They broke all the records but can they win a World Cup?

November 18, 2022

Top illustration: Nazario Graziano /

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have defined each other’s footballing careers, legacies and worlds for over a decade.

They’ve managed to adapt to each other, scaling previously uncharted heights, but they embody different philosophies.

There’s Messi – smaller, more introverted, a natural footballing genius who shares his creativity with the team, assisting almost as much as he scores. And then there’s Ronaldo – taller, a physical specimen who works his way through defences, grafting and training until he’s simply better than anyone else on the pitch.

But despite all their accolades, none have won the World Cup. The Qatar 2022 competition could be their last chance to determine if either of them can finally lift the biggest trophy of them all.

See how star players compete, dating back to their professional debuts.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Lionel Messi

August 2002

Ronaldo makes his professional debut at 17 years, playing for Portuguese side Sporting Clube de Portugal.

Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Sporting CP in his first season. Julio Azevedo/Icon Sport/Getty Images

August 2003

Wins Portugal’s first cap at 18 years old, substitute against Kazakhstan.

Ronaldo battles for the ball against Kazakhstan in a friendly match in 2003. Antonio Simoes/EPA/Shutterstock

october 2004

To 17 years, Messi makes the first 778 appearances for Barcelona. At the time, he was the youngest to represent the club in an official match.

Lionel Messi controls the ball during a private photocall for El Gráfico magazine October 12, 2003 in Rosario, Argentina. Marcelo Boeri/El Grafico/Getty Images

August 2005

Made his debut in Argentina, at 18 years old, as a substitute in a friendly against Hungary, but was sent off two minutes later.

Messi is comforted by his teammates after receiving a red card against Hungary. Attila Kisbenede/AFP/Getty Images

June 2006

Scores the first of seven World Cup goals, scored across four tournaments, to become – at 21 — the youngest Portuguese player score in the World Cup.

Ronaldo takes on a challenge during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Clive Mason/Getty Images

BECOMES the youngest player to represent Argentina at a World Cup and score in 13 minutes, becoming the sixth youngest goalscorer in tournament history.

Messi celebrates scoring a goal during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Apr. 2007

Scores arguably his biggest goal as he flies past several Getafe defenders. One in 672 strikes for Barca.

Messi celebrates after scoring his goal against Getafe. Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

May 2009

Inspire Barcelona to beat Ronaldo’s Manchester United in the Champions League final, his second of four titles. He finished the tournament as the top scorer.

Messi celebrates winning the UEFA Champions League in 2009. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

July 2009

Joined Real Madrid from Manchester United for a then-world record $130 million costs.

Ronaldo is sold out at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Nov 2009

After inspiring Barca to three historic trophies in one season, the 22 year old becomes the first Argentine to win the Ballon d’Or.

Messi holds his Ballon d’Or award in 2009. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Dec. 2009

Wins the first Puskás award for his electrifying 40 yard goal — the ball has traveled an average speed of 64 miles per hour — for Manchester United against Porto.

Ronaldo receives the FIFA Puskás Award for the most outstanding goal of the 2008/09 season. Michael Regan/FIFA/Getty Images

July 2010

Argentina eliminated from 2010 World Cup by Germany in the quarter-finals. Messi is named in the Team of the Tournament but is accused of caring more for club than country.

Messi leaves the pitch dejected after being knocked out of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Paul Gilham/FIFA/Getty Images

Apr. 2011

Time magazine names Messi as one of the most influential people in the world for the first of two consecutive years.

Time magazine

March 2012

To 24, he breaks Barcelona’s goalscoring record and scores a record 91 goals in the same calendar year.

Messi gives a thumbs up during a La Liga game between Barcelona and Granada. David Ramos/Getty Images

Apr. 2014

Time magazine names Ronaldo among the 100 most influential people of the year.

Ronaldo lifts the Champions League trophy after the UEFA Champions League final against Atlético Madrid. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

July 2014

Argentina lost to Germany in the World Cup final. Messi wins a tournament-record four man-of-the-match awards in a single World Cup and accepts the Golden Ball for Player of the Tournament with seven goals.

Messi dejected after losing the World Cup final in 2014. Laurens Lindhout/Socrates/Getty Images

Nov 2014

Messi becomes La Liga player all time top scorer after a hat-trick against Sevilla, breaking Telmo Zarra’s record of 251 goals.

Messi is thrown into the air by his teammates as they celebrate his new record. Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

The Galaxy CR7 is named after the soccer star, at the end of a season in which he enjoyed the most prolific campaign of his club career, scoring 61 times in 54 games.

Artist’s impression of CR7, a very distant galaxy discovered using ESO’s Very Large Telescope. M. Kornmesser/ESO

October 2015

Becomes Real’s all-time top scorer with 324 goals. He ended his Madrid career with 450 goals in just 438 games.

Ronaldo scores his team’s second goal in a La Liga game against Levante in 2015. Victor Carretero/Real Madrid/Getty Images

June 2016

A Copa América Centenario quarter-final goal establishes him as Argentina’s all-time top scorer. After the defeat of the Albiceleste in the final, he announced his international retirement, a decision he returned to shortly after following the entreaties of the Argentine president.

Messi is waiting to receive the second medal after the Copa América final. Nicolas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

July 2016

Wins the first major international trophy at the European Championship in France, but is taken away injured in tears after only 25 minutes of the final.

Ronaldo showing the Henri Delaunay trophy to supporters during a victory ceremony in Lisbon, Portugal. Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Originally sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax evasion, but escapes with $2.3 million good instead. Messi – along with his father Jorge Messi – was found guilty of defrauding Spain of $4.6 million between 2007 and 2009.

Messi (L) and his father Jorge Horácio Messi listen in front of the judges. Alberto Estevez/AFP/Getty Images

Apr. 2017

Scores a hat-trick against Bayern Munich to become the first player to score 100 Champions League goals.

Ronaldo celebrates his team’s third goal against Bayern Munich. Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

March 2018

brand sound 100th goal in the Champions League, reach the milestone in fewer games than Ronaldo. Only he and Ronaldo have scored at least 100 goals in the competition so far.

Messi celebrates by scoring against Chelsea in 2018. David Ramos/Getty Images

May 2018

first player winning the Champions League five times. He won his first with Manchester United in 2008 before winning the competition with Real Madrid in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Ronaldo celebrates his fifth Champions League trophy. VI Images/Getty Images

June 2018

At Russia 2018, becomes first man mark in eight consecutive major international tournaments.

Ronaldo smiles during the 2018 World Cup in a match against Morocco. Youri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

July 2018

At the age of 33Ronaldo signs for Italian side Juventus in report $117 million transfer agreement.

Ronaldo moved to La Vecchia Signora after a hugely successful stint with Real Madrid. Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

October 2018

Accused of rape by Kathryn Mayorga, who claims to have been paid $375,000 sign an NDA; case closed later. He denies the allegations.

Ronaldo seen at the Palms Place Hotel and Spa on June 14, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Charley Gallay/FilmMagic

July 2019

Messi sent off in the 37th minute Copa América qualifiers for third place. He refuses to accept his third-place medal and receives a three-month ban from international football and a $50,000 good.

Messi argues with referee Mario Díaz de Vivar after being shown the red card. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

July 2021

The photo of Messi holding the Copa América — his first international trophy — becomes the most loved sports photo in the Instagram story at the time.

August 2021

Returns to Manchester United and completes his first season as a the club’s top scorer. The relationship with the team implodes after an explosive interview in November 2022.

Ronaldo poses with then Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after signing his contract. Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

Signs on a two years deal for French side Paris Saint-Germain, ending their long-standing association with Barca, with the Catalan club struggling financially.

PSG’s Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi poses alongside Messi after the Argentine’s arrival at the club. Stéphane De Sakutins/AFP/Getty Images

September 2021

Breaks international goalscoring record with two goals against Ireland, taking his tally to 117 goals in 191 internationals and cement his status as an all-time great.

Ronaldo reacts during a FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland. Carlos Costa/AFP/Getty Images

Feb. 2022

First person to reach 400 million Instagram followers.

Cristiano Ronaldo/Instagram

September 2022

Record wins 164th Argentina cap and scores 90th international goal, placing him third in the all-time men’s international scoring charts.

Messi celebrates his goal in an international friendly against Jamaica in 2022. Andrés Kudacki/AFP/Getty Images

Nov 2022

Aim to win a first World Cup after four unsuccessful attempts. If he scores, he will become the first man to score in five World Cups. He is still three goals short of overtaking Eusébio and becoming Portugal’s all-time top scorer in the competition.

Ronaldo celebrates winning over North Macedonia in 2022. Pedro Fiuza/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Aim to win a first World Cup after four unsuccessful attempts. If he takes to the pitch in Qatar, he will enter the top flight as only three other players have already appeared in five World Cups.

Messi celebrates after scoring the opening goal in a game against Bolivia in 2021 Juan I. Roncoroni/Getty Images

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