OPINION

Messi vs Ronaldo: The World’s Football’s Greatest Rivalry & Fandom

The Messi vs Ronaldo rivalry has redefined football supportership and created impossible standards
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The Messi versus Ronaldo soap opera has become so general these days that we are hardly surprised by it anymore. Right in front of our eyes, the nature of being a football fan has changed, and nothing summarizes that more than the ultimate debate in modern football fandom: Who is better, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

This year’s Champions League group stage paired Messi’s Barcelona with Ronaldo’s Juventus. It was the first time the two have faced each other since 2018. It may also be the last time they meet.

To many, the question of who the better player sound easy. Arguments about the relative talents of footballers have existed since the beginning of football. But, two things are different now. One, the power of the internet and social media has changed how we support and follow the game. Secondly, no two players have ever managed to sustain elite levels of performance over such a long period.

Messi and Ronaldo have elevated the art of goalscoring

We live in a golden age of watching two of the best players ever-challenging each other to almost superhuman standards.

Talking Records: Messi and Ronaldo

Since making his Barcelona debut in the 2004/05 season, Messi has scored 657 goals and 282 assists in 762 games. In this period, he has won ten La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions Leagues titles, and six Ballon d’Or awards.

Ronaldo has scored 663 goals and made 226 assists in 878 matches for Sporting Club, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and now Juventus. He has won three Premier League titles, two La Liga trophies, two Serie A titles, five Champions League trophies, and five Ballon d’Or awards.

In 2009, Ronaldo moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid, bringing him and Messi into direct competition with each other. This took the rivalry up a notch. It turned to a social media war beyond club tribalism or nationalism. It was the latter, after all, that fuelled the first modern player rivalry between Argentina’s Maradona and Brazil’s Pele.

The footprints of Messi and Ronaldo on social media

Check out any football post on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, almost inevitably, the argument about who’s the ultimate ‘GOAT’, Messi or Ronaldo, will begin. It’s football’s equivalent of Godwin’s Law, an internet adage that has a very simple premise. “As any football discussion grows, the probability of an argument breaking out over Messi vs Ronaldo approaches”.

Messi and Ronaldo have turned social media into another playground

The level of engagement is not surprising. The two are the most followed athletes on social media. Ronaldo has 240 million Instagram followers (and is also the most followed account after Instagram itself), 88.4 million on Twitter, and 123 million likes on Facebook. Meanwhile, Messi has 167 million followers on Instagram – he isn’t on Twitter – and 90 million followers on Facebook. And their reach is far wider than their home countries or even supporters of their clubs.

Ronaldo has 200 million more followers than Juventus; Messi nearly 80 million more than Barcelona, with many more followers coming from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East than Europe. And we’ve not counted the followers on Chinese social media and messaging apps like Weibo and WeChat.

Such is the ferocity of the support that the noise and buzz around the rivals isn’t surprising. The numbers – and the rise of video gaming especially the FIFA franchise – tell the story of the changing nature of support as younger fans invest their love, time, and money in individual players rather than clubs.

Social media now means that a follower no longer has to be fed information through the filter of a club or even to turn up regularly for a game. Instead, there is now a direct link – or at least the illusion of a direct link – between them and their favorite players, anywhere on the planet.

The rivalry also extended to the international scene

As Forbes pointed out in 2020, ten million more Instagram followers liked a photo Ronaldo posted of himself leaning against a Bugatti than of him lifting the Serie A trophy he just won. Juventus can command a TV audience of 1.8 million people per game, but that is less than one percent of Ronaldo’s Instagram reach.

The soft power of Messi and Ronaldo

In SportsPro World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes – which measures an athlete’s influence through “relevance, reach, return and resonance” – Messi narrowly came top ahead of Ronaldo, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in third place, and India’s cricket captain, Virat Kohli, in fourth. That level of reach doesn’t just bring wealth or selling power for brands, it brings a certain kind of power too.

However, there’s a wider story to that influence. Much has been written about how football clubs can be used as a soft power tool to manipulate and influence public opinion, but players have soft power too. This power was demonstrated during times of crisis of their favorite football star.

When Messi and his father were found guilty by a Spanish court of a €4.1m tax fraud charge and handed a 21-month suspended sentence, there was an army of social media supporters ready to defend their player to the hilt. Due in part to pressure from social media, Messi’s sentence was reduced to a fine.

The pair have become must-have brand ambassadors

Another incident happened during last summer’s “will-he-won’t-he” transfer saga about leaving Barcelona; social media was flooded with support for Messi against his club.

In 2018, Ronaldo was accused of raping a woman in a Los Angeles hotel room, back in 2009 – an accusation which Ronaldo has always denied. The investigation was subsequently dropped due to insufficient evidence and his supporters flooded the timelines of anyone who didn’t show unwavering support for their man.

At the very top of the social media pyramid, players like Messi and Ronaldo have become more influential than their clubs with levels of support that have less in common with sport and more with the kind of celebrity fandom displayed by Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift or K-Pop band, BTS.

Messi and Ronaldo enter their twilight years

There is one important point though; as it is with all sportsmen and women, their time in the game is limited. Both Messi and Ronaldo, however superhuman, are now reaching their twilight years. The Champions League meeting could well be their last. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is likely to be their last World Cup too.

Ronaldo, who is aiming to break Iranian striker Ali Daei’s long-time international scoring world record, will be 37 in 2022, Messi will be 35. And then what? There will be a huge gap in the game when they are gone.

The NexGen – maybe Mbappe and Haaland?

Mbappe and Haaland are already being talked up as the next big rivalry

We can see positive signs with Kylian Mbappe, a World Cup winner, and Erling Braut-Haaland racking up very unusual numbers for players of their age. It is safe to assume though, that no rivalry would ever divide football fans as modern football’s greatest story – Messi vs Ronaldo.