One is already playing in Saudi Arabia, the other is probably on the way there for contractual reasons. For almost 15 years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the megastars of world football, but now their era is over. How did that happen?
Of course, every great era had to come to an end – whether it was Michael Jordan in basketball, Tiger Woods in golf or Tom Brady in football. And yet it is always hard to believe when almost untouchable athletes slowly disappear from the top of the world. The gold-plated home ground for soon-to-be retirees in football is probably in Saudi Arabia at the moment.
At least since their successful entry into the English first division club Newcastle United via the Public Investment Fund (PIF) managed by the royal family, the Saudis have really wanted to stir up football with their almost endless financial resources. Incidentally, Newcastle are already playing in the Champions League next season, after just one full season under Saudi supervision.
At the same time, those pulling the strings in Riyadh want to attract more and more well-known football stars. Cristiano Ronaldo was the first big name when he signed a contract with Al-Nassr on January 1st this year. Lionel Messi and his long-time Barcelona team-mate Sergio Busquets could soon be on the pitch for Al-Hilal in the athletically weak Saudi Pro League. Last Thursday, PSG coach Christophe Galtier announced the departure of his superstar at the end of the season.
Ronaldo and Messi in Saudi Arabia: This idea sounded laughable a few years ago. Ronaldo seemed so ambitious and obsessed with training that one had to assume he would still be in contention for the Champions League title when he was 40. Messi, on the other hand, seemed like an indisputable institution at FC Barcelona, who would show off his superb ball skills at the Nou Camp for as long as he felt like it.
From the hyperactive to the hyperfocused
Let’s take a look at the two world stars in turn: Cristiano Ronaldo was never at the exceptional technical level of a Messi, but compensated for any minimal inadequacy with brute athleticism – a formula for success that ex-Dortmund striker Erling Haaland is currently using again at the highest level. However, Ronaldo’s work rate has declined over the years. The once almost hyperactive dribbler in the service of Manchester United only became a goal-oriented winger under the supervision of coach Sir Alex Ferguson and even more so after his move to Real Madrid in 2009.
Critics accused Ronaldo of only playing for himself, taking every degree and paying little attention to the tactical structure of his team. To a certain extent that was true, but Ronaldo scored goals and goals. That’s why teammates like Marcelo and Isco probably did butler services for Ronaldo without much grumbling to get him into a goal-shooting position. However, in this phase of his career, which lasted until about 2015, Ronaldo also lived from his dynamism, his start and his physical robustness.
When Ronaldo moved in from the traditional left to attempt a finish, few opponents even got into the tackle. It took exceptional tactical talent like Bayern Munich’s right-back Philipp Lahm or Borussia Dortmund’s full-back Lukasz Piszczek to neutralize Ronaldo with almost perfect positioning for 90 minutes. Ronaldo has won four Champions League titles for Real Madrid, including three in a row between 2016 and 2018.
Ronaldo just wants to shoot
Even at the end of his time with the Madrilenians, Ronaldo was still a goalkeeper. For example, he was the top scorer in the Champions League in 2018 with 15 goals. However, the 3-1 win over Liverpool in the final marked the end of Ronaldo’s time in the Spanish capital as he was drawn to then Italian serial champions Juventus. However, it has to be mentioned that the Portuguese played less and less of the game before – this applied to pressing and defensive work in general, as well as to offensive combination play.
Ronaldo focused on shots and tried to take them as often as possible. In his last Real season, he recorded a value of 6.8 shot attempts per 90 minutes, significantly higher than in previous seasons. However, he did not score 40 or more goals, but “only” 26. The numerous shots also meant that the tactically clever center forward Karim Benzema, for example, who sometimes worked for Ronaldo in the pressing, did not come into its own.
Once in Turin and donned the Juventus jersey, Ronaldo found himself in a new environment. Massimiliano Allegri had slowly exhausted his book of ideas as head coach and the new star striker was not fed so well from midfield around Miralem Pjanic. Ronaldo was no stranger, but he found the transition to the Juve system difficult. In addition, there was no consistency on the coaching bench – in the first year Allegri was responsible, in the second Maurizio Sarri, in the third coaching novice Andrea Pirlo. Juventus was in regression and so was Ronaldo.
His last perceived trump card was a return to Manchester United, but in an almost dysfunctional team, the Portuguese was initially able to influence some games as a strong enforcer. However, his low work rate on the defensive and even in offensive positional play was becoming more and more noticeable. Interim coach Ralf Rangnick and from last summer even more so the new head coach Erik ten Hag were dissatisfied with Ronaldo’s somewhat antiquated style of play, which incidentally also had a negative impact on the Portuguese national team during the last few tournaments. The Portuguese left his old place of work almost bitterly and gave an interview with the British journalism all-purpose weapon Piers Morgan on the way out.
Ronaldo is now playing at 38 in Saudi Arabia, where he is not required to run up and put pressure on the opposing ball carrier immediately after triggering a “pressing trigger”. But the still world-famous footballer is said to be unhappy at Al-Nassr. It is questionable whether a top European club that could afford the horrendous salary will still take him. Ronaldo’s commitment would currently be primarily a marketing move, but not a significant upgrade of the squad.
Barcelona couldn’t afford Messi anymore
While Ronaldo can be summed up as a once hyper-athletic player getting into footballing age at some point and at the same time never making any significant adjustments to his tactical behavior, the story of Lionel Messi’s slow decline is more complex. Because Messi won the World Cup with Argentina in December and plays for a top European team.
As a reminder, from 2009 to 2021 at the latest, Messi was not just a part of FC Barcelona, he was the offensive focal point. Of course, the Catalans also had other exceptional talents in that period, above all Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, but a lot was tailored to Messi always having his feet in the game when attacking. Similar to his eternal rival for the imaginary throne for the best footballer on the planet, i.e. Ronaldo, Messi did not necessarily shine with strong defensive behavior. Some Barça coaches even deliberately relieved the Argentine of defensive duties to keep him fresh for his own possession.
While Ronaldo came primarily through brute force, Messi excelled above all with his ball control in a confined space. Every football fan has seen plenty of dribbles from the right flank into and through the middle of the field, often into a massed defensive line. If we look at the bare numbers, Messi’s scorer rate stayed at 1.4 and above for a long time over 90 minutes. Only in his last season for Barcelona 2020/21 did it drop to 1.16. Many pro players would probably pledge their souls for such value.
Messi’s departure from his long-standing homeland was accompanied by internal struggles within Barça and was also a result of years of mismanagement. If the contract had been extended in the summer of 2021, Barcelona’s transfer spending would have been around 110 percent of revenue – that would have been in violation of the league’s requirements. Thus, there was no contract extension, but Messi’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain, which is financed from Qatar. It initially looked like Messi, along with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, could form some sort of equivalent to the ‘Big Three’ of the NBA franchise Miami Heat from 2010-2014.
For all romantics there is hope
But unlike LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in basketball, the interaction of the three PSG stars owed a lot. Messi was often placed wide on the right wing by head coach Mauricio Pochettino, did not enjoy the positional freedom he had before in Barcelona and was no longer the central anchor in his team’s attacking game. Similar to Ronaldo in Turin, Messi coped with this new situation to a limited extent at best. He has only scored a goal every four games and has been as inconspicuous in some games as he has been since his early days in Barca’s senior squad.
The second season is going better for the Argentine, at least from a statistical point of view. But the indisposed appearance of PSG in the Champions League round of 16 against Bayern Munich underlined that the Parisian club and its Qatari financiers are far from their real goals. That is not offset by two French championships with Messi in the squad.
There is hope for all romantics because a return from “La Pulga” to FC Barcelona is currently in the air. However, Messi’s father is said to prefer a trip to Saudi Arabia as his son is said to be offered an annual salary of €450m from Al-Hilal. It seems a little bit like Messi is happy with himself and the world anyway, because the World Cup title a few months ago was the last big goal that he pursued for many years but never achieved. In 2014 there was a final defeat against Germany, in other tournaments Argentina was sent home early.
The world title is particularly due to coach Lionel Scaloni. During the four weeks in Qatar, the young coach managed to set up his own team in such a way that everyone actually worked for Messi and recorded the meters he rarely walked on their odometers. The crew of the “Albiceleste” also fought, in a way, for the legacy of their leader, who is now definitively on a par with Diego Armando Maradona in his home country.
It’s probably human that some of us don’t even believe that an era in sport could be coming to an end. But Messi and Ronaldo have also gotten old and haven’t always made the best career decisions. But of course the football world is moving on – now Mbappé, Haaland, Vinicius and a few more are the new superstars.
What specifically remains from the Messi-Ronaldo era are not just spectacular scenes in Clásicos or generally spectacular their teams, but a kind of eternal duel. It was also about what kind of attacking footballer you prefer: the super athlete or the super technician. The fight between Real Madrid and Barcelona also promoted a kind of question of faith: Do you prefer a star ensemble that the coach only leads, but does not necessarily shape? Or do you prefer to see a team with the urge for total control and coaches with always new ideas?
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