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For Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a final shot at World Cup glory

They’ve broken 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 careers, legacies and the world of football for more than a decade.

They have managed to match each other, scaling previously unmapped heights, yet they embody different philosophies.

There is Messi — shorter, more introverted, a natural footballing genius who shares his creativity with the team, assisting almost as much as he scores. And then there is Ronaldo — taller, a physical specimen who bulldozes his way through defenses, grafting and training until he was simply better than anyone else on the field.

But for all their accolades, neither has won the World Cup. The Qatar 2022 competition could be their last chance to determine whether one of them can finally win the biggest trophy of all.

See how the star players match up, going back to their professional debuts.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Lionel Messi

Aug. 2002

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

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

Aug. 2003

Wins first Portugal cap at 18, coming on as a substitute against Kazakhstan.

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

Oct. 2004

At 17 years old, Messi makes first of 778 appearances for Barcelona. At the time, he is the youngest to represent the club in an official game.

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

Aug. 2005

Makes Argentina debut, at 18 years old, as a substitute in a friendly match against Hungary, but is sent off just two minutes later.

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

June 2006

Nets first of seven World Cup goals, scored across four tournaments, to become — at 21 years old — the youngest Portuguese player to score in a World Cup.

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

Becomes youngest player to represent Argentina at a World Cup and scores within 13 minutes, becoming sixth-youngest goalscorer in the tournament’s history.

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

Apr. 2007

Scores arguably his greatest goal as he weaves past multiple Getafe defenders. One of 672 strikes for Barça.

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

May 2009

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

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

July 2009

Joins Real Madrid from Manchester United for a then-world record $130 million fee.

Ronaldo is presented to a full house at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Nov. 2009

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

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

Dec. 2009

Wins the inaugural Puskás Award for his electrifying 40-yard goal — the ball 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 knocked out of the 2010 World Cup by Germany in the quarterfinals. Messi is named in the Team of the Tournament, but he suffers accusations of caring more about club than country.

Messi leaves the pitch dejected after crashing 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

Mar. 2012

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

Messi gives a thumbs up during a La Liga match 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 loses to Germany in the World Cup final. Messi wins a tournament record of four man-of-the match awards in a single World Cup and accepts the Golden Ball award for player of the tournament with seven goals.

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

Nov. 2014

Messi becomes La Liga’s 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 CR7 galaxy is named after the soccer star, at the end of a season where he enjoyed the most prolific campaign of his club career, scoring 61 times in 54 games.

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

Oct. 2015

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

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

June 2016

A goal in the Copa América Centenario quarterfinals establishes him as Argentina’s all-time leading scorer. After La Albiceleste’s loss in the final, he announces his international retirement, a decision he reverses shortly afterwards following pleas from Argentina’s president.

Messi waits to receive the second place medal after the Copa América final. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

July 2016

Wins first major international trophy at the European Championship in France, but is carried off injured in tears after just 25 minutes of the final.

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

Initially sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax fraud, but escapes with $2.3 million fine 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 as they face 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 scoring his side’s third goal against Bayern Munich. Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

Mar. 2018

Scores his 100th Champions League goal, reaching the milestone in fewer games than Ronaldo. Only he and Ronaldo have scored at least 100 goals in the competition to date.

Messi celebrates as he scores against Chelsea in 2018. David Ramos/Getty Images

May 2018

First player to win 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 to score in eight consecutive major international tournaments.

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

July 2018

At the age of 33, Ronaldo signs for Italian team Juventus in a reported $117 million transfer deal.

Ronaldo made his move to La Vecchia Signora following a wildly successful stint with Real Madrid. Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Oct. 2018

Accused of rape by Kathryn Mayorga, who claims she was paid $375,000 to sign an NDA; case later dismissed. 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 of the third-place Copa América playoff. He refuses to accept his third-place medal and receives a three-month ban from international football as well as a $50,000 fine.

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

July 2021

Photo of Messi holding the Copa América — his first international trophy — becomes the most liked sports photo in Instagram history at the time.

Aug. 2021

Returns to Manchester United and finishes first season as the club’s top goal scorer. Relationship with team implodes after 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-year deal for French team Paris Saint-Germain, bringing his long-term association with Barça to an end with the Catalan club suffering financially.

PSG’s Qatari President Nasser Al-Khelaifi poses alongside Messi after the Argentine joins the club. Stephane De Sakutins/AFP/Getty Images

Sep. 2021

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

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

Feb. 2022

First person to reach 400 million Instagram followers.

Cristiano Ronaldo/Instagram

Sep. 2022

Wins record 164th Argentina cap and scores 90th international goal, moving him to third on the all-time men’s international scoring chart.

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

Nov. 2022

Aiming to win a first World Cup after four failed attempts. If he scores, he will become the first man to score in five World Cups. He needs three more goals to overtake Eusébio and become Portugal’s all-time leading scorer in the competition.

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

Aiming to win a first World Cup after four failed attempts. Should he take to the field in Qatar, he will enter elite company as only three other players have previously competed at five World Cups.

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

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