Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi: Football legends who have answered the debate

  • Rob Swan
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Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are now approaching the latter stages of their illustrious careers.

Whatever happens between now and the days they retire, both superstars will be remembered as two of the greatest footballers - if not *the* two greatest footballers - to have ever played the game.

Only the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano rival the duo for GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) status.

But how are the pair rated in the eyes of their fellow footballing legends?

We’ve scanned through the archives and recorded the views of 28 icons of past and present (both players and managers) on the age-old Ronaldo vs Messi debate.

Pele - Ronaldo

Still the best footballer of all time in the eyes of many, we’re pretty certain that three-time World Cup winner Pele has changed his mind on this issue on numerous occasions. That said, he isn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last.

“Today the best player in the world is Cristiano Ronaldo,” the Brazilian hero said in 2020. “I think he's the best, because he's more consistent, but you can't forget about [Lionel] Messi, of course, but he's not a striker.”

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Diego Maradona - Messi

Diego Maradona, who tragically passed away in November 2020 at the age of 60, was a fan of both stars - although it’s no real surprise that his compatriot, Messi, edged it for him.

“I can't remember having seen Lionel Messi play badly,” Maradona told reporters in 2017. “I prefer Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo but I acknowledge that the latter is an animal. Football history will remember Messi. Football has given him a lot, as much as he has given the sport and to win a World Cup, in my opinion, wouldn't bring himself anything else.”

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Paul Scholes - Messi

Paul Scholes played alongside Ronaldo for six seasons at Manchester United but will never forget the occasions he came up against Messi.

“Messi [is the best] but Ronaldo is brilliant,” the former England midfielder said. “Ronaldo is sensational at what he does, with pace and power.

“He scores, he takes free-kicks. But as an all-round footballer, Messi - wow, his passing - he has absolutely everything.”

Writing for the Independent in 2015, Scholes also added: "I think about the great players with whom I have shared a pitch: Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, Pirlo, Xavi, Cristiano Ronaldo – and the greatest of them all is Messi."

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David Beckham - Messi

Ronaldo inherited Beckham’s famous No. 7 shirt at Manchester United back in 2003, but his predecessor said 10 years later that he marginally prefers Messi.

“They have similarities in their technical skills and talent, and it is amazing for football to have them both present, but Messi is simply the best player in the world,” the former England captain commented.

“He [Messi] is alone in his class as a player, it is impossible that there is another like him. He, like Cristiano Ronaldo, who is not at his level, are both above the rest.”

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Roberto Carlos - Ronaldo

As an ex-Real Madrid star, it’s not a shock that legendary left-back Roberto Carlos picked Ronaldo over Messi.

“I watch him [Cristiano] train every day and the way he works is exciting,” the Brazilian said. “He wants to improve every day. That's the difference with Messi.

“Leo is a phenomenon, but that side of Cristiano, of training, professionalism, focus, motivation, success... Cristiano has an advantage over all the others.”

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Sir Alex Ferguson - Ronaldo

Sir Alex Ferguson has been Ronaldo’s father figure throughout his football career. The legendary former Manchester United boss, who is widely considered to be the greatest manager of all time, believes Cristiano had the edge over Messi because he could perform for any team in the world.

“Now don't get me wrong, Messi is a fantastic player, it's like he's wearing slippers when he controls the ball,” Ferguson said. “But here, for me, is the difference. Messi is a Barcelona player.

“Ronaldo could play for Stockport County and score a hat-trick. He just wanted to be the best in the world.”

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Marco van Basten - Messi

One of the finest Dutch footballers of all time, Marco van Basten said people who choose Ronaldo over Messi “know nothing about football”. Try saying that to Sir Alex, Marco!

“Cristiano is a great player, but those who say he is better than Messi know nothing about football, or they are saying it in bad faith,” Van Basten said in 2020.

“Messi is one of a kind. Impossible to imitate and impossible to repeat. A player like him comes along every 50 or 100 years.”

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Thierry Henry - Messi

Thierry Henry is arguably the best player in Premier League history, but even he was shocked by just how good Messi was after leaving Arsenal for Barcelona.

"I played alongside Leo, so there’s my answer,” the Frenchman said.

"I have an enormous amount of respect for Cristiano, as someone who maintains such a high level for several years.

"It’s one thing to have a good season, and then have another four years later but to keep up with that level for consecutive years is something else.

"People realise it, of course, but I feel like we still don’t grasp the real measure of what these two are doing. In the future, people will look back in awe at the continuity, the goals and the pressure that comes along with doing this for so long.

"So I'm full of respect for Ronaldo, but I played with Leo and had extraordinary moments with him, we lost and won together, so that is all I have to say on Leo."

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Zinedine Zidane - Ronaldo

Zinedine Zidane is Real Madrid through and through, while Ronaldo helped him to win multiple titles as the club’s head coach, so there was never any danger of the Frenchman siding with Messi.

“Cristiano is the best,” the Frenchman said. “Messi is his rival and it's the rivalry everyone wants to see.

“But Ronaldo is phenomenal. There are no words to describe him. He is much better than me even though I had a great career. He's the greatest of all time.”

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Johan Cruyff - Messi

The man who possessed arguably the greatest football brain in history, the late Johan Cruyff couldn’t understand why some people believed Messi was inferior to any other player.

"Messi is much more a team player than Cristiano is,” the Dutchman said before he passed away. “He scores but also produces many assists. For me as a player, Messi is better. There is a big difference in being just a great goalscorer and being the best player.

"Every person that understands football knows this. It's absolutely ridiculous to me that some people actually think Messi isn't the best.

"This isn't about Cristiano at all. He's a fantastic player, one of the best goalscorers ever. This is about how ridiculously good Messi is."

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Kylian Mbappe - Ronaldo

Like Pele, Kylian Mbappe has flip-flopped on this debate over the years. But the gifted Frenchman, who has been tipped to sign for Real Madrid in the future, admits he usually finds himself choosing Ronaldo.

“From one year to the next, my choice changes between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, even if I have to admit to picking Ronaldo more often,” the Paris Saint-Germain forward said. “I loved him when I was younger.”

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Messi

Zlatan Ibrahimovic believes he’s the God of football and, well, everything else - but even he accepts that Messi is on a totally different level.

“I think Messi is one of a kind,” the Swede said in 2016. “What he's doing, I don't know if we will see another player do the things that he does.

“It is different [with Ronaldo] because he is the result of hard training. It is not natural.”

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Fabio Capello - Messi

Fabio Capello was one of the first coaches outside of Barcelona to realise that Messi was destined for greatness after the Argentine demolished his Juventus side in a friendly back in 2005.

“Ronaldo's an extraordinary footballer, but Messi is a genius,” the Italian said in 2019.

“There are three geniuses in football: Pele, Maradona and Messi. Period. Ronaldo is very strong as he helps you win everything, but Messi is a genius and the better player.”

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Ronaldinho - Messi

Because he played and trained with him at Barcelona, Ronaldinho knew Messi was a genuine phenomenon before the vast majority of people, including the aforementioned Capello.

“Messi,” the Brazilian answered. “I would have loved to continue playing alongside him. I didn't get enough time with him, he was very young. I'd love to take to the pitch with him one more time.

“He's the best in history, no doubt. Nobody has done what Messi's done. The other one [Ronaldo] is complete, he has it all. So does Messi, but it's a question of taste and I prefer Messi's style.”

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Diego Simeone - Messi

Both Messi and Ronaldo have caused Simeone’s Atletico Madrid all sorts of problems over the years, but the Argentine believes his compatriot is the better footballer when surrounded by great players.

“If I had to choose between Messi and Ronaldo then most likely I would choose Messi,” Simeone said in 2018.

“If you have the chance to sign one of them for a normal club, with normal players, Ronaldo would probably fit in better.

“But with Messi, surrounded by great players, Messi is better than Ronaldo.”

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Pep Guardiola - Messi

No footballer comes close to Messi in Pep Guardiola’s eyes.

“Messi is the best, he is definitely the best," the former Barcelona head coach said in 2016. "He knows how to play, score and make the other players play. He is always there.

"With all the respect to all the players, first to Cristiano Ronaldo, I think Messi is on another level."

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Ronaldo Nazario - Messi

Rather than siding with his namesake, Ronaldo (Nazario) believes Messi is the more complete footballer.

“He (Messi) is out of this world,” the Brazilian legend said. “Cristiano, too, but I see Leo as more complete.

“He's great. I like him much more than any other player. Everything he does is spectacular.”

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Jurgen Klopp - Messi

The following quote feels like a bit of a burn from Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, although we’re sure it wasn’t intended that way.

“I have only one selfie on my smartphone,” the German coach said. “That's with Messi. Cristiano was in the room as well…”

Ouch.

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Wayne Rooney - Messi

Rooney and Ronaldo produced some unbelievable moments together at Manchester United, but the Red Devils’ all-time leading goalscorer has surprisingly chosen Messi over his former teammate whenever asked to answer the debate.

“Messi. I think I've said this before, but they're both probably the best two players to ever play the game,” Rooney said.

"I just think Messi is, in my eyes, the greatest ever."

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Steven Gerrard - Messi

Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard named his all-time five-a-side team and explained his reasons for choosing Messi over Ronaldo.

“There are certain players who are on a different level to anyone else out there, Messi and Ronaldo,” he said.

“But Ronaldo doesn't get in my team. I am more about what you are going to do for the team. What are we going to achieve together? Ronaldo will win you things but I am more about a team player than an individual player, so I’ll always go down that road.”

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Angel Di Maria - Messi

One of a handful of footballers to play alongside both Messi and Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria said in 2020 that his international teammate is clear of everyone else - including Cristiano.

"It was a dream to have the possibility to play with [Wayne] Rooney, [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, Cristiano [Ronaldo], Leo [Messi]... they were players that I used on the PlayStation and I would never have imagined I'd get to play with them,” Di Maria told reporters.

“I used to watch them and then to have the opportunity to play with them was really nice.

“Leo is the best of the four.”

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Neymar - Messi

Neymar was more than happy to play second-fiddle to Messi at Barcelona after seeing first-hand how incredible his fellow South American was in training and during matches.

“Playing alongside Leo was a unique experience and we became friends,” the Brazilian said. “Of those I’ve seen play, Messi is the best in history."

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Xavi - Messi

Xavi purrs whenever he talks about Messi, who he won multiple trophies alongside at Barcelona.

"Messi does more things compared to Cristiano,” the Spaniard said. “Messi is the best. If Cristiano considers himself the best player in history, that's fine, but those of us who see him train, there is no comparison.

"Messi is the best in history and we don't see it any other way. Messi is the difference-maker and we always tried to give the ball to him in space with time to unbalance them. Messi is the player that makes the most difference in the world. It's more than obvious."

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Gary Lineker - Messi

Another hardcore Messi fan is former England striker-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker.

“I never thought I’d see a better player than Diego [Maradona],” he said.

“Maradona was unbelievable and I was so much in awe of him, as everybody was in those days.

“But I think when you look at Messi, he does everything and more than Diego could do.

“I’m also a huge fan of Ronaldo, I’m a massive admirer of him.

“I think he’s one of the greatest goalscorers of all time, there’s no question about that.

“But for me football is about watching it and getting joy from it, and when I watch Messi play it makes me feel joyous.

“He does four or five things in a game that just get you off your seat, and for me that’s the difference between the two of them."

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Roy Keane - Messi

Messi is the only footballer that Roy Keane - who played with Ronaldo at Man Utd for two years - believes has no weaknesses.

"I was a big fan of Maradona growing up and of the current crop Ronaldo is good but Messi is the best I’ve ever seen,” the Irishman was quoted saying by The Mirror. “I don’t dish out praise lightly but Messi deserves it. I look for weaknesses in his game and I can’t find them."

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Ryan Giggs - Ronaldo

Keane’s former United teammate Ryan Giggs, however, has remained loyal to Ronaldo.

"Well obviously I played with Cristiano so I'm going to go with Cristiano," the Welshman was quoted as saying by Goal in 2017.

"But they're both two great players. We're living in an era where you're seeing true legends at their best going head-to-head each season.

"It's special to see but Cristiano has done it in Portugal, he's obviously done it in England and he's done it in La Liga and also on the national front with Portugal as well.

"I think Cristiano for me just pips it, but only just."

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Iker Casillas - Ronaldo

Casillas was playing alongside Ronaldo at Real Madrid in 2012 when he said: "I'd choose Cristiano over Messi because he's a player who gives us so much every season and he's a player I spend time with every day.”

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Vicente del Bosque - Messi

Vicente del Bosque, the man who led Spain to World Cup glory for the first time in 2010, admires both players but prefers Messi.

"He [Messi] almost always plays well," he told Mundo Deportivo, per Goal, in 2019. "There are players who never do it wrong. He has an impressive regularity. He is a great player.

"I'm staying with Messi. I see a more natural soccer player, from his time in the neighbourhood, playing with friends on the street. Even so, Cristiano has extraordinary courage, with physical and technical conditions as a great scorer, but I'm staying with Messi."

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Final score: Messi 21 - 7 Ronaldo

A resounding victory for Messi, then, although most of the legends who answered the debate appreciate that both footballers have been exceptional throughout their careers.

No doubt a couple of these opinions will change over the coming years - Messi and Ronaldo aren’t finished just yet - but for now, Messi is the player who has left the biggest impression on his fellow footballing legends.

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