They are widely acknowledged as the best players in the world. But who will shine brighter at this year’s World Cup finals — Argentina’s Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi or previous accolade winner Cristiano Ronaldo?
The two starlets ply their trade on opposite sides of the Spanish footballing divide and for the most part it has been the Argentine who has come out on top.
First, he nodded in the clincher in the 2009 Champions League final to see off his rival’s then club Manchester United.
Then, Messi landed another Spanish league crown with 34 league goals enough to see him crowned champion and top marksman as Ronaldo had to settle for runners-up with Real Madrid after his 80 million euro move from Old Trafford.
It was the same story as Messi carried off the FIFA World Footballer of the Year award.
The two stars can only meet if both sides reach the final — but the form of both players will be instrumental in how their respective nations do.
A curious facet of both countries’ qualifying was that both players struggled to shine in the way they do for their clubs.
Argentina limped through in the fourth and final regional qualifying spot while Ronaldo did not even score throughout a campaign which only saw Portugal’s tickets secured via a playoff success over Bosnia.
The Real Madrid star acknowleged that his performances alone would not suffice for a good World Cup campaign for Portugal.
“I can’t perform miracles. To win the World Cup, the team has to have seven or eight players in very good form.”
Now the stakes are high for Messi’s gauchos and Ronaldo’s Portuguese as they try to click in the national shirt.
The Argentine has a point to prove after coach Diego Maradona publicly anointed Messi as his successor, then saw the man they nickname ‘the flea’ fail to create much buzz during a qualifying campaign which reached its nadir with a 6-1 hiding away to Bolivia.
But Messi is focussed and has fixed his eyes on the prize — which would add to the unprecedented six trophies he won in 2009 with Barca.
“The year I had (in 2009) I can only top off by winning the World Cup and I hope I can raise my game in the national team,” the player who is modest to a fault recently said.
Certainly the man who can give defenders sleepless nights has the talent to win matches almost on his own — if the Barcelona version shows up.
“I hope to produce the same form as for Barcelona,” Messi noted before arriving in South Africa while explaining that it was difficult to put his finger on the difference between the club game and the international version. I will give the answer to that one out on the pitch,” he promised.
Likewise Ronaldo, who won a full set of domestic honours with United, must hope that donning a red shirt once more — this time of his country — will help him to step up a gear and revive the national side.
His role is now enhanced by the absence through injury of former clubmate Nani.
The 25-year-old, like Messi, is totally focused on the prize.
“When I hang up my boots I want to be remembered as having been an example and a fantastic player.”
Having come off second best in his contests to date with Messi, Ronaldo will gain scant consolation from the knowledge that he has just been unveiled in wax form at Madame Tussauds museum in London — joining Pele, David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, while Messi has yet to feature at the top attraction.