Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 1, 2018

Greatness Personified, Except At The World Cup

How does one measure greatness in sports? What are the standards that separate the very good from those whose place in the history books of their game is secure?

Just three weeks ago, those questions were posed here in the context of horse racing’s Triple Crown. Trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith, and their remarkable 3-year-old charge Justify had accomplished so much; but if they failed to capture the Belmont would there be those in the media and among racing fans who would forever rate them as failures? The answer was of course, though the possibility of such a harsh judgment was rendered moot when Justify crossed the wire at the Big Sandy ahead of all challengers.

Now another race of sorts, a scramble in pursuit of perhaps the least physically imposing trophy in sports is underway, and the question, without any equine involvement, again arises. The Knockout Stage of the FIFA Men’s World Cup began on Saturday, sixteen survivors of the Group Stage playing single elimination soccer for a golden trophy barely twelve inches tall. In the first two matches that will eventually whittle those finalists down to two teams playing for history and glory, the two most prominent names in men’s soccer were sent packing. The steeds that Portugal and Argentina were riding, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, may have each played their last World Cup match.

In each of the last three years, ESPN has produced a “World Fame 100” listing of the most famous athletes on the planet. While all such lists are subjective, the sports network’s metrics are not unreasonable. They combine the value of endorsements, social media following on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and internet search popularity. When the first ranking was released in May 2016, Ronaldo was first, and Messi was third. Twelve months later Ronaldo was once again first, and Messi was again third. Six weeks ago, when the 2018 list was released the two footballers held their positions atop the rankings, sandwiched as in previous years around LeBron James.

Ronaldo, who turned 33 in February, is a prolific goal scorer for both the Portuguese national team and for the professional clubs on which he has played. His club career began with Sporting CP in Lisbon when he was still a teenager. He moved on to Manchester United in 2003 for a transfer fee of more than £12 million, making him the most expensive teenage acquisition in the history of English soccer. Six years later Real Madrid purchased his contract for what was then a world record transfer fee of €94 million, and he remains with Los Blancos today. Manchester United won three English Premier League titles, the 2003 FA Cup and the 2008 Champions League crown with Ronaldo on the field. His record in Spain has been even better. In addition to winning a pair of La Liga titles, Real Madrid has been the last club standing at the end of UEFA Champions League play four times, including the last three years in a row. Ronaldo has won the Ballon D’Or, the award given annually to the best male soccer player on the planet, five times. He also has four Golden Shoes, given to the leading goal scorer in league matches across all the European national leagues.

Two years younger than Ronaldo, Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child in the north central Argentine city of Rosario. He moved from Argentina to Spain at the age of 13 when FC Barcelona agreed to fund his medical treatment while bringing him up through their junior teams. In November 2003, Messi was substituted in at the 75th minute of a friendly with Porto, thus making his La Liga debut just four months past his 16th birthday. Shorter and less physically imposing than Ronaldo, Messi relies on lightning speed and incredible agility. Barcelona has won nine La Liga championships and four UEFA Champions League titles during Messi’s career in the Catalan capital. Like his Portuguese rival, Messi has five Ballon D’Or trophies. He also has five Golden Shoes, one more than Ronaldo.

Yet for all their individual accomplishments and the titles they have both helped bring to their professional clubs, neither player has been able to replicate that success while wearing his national uniform. First and foremost, that’s a reminder that when the big money of professional soccer is not in play and rosters must be built based on the nationality of the players, no single star, no matter how bright, can single-handedly carry a team to victory.

Portugal’s greatest success at the World Cup came in 2006, when the team finished fourth. It was Ronaldo’s first time representing his country on international soccer’s biggest stage, and he netted a goal in the team’s 2-0 Group Stage win over Iran. In the three World Cups since then, Portugal has never advanced past the Round of 16, and Ronaldo has been a limited force. While he has a total of 85 goals in international play, just 7 of those have been in World Cup contests, and 3 of the 7 came two weeks ago in his one truly memorable World Cup performance, an opening Group Stage tie with Spain in which Ronaldo’s hat trick accounted for all three of Portugal’s goals. But in the Knockout Stage he has never scored a goal.

Expectations are higher in Argentina, which won the Cup in 1978 and 1986 and was twice the runner-up before Messi’s career began. In four World Cups Messi has netted six goals, while he and his team have advanced to the Knockout Stage every time. Four years ago in Brazil, it looked like Messi’s moment might finally have arrived when Argentina advanced to the Final against Germany. Through ninety minutes and into extra time the two soccer powerhouses battled to a scoreless draw. Finally, in the 113th minute, Mario Gotze stopped a crossing pass with his chest and quickly put home a left-footed shot to put Germany ahead. Moments later, Messi was awarded a free kick deep in German territory. But his effort sailed high over the bar, and Argentina was left to settle for second place. Like his Iberian counterpart, Messi has never netted a Knockout Stage goal.

On Saturday in Kazan, Argentina fell 4-3 to the speed and youth of France and the sharpshooting of Kylian Mbappe. Argentina actually led 2-1 early in the second half, but France got the equalizer from Benjamin Pavard in the 57th minute, and a short while later the 19-year-old Mbappe scored twice in four minutes to put the match away. A few hours later in Sochi, a talented Uruguay team was simply the better squad against Portugal, netting one goal early and one goal late to win 2-1. With that, the 2018 World Cup moved on without soccer’s two most famous players.

Four years from now Cristiano Ronaldo will be 37, and Lionel Messi 35. In absolute terms both will of course still be young men, but as soccer players their careers, if not over, will be deep in the gloaming of the end of day. They will both be immensely rich, widely celebrated, and hopefully happy. But for all of each player’s greatness, on their game’s biggest stage of all, the best grade either can ever hope for is an incomplete.


  1. It’s interesting to see how some very gifted athletes—talented individuals in their own right—do not perform well as members of all-star teams. They are like shooting stars, streaking across the heavens leaving an awesome trail. Only to fade and burn out. As if they were never there, but for the memory of their past glory.

    • Very true Allan, and the inability of either Ronaldo or Messi to score in the knockout round speaks volumes to that. But the demise of Portugal and Argentina also reminds us that soccer is a team sport, and any one player, no matter how gifted, can only take his team so far.

      Thanks as always,

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