The Messi–Ronaldo rivalry, or Ronaldo–Messi rivalry, is a sporting rivalry in football propelled by the media and fans that involves Argentine footballer Lionel Messi and Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, mainly for being contemporaries and for their similar records and sporting success. They spent nine seasons in the prime of their careers facing off regularly while playing for rival clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Together they have achieved various historical milestones in the sport, coming to be considered as two of the best players of all time. They are two of the most decorated footballers ever, having won a combined 76 major trophies (Messi 42, Ronaldo 34) during their senior careers thus far, and have regularly broken the 50-goal barrier in a single season. They are the only two players to score over 800 goals each in their careers for club and country. Ronaldo holds the record for most official goals in a career.
A cigarette strap bin with a title in Polish in an attempt to establish who the best player is among the duo.
Journalists and pundits regularly argue the individual merits of both players in an attempt to establish who they believe is the best player in modern football or ever. Regardless of preference, football critics generally agree that they are both the best players of their generation, outperforming their peers by a significant margin. Ronaldo has received praise for his physical attributes, goalscoring skills, leadership and performance under pressure, while Messi is lauded for his combination of dribbling, playmaking, passing and goalscoring. It has been compared to past global sports rivalries such as the Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier rivalry in boxing, the Prost–Senna rivalry in motorsport, and the tennis rivalries between Federer–Nadal and Borg–McEnroe. Some commentators choose to analyse the differing physiques and playing styles of the two, while part of the debate revolves around the contrasting personalities of the two players; Ronaldo is sometimes described as someone of temperamental character while Messi is considered to have a more reserved personality.
After Messi led Argentina to victory in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a number of football critics, commentators and players have opined that Messi has settled the debate between the two players.[A]
In 2007, Ronaldo and Messi finished as runners-up to A.C. Milan’s Kaká in both the Ballon d’Or, an award rewarded to the player voted as the best in the world by an international panel of sports journalists, and the FIFA World Player of the Year, an award voted for by coaches and captains of international teams. In an interview that year, Messi was quoted as saying that “Cristiano Ronaldo is an extraordinary player and it would be brilliant to be in the same team as him.”
They first played in a game against each other when Manchester United were drawn to play Barcelona in the 2007–08 UEFA Champions League semi-finals and were immediately pitted as major rivals. Ronaldo missed a penalty in the first leg, but United eventually advanced to the final via a Paul Scholes goal.
The 2009 UEFA Champions League Final was contested between Manchester United and Barcelona on 27 May 2009 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy. The match, described as a “dream clash”, was again hyped as the latest battle between the two, this time to settle who was the best player in the world. Ronaldo explained to always go out on to the field believing he is the best. “For me, you have to have that confidence at all times. That’s what makes me the player I am.” Messi’s club-mate Xavi sided with his fellow Barcelona player: “Messi is the best player in the world by a distance, he’s the No1.” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was more diplomatic, praising both players as being amongst the world’s elite talents. Barca successfully kept United at arm’s length to win 2-0, with Messi scoring a rare header for his team’s second goal.
From 2009 to 2018, the two played against each other at least twice per season during El Clásico matches but also met many other times in competitions such as the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España, and a two-legged Champions League semi-final in 2011.
Following Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus in the summer of 2018, the two faced each other only one more time in the next four seasons when Ronaldo’s two goals from the penalty spot helped Juventus to a 3–0 away win against Messi’s Barcelona in the 2020–21 UEFA Champions League group stage.
On 21 January 2023, the two played each other for the first time in over two years, as a combined team featuring Al-Hilal and Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr was defeated 4–5 by Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain in an exhibition friendly in Riyadh. Messi scored once and Ronaldo twice in the game, which was described as potentially being the last ever match featuring both players.
Relationship between Messi and Ronaldo
In a 2016 interview, Ronaldo commented on the rivalry by saying: “I think we push each other sometimes in the competition, this is why the competition is so high.” Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo’s manager during his time at Manchester United, opined: “I don’t think the rivalry against each other bothers them. I think they have their own personal pride in terms of wanting to be the best.” Messi has denied any rivalry, and blames the media for creating it, stating that “only the media, the press, who wants us to be at loggerheads but I’ve never fought with Cristiano.”
It is widely argued and documented that there is an atmosphere of competition between the duo, with Guillem Balagué claiming in the book Ronaldo that he refers to his Argentine counterpart as a “motherfucker” behind his back. Ronaldo denied the claims in a post on Facebook and threatened to take legal action over the remarks made by Balagué, writing that he has “the utmost respect for all my professional colleagues, and Messi is obviously no exception.” Luca Caioli wrote in his book Ronaldo: The Obsession for Perfection that, according to his sources, Ronaldo heats up when watching Messi play. In response to claims that he and Messi do not get on well on a personal level, Ronaldo commented: “We don’t have a relationship outside the world of football, just as we don’t with a lot of other players”, before adding that in years to come he hopes they can laugh about it together, stating: “We have to look on this rivalry with a positive spirit, because it’s a good thing.” After Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid to Juventus, Messi admitted to missing him, saying: “I miss Cristiano. Although it was a bit difficult to see him win trophies, he gave La Liga prestige.” During a joint interview at the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award ceremony in 2019, Ronaldo said he would like to “have dinner together in the future”, to which Messi later replied: “If I get an invitation, why not?”