Something strange happened the other night. Lionel Messi scored his first World Cup knockout goal.
It felt surreal — surely one of the greatest players of all time had scored one before? Well, he hadn’t and, even stranger, neither has Cristiano Ronaldo.
But if the rest of their careers are to go by, prepare for Ronaldo to change that against Switzerland today (Tuesday).
Because whenever one of them does something, the other tends to follow suit. Ever since the pair burst onto the scene in the late 2000s, they have been locked in a footballing game of ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’.
The Athletic takes you through the remarkable timeline, showing how two of the world’s greatest-ever players have relentlessly pushed each other to new records, trophies, and glorious entertaining moments.
2006: First World Cup goals
The 2006 World Cup kicked off in Germany, and Argentina started their Group C campaign with a 2-1 victory over the Ivory Coast.
An 18-year-old Messi was chosen to start their second game against Serbia & Montenegro and the Barcelona youngster grabbed his first World Cup goal on his tournament debut to cap a 6-0 drubbing.
One day later, in Group D, Portugal played their own second group game, against Iran. They won 2-0, with a 21-year-old Ronaldo scoring his first World Cup goal.
2007-09: The revolving Ballon d’Or
After scoring 31 goals in the 2007-08 Premier League season as Manchester United retained the title, winning the Champions League with eight more goals, and contributing another four to Portugal reaching the 2008 European Championship quarter-finals, Ronaldo won his first Ballon d’Or that December.
That season also included the first meetings between Messi and Ronaldo on the pitch — when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team squeezed past Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona 1-0 on aggregate in a Champions League semi-final.
The award ceremony took place just under halfway through Pep Guardiola’s 2008-09 debut season in charge of Barcelona. By the end of it, Guardiola’s side would lift the treble, helped by 57 combined goals and assists from Messi.
The last of those goals was, fittingly, a 70th-minute header against Ronaldo’s United in the Champions League final in Rome.
After snatching away the Champions League trophy, six months later Messi beat Ronaldo to the Ballon d’Or too, winning it for the first of seven times in the next 12 years.
2010: Captains at the World Cup
Four years on from losing to hosts Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup, Argentina kicked off in South Africa under the management of Diego Maradona, who as a player led them to win the 1986 tournament and finish as runners-up in 1990. A 22-year-old Messi led his national team out as captain to a 1-0 opening victory over Nigeria.
Three days later and a year on from completing a world record £80million move to Real Madrid from United, Ronaldo also wore the armband, against Ivory Coast in a game that ended 0-0.
Neither man progressed further than the quarter-finals as Spain lifted the trophy, but after acclimatising to Spanish football, Real Madrid’s No 7 took his game to a new level in 2010/11…
2010-12: Most goals in La Liga
Ronaldo scored 53 club goals across all competitions in 2010-11. In La Liga, it was 40 in 34, breaking the Spanish league record for most goals in a season.
That record had stood for 60 years, yet in the very next La Liga season, Ronaldo topped his new benchmark with 46 goals… and Messi did even better, with 50 goals plus 19 assists.
For good measure, Messi’s 14 goals in the 2011-12 Champions League were enough to equal the record for most goals in a single season in that competition, including in its previous European Cup format.
By now a Premier League, La Liga and Champions League winner, Ronaldo started 2013-14 in superb form, scoring a hat-trick on the opening day of the Champions League group stage against Galatasaray. He sealed the 6-1 away win by leaving two defenders in the dust and tucking a left-footed shot into the far corner.
With Carlo Ancelotti in charge at the Bernabeu, a first Champions League in Madrid colours looked to already be in Ronaldo’s hands.
But just a day later, Barcelona headed onto the Camp Nou pitch to face Ajax in their first group match. Messi laid his cards on the table with a hat-trick of his own, which included one of his first sensational free kicks.
Seven years ago today, Lionel Messi scored a special, special hat-trick against Ajax 🤩pic.twitter.com/83zaKi5DrD
— GOAL (@goal) September 18, 2020
More obscene goal records followed…
As that season rumbled on, Real Madrid steamed towards la Decima and ended up meeting city neighbours Atletico in the final. With a penalty in the last minute of extra-time to make it 4-1, Ronaldo scored his 17th goal of that Champions League campaign, blasting past the record equalled by Messi two seasons before.
In La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona finished level on 87 points but Atletico were crowned champions, three points ahead.
With another genuine contender in the mix, the Clasico rivals had to up their previous levels; Messi and Ronaldo certainly responded, contributing to 129 La Liga goals between them in 2014-15.
A key highlight came in the December. A 29-year-old Ronaldo scored his 200th La Liga goal in (another) hat-trick, this one against Celta Vigo. Next day, Barcelona met Espanyol in the Catalan derby. Messi returned serve with his own hat-trick, freakishly also taking the 27-year-old to 200 La Liga goals in the 182 games since Ronaldo arrived in Spain.
A thousand goals
In his crowning international achievement, Ronaldo captained Portugal to their first major trophy — beating hosts France in the final of Euro 2016.
The tournament came after another extremely competitive year for Ronaldo and Messi.
In late January, Messi scored the equaliser in what would be a 2-1 away win over Atletico. It meant for 24 hours, he and Ronaldo had combined for exactly 1,000 career goals. Then Ronaldo took that number to 1,003 as he scored half of a 6-0 demolition of Espanyol the following day.
As Barcelona raced away to another La Liga title, their sixth in eight years, Messi scored his seventh La Liga hat-trick in 16 months, against Rayo Vallecano in a 5-1 win on March 3. The spotlight lasted two days, before Ronaldo scored four in a 7-1 demolition of Celta Vigo.
Cristiano Ronaldo 🆚 @rccelta_oficial:
— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) January 17, 2017
He also won the Champions League again that season, the first of Madrid’s three in a row under Zinedine Zidane. That, combined with Portugal’s Euros triumph, was enough for the 2016 Ballon d’Or — his fourth — to go to Ronaldo.
Barcelona meanwhile, crashed out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals, a painful habit they had to get used to in the years after their most recent win in 2014-15.
Messi started the 2016-17 edition of the competition on fire, scoring hat-tricks in his first two group games against Celtic and Manchester City, setting the record for hat-tricks in the competition’s history with seven (he and Ronaldo had previously been tied with five).
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 19, 2022
Remarkably, Ronaldo was able to score two consecutive Champions League hat-tricks of his own that season. The first came against Bayern Munich in a quarter-final decider, and the second versus Atletico in the first leg of the semis, making sure he equalled the Champions League record Messi had set five months previous. (They are now level with eight each.)
What a goal!
For a time, it looked like Messi had scored one of the best goals of the year. His free kick against Atletico on March 4, 2018 was sublime, making Jan Oblak scramble across his line to barely get close to a shot that curled into the top corner.
Lionel Messi’s free-kick vs Atleti… incredible from every angle! 📽💫 pic.twitter.com/YmKAS81c3q
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) March 6, 2018
One month later, away to Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals, Ronaldo responded. His spellbinding overhead kick remains one of the best goals in the competition’s history.
OH. MY. WORD! 😱
Cristiano Ronaldo with an outrageous overhead kick!
Insane! 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/PYtT0uRTQ9
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 3, 2018
The twilight years
The highlight of Ronaldo’s 2018-19 debut season with Juventus came in the Champions League. After losing the first leg 2-0 away to old foes Atletico Madrid in the round of 16, the Portuguese stepped up once more with another hat-trick in Turin, sending the Italian club through 3-2 on aggregate.
Barcelona had some quieter whispers of doubt concerning their own chances to reach the last eight that season, as Ernesto Valverde’s team played against Lyon the following night. The French side had held Barcelona to a 0-0 in the first leg, and so it was Messi’s turn to take control. He scored two and assisted two more as Barcelona ran them ragged 5-1 at Camp Nou.
A Messi night for Lyon in Barcelona…
Two beautiful goals 😍
Two perfect assists 👌
Lionel Messi is not of this planet 👽 pic.twitter.com/X2APVQuHEe
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 14, 2019
As Ronaldo and Messi have moved deeper into their thirties, the days of their freakish record-breaking and goalscoring finally appear to be coming to an end.
The 2019-20 Champions League round of 16 saw Juventus lose to Lyon, despite the best efforts of Ronaldo, who scored two goals in the second leg which included a screamer from 25 yards out. A day later, Messi produced one of his mystical goals when he made half of Napoli’s defence look incompetent, dribbling through and squeezing a shot into the bottom corner in a 3-1 victory that booked a quarter-finals place.
Leading international goalscorer
In September last year, Ronaldo became the leading men’s all-time international goalscorer, reaching 111 goals for Portugal after netting twice against the Republic of Ireland.
Messi this time took a full week to make similar headlines himself, his 79th Argentina goal making him the all-time leading South American international goalscorer.
Should Ronaldo score against Switzerland in the World Cup’s round of 16 today (Tuesday), perhaps it will be the final time we see one steal the spotlight from the other, with Messi having already led Argentina into the quarter-finals in Qatar. Maybe we’re beginning to realise just how lucky we were to experience it for the past 15 years.
(Top image: Sam Richardson)
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