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This World Cup Could Finally Decide Whether Messi or Ronaldo Is the GOAT

When it comes to men’s soccer, every generation has its contenders for the best to ever play the game. Before, there was Pelé, then Diego Maradona. For the last two decades, it’s been Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

When Messi was included in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2011, French legend and former Barcelona teammate Thierry Henry described the Argentinian as a “god of the field.” When Ronaldo was on the same list in 2014, Pelé praised the Portuguese player’s “competitive mindset” and “elegance and creativity” on the pitch, adding that he “would have loved having a teammate like Cristiano.”

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The two have broken countless records and won the most prestigious accolades, both as individuals as well as with their respective teams. They have ticked off nearly every accomplishment possible in the sport—aside from one glaring exception: neither has won the World Cup.

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Yet, that is.

For Ronaldo, “the dream ended,” as he said on social media, hinting at his likely international retirement, after Portugal lost to Morocco on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But Messi—who has scored 5 goals already in what he has said will be his last World Cup—could have the final word on the “greatest of all time” debate with an Argentina victory in the championship match against either France or Morocco on Sunday.

Left: Ronaldo; Right: Messi
Getty Images (Cao Can—Xinhua and Richard Heathcote) Ronaldo reacts after Portugal’s quarterfinal loss to Morocco during the World Cup in Qatar on Dec. 10, 2022. Left: Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina’s first goal in the semifinal against Croatia on Dec. 13, 2022.

For now, however, without a World Cup trophy to set them apart, here are some other metrics to compare the two superstars at the twilight of their era of domination.

Statistics: Advantage Ronaldo

At the senior club level, Ronaldo debuted in September 2002 for the Portuguese professional team Sporting. He went on to play for English, Spanish, and Italian giants Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus, respectively, before returning to Manchester United in August 2021 for a second stint, which just ended. At 37, he’s currently a free agent.

At 35, Messi is a few years younger than Ronaldo. He spent most of his career in Spain at Barcelona, where he made his senior competitive debut in October 2003 and left in August 2021 to join his current team Paris Saint-Germain in France.

By the numbers, both have had exceptionally impressive careers. Here is a selection of their stats (excluding youth-level soccer, club friendlies, and penalty shootouts) from


When it comes to goalscoring, Ronaldo holds the record for most goals (that meet International Federation of Football History & Statistics criteria) as well as the records for most club goals of all time and most international goals of all time.

At the international level, Messi and Ronaldo have each played in a record-tying five World Cups. At those tournaments, Messi has scored 11 times and has had 8 assists in 25 appearances, while Ronaldo has scored 8 times with 2 assists in 22 appearances. Ronaldo is the only player ever to score in five different World Cups, and Messi is the only player ever to have at least one assist in five different World Cups.

Team Trophies: Too Close to Call

While neither Messi nor Ronaldo has won a World Cup, they’ve each lifted a number of other trophies, the most renowned being the Champions League, an annual tournament of the best teams in European club soccer. Ronaldo, who holds the record for most Champions League goals of all time (141), leads Messi by one on that trophy count, though Messi’s PSG has a chance to help him catch up in 2023, as one of the 16 remaining teams in this season’s competition.

If Argentina does win the World Cup on Sunday, that prize would surely give Messi the ultimate advantage over Ronaldo in the eyes of many soccer-watchers in the debate of who’s better.

UEFA Champions League Titles

Messi: 4 (2006, 2009, 2011, 2015 with Barcelona)

Ronaldo: 5 (2008 with Manchester United; 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 with Real Madrid)

UEFA Super Cups

Messi: 3 (2009, 2011, 2015 with Barcelona)

Ronaldo: 4 (2008 with Manchester United; 2014, 2016, 2017 with Real Madrid)

FIFA Club World Cups

Messi: 3 (2009, 2011, 2015 with Barcelona)

Ronaldo: 4 (2008 with Manchester United; 2014, 2016, 2017 with Real Madrid)

Domestic League Titles

Messi: 11 (La Liga in 2004-2005, 2005-2006, 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2012-2013, 2014-2015, 2015-2016, 2017-2018, 2018-2019; Ligue 1 in 2021-2022)

Ronaldo: 7 (Premier League in 2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2008-2009; La Liga in 2011-2012, 2016-2017; Serie A in 2018-2019, 2019-2020)

Domestic Cups

Messi: 16 (Supercopa de España in 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018; Copa del Rey in 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021; Trophée des Champions in 2022)

Ronaldo: 13 (Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira in 2002; FA Cup in 2004; EFL Cup in 2006, 2009; FA Community Shield in 2007, 2008; Copa del Rey in 2011, 2014; Supercopa de España in 2012, 2017; Supercoppa Italiana in 2019, 2021; Coppa Italia in 2021)

Senior International Tournaments Besides the World Cup

Messi: 2 (2021 CONMEBOL Copa América, 2022 CONMEBOL-UEFA Cup of Champions)

Ronaldo: 2 (2016 UEFA European Championship, 2019 UEFA Nations League)

Individual Achievements: Advantage Messi

The most-celebrated individual award in soccer is the Ballon d’Or, given annually since 1956 by a French magazine to the best male player of the year as voted by sports journalists. Messi holds the record for winning it the most times, while Ronaldo holds the record for the most nominations.

The two have earned many other honors—too many to list—but other notable ones include the FIFA Puskas Award, given annually since 2009 to the scorer (male or female) of the “most beautiful” goal of the year. Until 2018 it was determined by fan votes online, and since then it’s been decided by FIFA-selected pundits from fan-voted nominations.

The European Golden Shoe is given each year to the top goalscorer in a first division club league in Europe. Golden boot awards are given at international tournaments to the top goalscorer, while golden ball awards are given to the top player. And each year, FIFPRO, the association of unions representing professional soccer players around the world, has its more than 66,000 members vote on an 11-person team of the year. Messi and Ronaldo share the record for the most appearances.

Ballon d’Or Awards

Messi: 7 (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2019, 2021)

Ronaldo: 5 (2008, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017)

Ballon d’Or Silver or Bronze Balls (Second/Third Place)

Messi: 6 (2007, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017)

Ronaldo: 7 (2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2018, 2019)

Ballon d’Or Shortlists

Messi: 15 (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021)

Ronaldo: 18 (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022)

FIFA Puskas Awards

Messi: 0

Ronaldo: 1 (2009)

FIFA Puskas Nominations

Messi: 7 (2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019)

Ronaldo: 2 (2009, 2018)

European Golden Shoes

Messi: 6 (2009-2010 with 34 goals, 2011-2012 with 50 goals, 2012-2013 with 46 goals, 2016-2017 with 37 goals, 2017-2018 with 34 goals, 2018-2019 with 36 goals)

Ronaldo: 4 (2007-2008 with 31 goals, 2010-2011 with 40 goals, 2013-2014 with 31 goals, 2014-2015 with 48 goals)

Domestic League Player of the Season Awards

Messi: 9 (La Liga: 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2014-2015, 2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019)

Ronaldo: 5 (Premier League: 2006-2007, 2007-2008; La Liga: 2013-2014; Serie A: 2018-2019, 2019-2020)

International Golden Boots

Messi: 1 (2021 Copa América)

Ronaldo: 2 (2019 UEFA Nations League, 2020 European Championship)

International Golden Balls

Messi: 3 (2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa América, 2021 Copa América)

Ronaldo: 0

FIFPRO World XI Appearances

Messi: 15 (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021)

Ronaldo: 15 (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021)

La Liga 2017-18 - Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona
Power Sport Images/Getty ImagesLionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid walk off the pitch during a La Liga match at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 23, 2017.

Icons both on the field and off it (they’re the two most-followed Instagram accounts in the world), Messi and Ronaldo may be better than any men’s soccer player to have come before them.

But as they each prepare to leave the stage in the coming years, there’s an ascendant generation—from 23-year-old French phenom Kylian Mbappé, who already has a World Cup trophy under his belt and is the world’s top paid soccer player, to 22-year-old Erling Haaland, Manchester City’s Norwegian rising star, who in the last four years has scored 159 goals in 156 games for clubs and country—vying to take their places at the perch of the world’s most popular sport.

However, until the youngsters prove that they, too, can compete at the highest level—not just for a few seasons but consistently over decades—Ronaldo and Messi will jointly remain the GOAT.