It’s not a “Last Dance.” Neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi has announced their retirement, and neither man has already won the biggest prize in football, the World Cup, which is what the next five weeks are all about.
It’s not a “Changing of the Guard,” either. Sure, they have heirs apparent, but of the two obvious ones — Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe — one will be watching Qatar 2022 on TV because Norway failed to qualify, while the other is surrounded by so much talent on a France team that are already World Champions that it’s hard to see him standing out and needing to carry them the way Cristiano and Leo did regularly for club and country. (About Haaland: One nice side-effect of the 2026 tournament in the U.S., Mexico and Canada being “super-sized” by 50% to include 48 teams means it’s far less likely for superstars to miss out.)
More simply, it’s two of the best who ever competed, in any sport, squeezing out the final ounces of guile, grit and genius out of their battle-weary bodies before Father Time sends the last grains of sand tumbling down the hourglass.
There’s a World Cup final to be played at Doha’s Lusail Stadium on Dec. 18. Both are striving to be there because when the next one rolls around in July 2026, Ronaldo will be 41 and Messi 39. While they’re made of sterner stuff and the definition of impossible isn’t “not possible” but rather “not yet achieved” to folks like them, the rest of us live in the real world, the one governed by laws of physics and nature.
Indeed, that’s the cruelty of this sport. The long-held (and puerile) mantra that you can only be among the G.O.A.Ts if you’ve won a championship — the idea that dogged legends like Charles Barkley and Ted Williams — becomes especially silly in this sport. Your team is determined by birth and bloodline: you don’t get to join a contender at the end of your career. Success or failure is determined over a mere seven games, and you only get your shot every four years, which means most mere mortals only get a couple bites of the cherry. (Ronaldo and Messi, of course, don’t fit that category: For both, this will be their record-tying fifth World Cup.)
There’s a wrinkle in this. For the best part of the past 15 years or so, we thought of them as Number 1 and Number 1A, journeying in parallel through time and space, redefining a sport and a business as they went along. This time, however, they arrive in Doha from very different places.
Messi, who left Barcelona (after 21 seasons at the club) to join Paris Saint-Germain two summers ago, is now playing some of the best football he has played since turning 30. After a difficult first campaign in the City of Light, he returned well-rested last summer and has flourished alongside Mbappe and Neymar in PSG’s star-studded attack. He leads Ligue 1 in assists with 10 and, in all competitions, has scored 12 goals in 19 starts, none of them penalties. The last time he had this many non-penalty goals by mid-November was the 2018-19 season.
He also has the serenity of having delivered a major trophy for Argentina — the 2021 Copa America, made sweeter by the fact that it was won in Brazil, against Brazil. And, of course, he is supported by an Argentina side that have gone 35 games undefeated, dating back to July 2019: If they avoid defeat in the group stage, they will break the record of 37 games, held by Italy.
Ronaldo’s World Cup preparation, on the other hand, has been anything but smooth. Following the appointment of a new manager, Erik Ten Hag, at Manchester United, there were serious questions about whether it made sense for him to be part of the club’s long-term rebuild given his age and style of play. That question, in many ways, was answered on the pitch: He made just four league starts through mid-November, scoring a single goal. The last time that happened was 19 years ago, his debut season in his first stint at United, when he was a mere 18 years old.
And that was before the bombshell interview he gave to Piers Morgan in which he lambasted the club, saying he had “no respect” for Ten Hag. It was the sort of unauthorised, full-frontal barrage that likely means he will never play for United again.
For a player whose career has been built around routine and certainty — six years at Sporting, six at Manchester United, nine at Real Madrid, three at Juventus — he is now taking, by choice, a leap into a void, sacrificing popularity (at least among United fans) for… what? Maybe even he doesn’t know; maybe he just wanted the clarity of wiping the slate and being able to focus solely on Qatar and then worrying about what, if anything, comes next in January.
If there is a common thread here other than their intertwined legacy, it’s that both men suffered serious setbacks in the run-up to the World Cup.
Ronaldo is living through it now. Imagine being the record goalscorer in both men’s international football and club football, imagine having been the third-leading scorer in the Premier League just last season, and now finding yourself with a single league goal. Messi had his a year ago. An emotional and tearful farewell to Barcelona, acrimony towards their former president Jose Maria Bartomeu, a first half of the season in Paris that — in a spooky parallel — also saw him score just a single league goal at this stage of the season.
But in life, as in sports, timing matters. Messi had the worst six months of his career with the World Cup a year away; Ronaldo is in the thick of it right now, and that may make all the difference.
World Cups don’t create stars like they used to, if only because the game is so global that we know almost everything about almost everyone, and there are very few stars to discover. The next generation is ready to take over and may even have surpassed them on the pitch.
And yet, make no mistake about it, for now, in terms of narrative, in terms of attention, in terms of bloody-minded, clock-ticking last-ditch storyline and hope for a Hollywood ending, there is nobody to match them.