They have defined this football era and broken the mould. Until Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi came along, a true great was defined by their achievements at the World Cup. That was something always held against George Best’s claims, for example.
With Ronaldo now 33 and Messi 31 next week, Russia is likely to be their final attempt at completing the picture beyond doubt. Their weekend fixtures against Spain and Iceland respectively might be the beginning of their final World Cup journeys.
The World Cup has been cruel to both. In the Maracana Stadium, after 2014’s final, Messi was presented with the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament by Sepp Blatter, yet received it as if he had been passed a bag filled with cold sick.
“The only thing I wanted to win was the World Cup,” he said afterwards, and perhaps the only comfort within such desperate disappointment was Ronaldo’s Portugal having exited the tournament in the group stage.
Ronaldo’s best World Cup finals remains 2006, when he was the young gun amid the last knockings of Portugal’s ailing “Golden Generation”, almost a one-man attack while Luis Figo and Deco schemed in midfield.
Bitter Englishmen may only recall Ronaldo during that summer in Germany for the wink that followed Wayne Rooney’s red card, but the then 21-year-old was relentless as his team reached the semi-finals, preluding the dominance he would soon exert for Manchester United. When Portugal lost to France in the semi-final, Ronaldo shed floods of tears.
Now past the 150 cap mark, and with 81 international caps to his name, he is the same age as when Figo, his predecessor at Real Madrid and as his country’s beacon, took his final World Cup bow. The cropped hairstyle suggests he is in Russia on strictly business, though is likely the result of the Portuguese FA’s World Cup junket not including his personal stylist, and he has cut a relaxed dash at their training camp on the outskirts of Moscow.
Friday’s fixture with Spain has even seen him lose something of the spotlight. The fall-out from Real’s poaching of Julen Lopetegui as coach means that focus has fallen on the Spaniards’ performance in Sochi, and even within his own camp, the news agenda is being dominated by four Sporting Lisbon team-mates having walked out on contracts with their club.
Perhaps the World Cup is not so imperative to Ronaldo’s sense of legacy. Portugal’s victory at Euro 2016 was a personal triumph, even if he sat out much of the final against France with an injury. Ronaldo on the sidelines acting as an ersatz manager added a human side to him and only deepened his image as his country’s favourite son.
Messi, who left his home town of Rosario for Spain as a schoolboy, has never quite been taken to the heart of Argentina. Without a World Cup, he cannot compete with the legend of Diego Maradona, even if he may be a better player. The disappointments have rained down. As well as losing to Germany in Rio, he has lost in three Copa America finals, and under Maradona’s management in 2010, when he was at his ravenous Barcelona peak, the team around him was a disorganised mess, and he failed to score a single tournament goal before Germany’s 4-0 quarter-final victory put an end to the farce.
And in 2014, the hollowness of receiving that Golden Ball was doubtless deepened by the knowledge that it had been Javier Mascherano’s play in defensive midfield that had hauled Argentina through the knock-out stages and not Messi, who had played far better in the group stage.
Losing the 2016 Copa America final to Chile on penalties sent Messi into a sudden international retirement until, just as Maradona once did ahead of the 1994 finals, he returned from exile to rescue a listing qualifying campaign. Where Argentina brim with attacking players, their defence, shielded by an ageing Mascherano, is its Achilles heel, and with Sergio Romero out, the three goalkeepers that Jorge Sampaoli has called up have nine international caps between them.
Perhaps most worrying of all for Messi are the words of keening sympathy that his colleagues have voiced for his plight, and a sense of over-reliance on him. “It’s clear Leo conditions our collective performance; I hope as his team‑mates we can meet his standards,” said Mascherano last week.
“I’m proud to be able to share this experience and am trying to be with him all the time,” echoed goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman. “We hope we can perform every game by his side. We must all make sure that Leo shines.”
To have even players of the standing of Mascherano in awe of Messi does not strike as a particular positive. If Messi and Ronaldo’s World Cup careers thus far say anything, it is that the tournament is not a solo mission.