What came first, the chicken or the egg? It is a conundrum that has taxed philosophers even as far back as Roman times.
But there is another puzzle which seems just as perplexing, just as divisive and sporting sages and football fans are divided on exactly how to definitively answer the question of exactly who is the world’s best footballer?
From Pele and Maradona to Messi and Ronaldo, the debate rages. Generations have their own views and while the Brazilian icon and the man with the hand of god and celestial feet have backed up their individual brilliance within a World Cup-winning side, the modern-day idols have failed to ascend the same heights with their national teams.
But does that have to be a stipulating factor in their greatness? Frank Lampard doesn’t think so. “I would love to see Messi really light up a World Cup but he doesn’t need to prove anything to any of us,” said the new Derby County boss.
Argentina fans feel differently. They saw Maradona take the 1986 tournament by the scruff of the neck and want Messi to do the same. But think back to that final. It was Maradona’s defence-splitting pass which left Jorge Burruchaga with just the West German keeper to beat but he was clinical. Maradona did not succeed alone.
Contrast that to now. Messi has to rely on Gonzalo Higuain. Despite guiding the team to major finals, each journey has ended in disappointment and every time Higuain has missed chances that were placed on a plate for him by his mercurial team-mate. In a team game, where the sum of the parts is often greater than the individual genius within, is it fair to gauge a man born in the wrong era or country?
Possibly, if so much else is equal. Like two great rivals, level on points, who see the league title settled on goal difference, it is on such margins that winners and losers are decided.
“It’s almost like whichever one of these two win the World Cup, they cement themselves as the best player on the planet,” said Rio Ferdinand to the BBC. “Both of their stats are ridiculous, no-one has ever got near what they are doing. They are the two guys who are out there on their own, like superhumans, at the moment.”
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have both put up impressive numbers in a professional career that has yielded 616 goals and 654 respectively, Messi has an impressive haul of 32 national and continental winners’ medals, his rival has 28. Individually they have been lauded by peers and pundits and named world footballer of the year five times apiece.
At the 2014 World Cup, in Brazil, Messi was the predominant influence as Argentina reached the final, and was voted the player of the tournament. Portugal and Ronaldo failed to escape their group but made amends by shocking France to win the Euros two years later, with the Real Madrid man a driving force despite going off injured.
But, still world glory eludes them. Messi will turn 31 in Russia, Ronaldo is already 33 so they are running out of time to address that. Neither Argentina nor Portugal are favourites to lift the iconic trophy on 15 July. Both teams are backed to make the quarter-finals, though, where they could feasibly meet each other.
Though the two have faced each other a total of 35 times with their respective clubs, they have never played against one another at a World Cup. Heading into their fourth tournament, the statistics slightly favour the Argentine sorcerer, with more goals and more assists than his slightly older rival. But again the differences are small. And for all the world debates their relative merits and loves the idea of the greats as intense adversaries, those who know them claim the rivalry is not personal.
“I don’t think the rivalry against each other bothers them,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “I think they have their own personal pride in terms of wanting to be the best.” In fact, Ronaldo claimed it was a positive factor in both players’ development. “I think we push each other, this is why the competition is so high.” And Messi has denied any ill-feeling, saying that it is “only the media who wants us to be at loggerheads. We have to look on this rivalry with a positive spirit, because it’s a good thing.”
As they grow older, they have admitted that priorities shifted as fatherhood softens the soul, but neither one has satisfied the hunger to succeed or sated the thirst for trophies.
Messi inspired Barcelona to go unbeaten in La Liga until the title was won, when many expected a dip in the wake of Neymar’s move to PSG, while Ronaldo scored in Madrid’s first ten Champions League games on the way to more Euro glory.
Both men thrive on being the best, both bring out the best in those around them. But, until now, both have had to accept that no matter how great, on a world stage, in a demanding tournament format, it is hard to reach the summit dragging team-mates along with you.