When all is said and done at this year’s FIFA World Cup, not many will remember the significance of what transpired on Saturday June 20. As it so happens, this date may well go on to mark the final time that sport lovers were privileged enough to venerate the great Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the grandest stage of them all.
While their inability to win football’s most coveted prize may have alluded them throughout their storied careers, there is no doubting that their sustained period of excellence will forever be etched in the annals of footballing history.
In France’s 4-3 Round of 16 defeat of Messi’s Argentina and Uruguay’s 2-1 result over Ronaldo’s Portugal, the World Cup aspirations of two of the game’s masters came to an abrupt conclusion. Considering what the pair have achieved over the past decade and a half, nobody could bet against them making a return in Qatar in 2022, and yet, the sands of time must surely have the final say.
Messi will be going on 35 at the next global showpiece. Having already once retired in 2016 – after falling to Chile in the final of the Copa América for the second year in succession – it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see “la pulga” (“the flea”) bow out of the international scene for good this time.
Having won as many as 32 major honours over an illustrious 13-year career at Barcelona, the diminutive Messi may nevertheless forever be judged for failing to have “brought home” a FIFA World Cup for his beloved Argentina. Naturally, comparisons with Diego Maradona have followed him throughout his illustrious career and, as otherworldly as some of his achievements may be, many will never truly consider him to be the greatest of all-time without a World Cup winners’ medal to his name.
The Argentine came close in 2014 after a terrific campaign which saw him pick up the Golden Ball for player of the tournament. Mario Götze’s extra-time strike in the final in Rio de Janeiro, however, meant that that was as close as he would ever come as Germany went on to claim victory.
Certainly, the same can be said for Ronaldo. The boy from Madeira, who has continually defied logic and reason throughout his reign, will be 37 in 2022. As remarkable a professional athlete as he may be, Qatar may just be a stretch too far for Portugal’s most capped international footballer of all-time.
Unlike Messi, though, Ronaldo holds the privilege of having previously won a major international tournament with his country following an unlikely European Championship triumph over France in Saint Denis in 2016. Certainly, he above all else would have hoped that his recent hattrick against Spain in Portugal’s opening Group game would have been enough to inspire his side to go all the way. Alas, it seems that this alone is set to be his most lasting World Cup memory.
While it may be a shame for some that Messi and Ronaldo seem destined to follow the likes of Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Michel Platini and Alfredo di Stefano as truly exceptional players never to have won football’s greatest honour, there is respite in the way they managed to transcend the modern game as few else ever have or ever will.
Whether or not they are comparable with the likes of Maradona and Pele is up to interpretation. What is not is the fact that the Majestic Messi and the Unconquerable Cristiano will live long in the memories of all who were lucky enough to admire them in their pomp at the very highest level.