s stick to club comparisons! Messi has won 19 major trophies to Ronaldo’s 11, despite being three years younger. He’s won the same amount of Champions Leagues (four). He twice scored, and was twice named man of the match, in the final. He recently scored in a fifth Copa Del Rey final, equaling a 68-year-old Spanish record. He’s won 17 Clasicos to Ronaldo’s eight. He’s scored 27 Clasico goals to Ronaldo’s 19.

Need I go on? The idea that Messi comes up small in big moments is absurd.

Ryan Bailey: No, you need not go on. I concede Messi has great numbers, but we both know stats don’t paint the whole picture. There are intangible qualities that go towards greatness, like leadership. Ronaldo is a true leader for club and country. One suspects he is a truly commanding presence in the dressing room, who is able to gee up his teammates when it matters. When he was injured at the Euro 2016 final he basically became their manager on the sidelines!

Messi, on the other hand, is quiet and introverted. And how many of the greatest players in the world are introverts?

When times are tough and he’s expected to show his leadership qualities, he throws a hissy fit and quits the national team.

Henry Bushnell: “How many of the greatest players in the world are introverts?” Well Michael Jordan was an introvert. Not sure I need to go any further.

I won’t dispute that Ronaldo is a better leader, though. He might be. He has a bigger personality. He might be a better human being.

But leadership, as you’re defining it, is just one tiny piece of greatness. And there’s no better way to lead than, oh, I dunno, scoring a hat trick to save teammates from eternal national disgrace.

I’ll take tangible, quantifiable abilities over intangibles 10 times out of 10. I’ll take Messi’s actual production. I’ll take the attention he attracts. His mere presence sucks defenders out of position, opening up space for others to operate. That’s how you make teammates better – not by gesticulating from the sideline because you know the cameras are on you. That’s yet another reason Messi is the GOAT.

Ryan Bailey: You’re right, Henry. Leadership is just one tiny piece of greatness … and I suppose my point is that Ronaldo possesses more tiny pieces than his Argentinean counterpart.

His athleticism. His big-game mentality. His professionalism. His ability to lead. His role as an ambassador for the game off the pitch. The fact that he has an actual personality.

I’m happy to agree that Messi and Ronaldo both deserve GOAT-like status. But picking a GOAT is like picking a favorite supercar – it’s not just about numbers, it’s about the emotion that it draws out of you. I don’t doubt Messi’s genius, but my head and heart both prefer the man whose greatness is only eclipsed by his vanity.

Henry Bushnell: I’m happy to concede to that last paragraph too. I’ll never concede that Ronaldo is better – at least not anytime soon. But I think the intensely polarizing nature of this debate leads to unnecessary and irrational belittling of one player to accentuate the case for the other.

So I’ll end on this note: I’ll never dissuade anybody from having this debate. The two of us just did, after all. I get why it’s so bewitching.

But there really is something to be said for appreciating both Messi and Ronaldo. We’re incredibly fortunate to be watching arguably the two best players ever, in their primes, at the same time. And the hourglasses on those primes are running out of sand. It’s OK to treasure both. It’s OK to root for both. It’s OK to hope that at least one of the two gets that World Cup title that the greatness of both deserves.

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