What are Ronaldo and Messi's World Cup legacies?

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Both legends bowed out of the tournament on Saturday, still without ever having scored a goal in the knockout stage. How will they be remembered?

There was something quite fitting about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi bowing out of the World Cup on the same day. 

The pair's fortunes have appeared inexorably linked for many years now. Ronaldo's highs have often coincided with Messi's lows – and vice versa. But that's the nature of the modern game at club level, where any victory for Real Madrid is perceived as a defeat for Barcelona.

When it comes to the game's grandest stage, the World Cup, they have a shared sense of frustration.

Neither has lifted the most prestigious prize in football. Neither has ever even scored a goal in the knockout stage – a truly remarkable statistic considering these are two of the most prolific players in history. 

Furthermore, given Ronaldo and Messi are 33 and 31, respectively, it seems unlikely that they will grace another World Cup. 

Consequently, one cannot help but wonder about their respective legacies. So many careers have been defined by the tournament. It is considered the ultimate test of true greatness. 

So, how will the World Cup remember Ronaldo and Messi?


What is Ronaldo's World Cup legacy?


Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal

Once a 'winker' but never a winner – that is perhaps how the English tabloid press would summarise Ronaldo's World Cup career.

Indeed, the Portuguese's debut campaign, in 2006, yielded just one goal (a penalty) and is best remembered for the role he played in the dismissal of his then Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney, who was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho – but only after Ronaldo had fervently urged the referee to issue a red card. 

When he got his way, there was a subsequent satisfied wink to the Portuguese bench that immediately entered into the annals of World Cup infamy. It probably cost Ronaldo the Best Young Player of the World Cup award too, as the voting committee admitted that the winger's conduct counted against him, after it was revealed that he had been beaten to the prize by Lukas Podolski.

Holger Osieck, head of the FIFA technical study group, stated: "We want to have decent behaviour and I admit we were critical of this."

Ronaldo also only netted once at South Africa 2010, in a 7-0 rout of North Korea, as Portugal exited tamely at the last-16 stage to eventual winners Spain. He had, at least, been the Seleccao's best performer in all four games.

Unfortunately, his hopes of making a major impact in Brazil in 2014 were severely handicapped by an injury in the run-up to the tournament. As he admitted in his own inimitable style, "If we had two or three Cristiano Ronaldos in the side, I would feel more comfortable. But we don't." 

And one wasn't enough to prevent an embarrassing group-stage exit. Once again, he managed just the one goal, which did make him the first Portuguese to score in three different World Cups. 

Ronaldo World Cup Stats PS

Such a feat was never going to appease a man of Ronaldo's vaulting ambition, though. As a result, his eyes were fixed firmly on the prize when he arrived in Russia this summer as captain of the reigning European champions. 

But looks can be deceiving, and it quickly became evident that Portugal were still lacking another couple of Cristiano Ronaldos. In truth, they had been fortunate to triumph at Euro 2016 in France; their luck ran out in Russia.

The Seleccao were played off the pitch for long periods of the tournament opener against Spain but Ronaldo hit a hat-trick, earning them a 3-3 draw with a fantastic free-kick in the dying seconds. Finally, he had left an indelible mark on a World Cup classic. 

Sadly, that was to be as good as it got. He bagged the winner in Portugal's next outing, against Morocco, but missed a penalty and was lucky to avoid a red card in the 1-1 draw with Iran that consigned the Seleccao to a last-16 clash with Uruguay. 

Ronaldo barely got a touch in the Celeste box in Sochi but he at least restored his reputation as a sportsman by helping match-winner Edinson Cavani from the field after the Uruguayan had picked up an injury in the closing stages. 

In saying that, Ronaldo ended the game screaming in the face of the referee for ignoring his pleas for an injury-time penalty. The picture of frustration, it was perhaps the abiding image of the game – and arguably Ronaldo's World Cup career.


What is Messi's World Cup legacy?


lionel messi goal argentina nigeria

The principal theme of Messi's World Cup tale of woe appears to be, 'It was someone else's fault'. From 2006 to 2018, there has always been a scapegoat when it comes to explaining why the greatest club player of all time has never triumphed in the international arena.

When Messi made his tournament bow in Germany 12 years ago, he did so as an 18-year-old prodigy, the youngest Argentine ever to appear at a World Cup. However, he had turned up with a nagging hamstring problem and was left on the bench for the duration of their opening game against Ivory Coast, and afforded just 16 minutes in the demolition of Serbia & Montenegro.

That was all he needed, though, with Messi setting up a goal for Hernan Crespo before then netting one himself to put the seal on a resounding 6-0 win best remembered for Esteban Cambiasso finishing off a mesmeric 25-passing move.

However, he did not take advantage of his starting role against Netherlands and found himself back on the bench for the last-16 win over Mexico, settling for a cameo appearance. Messi wasn't used at all in the quarter-final defeat by hosts Germany, provoking fury back home.

Coach Jose Pekerman was castigated for his decision to send on Julio Cruz instead of his teenage sensation, yet that was nothing compared to the flak Diego Maradona copped after his apparent disregard for defensive organisation resulted in Argentina suffering a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

For his own part, Messi had undeniably failed to live up to his status as the world's best player. He had been creative (three assists) but failed to score once, despite playing every minute of every game. So began the murmurings that 'El Catalan' was more committed to Barcelona than Argentina.

Indeed, he very nearly quit the national team the following year but was talked out of doing so by Alejandro Sabella. Together, they looked set to lead the Albiceleste to glory in Brazil in 2014. It would have been the sweetest of victories, both for Argentines and for Messi, the one missing stamp on his application to be considered the greatest of all time.

Messi World Cup Stats PS

He had led Argentina through the group stages but his influence had slowly but surely begun to wane by the final. However, when the Albiceleste slumped to a 1-0 extra-time loss to Germany, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at Gonzalo Higuain, who had squandered his side's most clear-cut chance.

Messi's consolation prize was the Golden Ball but even Maradona was bemused by that decision, arguing that it had been made by "marketing people" at FIFA.

There was never much chance of him being named the tournament's best player in 2018, though.

He may have scored the tournament's best goal – the two touches he took before scoring against Nigeria were the best seen at a World Cup since Dennis Bergkamp's wonder-goal against Argentina in 1998 – but Messi, for the most part, struggled to get on the ball in Russia.

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He often cut an isolated, forlorn and sometimes even stressed figure as he attempted to rally a rabble described by Ossie Ardiles as "the worst national team in Argentine history", who were unfortunately in the hands of Jorge Sampaoli, a man with no apparent plan or fashion sense.

It was hard not to feel that Messi had allowed his best chance to win a World Cup pass him by in Rio four years ago.

He could yet return in 2022 – as could Ronaldo, who remains in impressive physical condition – but, sadly, it seems that the tournament has seen the last, the worst but not the best of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

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