Messi vs Ronaldo – so who is the best?

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the best footballers of all time, arguably the very best of them all. And remarkably, their careers have largely coincided, with both players dominating the game for well over a decade now. But who is the best?

We compare them both in a number of different categories and let you decide the overall winner.

Who scores more goals?

What really made this rivalry catch fire was their incredible, unprecedented goalscoring rates, with both Messi and Ronaldo averaging more than one goal every game at their peaks. During the 9 years Ronaldo spent at Real Madrid, Messi and Ronaldo both scored a goal every 85 minutes in all competitions. The adjacency of their goalscoring – matching each other blow for blow – has been astounding over the years.

Over their entire careers, it’s Messi who edges the ratio, with 0.79 goals per game, whereas Ronaldo has scored 0.72 goals per game. If we drill down into goals per minutes, Messi scores a goal every 105 minutes, and Ronaldo scores a goal every 113 minutes.

Ronaldo still has more all time career goals than Messi though (Ronaldo has 838 career goals and Messi has 807 career goals), but Ronaldo has played 140 more games over his career than Messi has.

Although Messi shades the overall ratio, Ronaldo spent more of his formative years as a more traditional right winger, only really starting to focus on goalscoring as his primary function in 2006, 3-4 years into his career. For Messi, it was 2-3 years until he completed the transformation from a nippy winger into a player hungry for goals above everything else. If we take these differing beginnings into account, the ratios would be even closer.

Of all the categories, goalscoring is the hardest to separate them on.

Who provides more assists?

When it comes to assists, there’s only one winner. Lionel Messi’s playmaking abilities are right up there with the very best, and he has the numbers to prove it.

Messi has racked up an impressive 357 assists in 1028 career appearances, compared to Ronaldo’s 236 assists in 1168 games.

However, because Messi has a clear ascendancy when it comes to assists, this often leads people to fall into the trap of underestimating Ronaldo’s proficiency in this area. Ronaldo’s assist numbers are still extremely impressive compared to the other mere mortals that play the beautiful game.

In fact, Ronaldo has more in the Champions League, with 41 assists to Messi’s 40 assists – granted Ronaldo has played 20 more matches than Messi, but this is still an impressive tally.

With that said, you can’t ignore Messi’s overall assist stats.

Who’s the best at passing?

The passing stats point to a clear winner in this category; Lionel Messi. But again, Ronaldo’s passing abilities are often underestimated.

In the league and Champions League since 2009/10, Messi has made 1387 key passes in 599 appearances, whilst Ronaldo has made 911 key passes in 561 appearances.

Messi also dominates the throughball statistics, making 450 successful throughballs in that same time period, compared to Ronaldo’s 81 successful throughballs.

Although Messi’s passing numbers are clearly superior, Ronaldo’s are still impressive. It’s also likely that his passing stats would have been significantly higher before 2009 when he was more involved in the creative build-up play.

Who’s the best at dribbling?

Ronaldo started his career as a tricky winger, when his game was all about running at and beating defenders with his pace and skill. As he has transitioned to an inside-forward / striker role over the years, dribbling has naturally become significantly less of a factor in Ronaldo’s performances.

Messi also started his footballing career stuck to the by-line, eventually moving to a more central role as his primary position for most of his career. However, Messi plays a very different game to a traditional centre-forward, with his natural Number 10 abilities making him the perfect False 9. As a result Messi comes much deeper, towards the play, rather than making runs and playing off the shoulder of the defenders.

Because he often comes deep to receive the ball, dribbling is still a major part of Messi’s game, completing an incredible 3079 dribbles in the league and Champions League, compared to Ronaldo’s 1669 successful dribbles (since 2003/04).

There is therefore little doubt that Lionel Messi is the best when it comes to dribbling.

Who’s the best at heading?

Heading is without doubt the most clear-cut category, with Ronaldo’s heading stats absolutely dwarfing Messi’s.

Over their entire careers, Ronaldo has scored 142 headers in 1168 appearances, whereas Messi has scored just 26 headers in 1028 appearances.

In addition to headed goals, Ronaldo has also won 761 aerial duels in the league and Champions League since 2009/10 compared to Messi’s 115 aerial duels won.

Of course, when you look at their respective builds, the way they play, the way their teams play, these numbers are hardly surprising.

Who’s the best at shooting?

The stats show that Ronaldo consistently has more shots on goal than Messi, totalling 3527 shots in the league and Champions League since 2009/10, compared to Messi’s 2921 shots.

However, Messi converts a higher percentage of his shots, scoring a goal with every 5.27 shots, whereas Ronaldo scores a goal with every 6.43 shots.

Leo Messi also gets more of his shots on target, with 47.28%, of his efforts on target compared to Ronaldo’s 41.14%,.

However, despite Messi’s superior efficiency, the sheer volume of attempts Cristiano Ronaldo is able to produce is incredible and an important skill in itself. He also has the edge in terms of shooting from long-range, as well as with his weak foot and head, so that’s enough to call this one a tie.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – MARCH 23: Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates with the World Cup during the celebrations after an international friendly match between Argentina and Panama at Estadio Más Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti on March 23, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Who’s the best at penalties?

When it comes to penalties, Ronaldo’s numbers are comfortably superior to Messi’s, although perhaps not by as much as some people think. The media perception is that Messi is unreliable from the spot, whereas Ronaldo is the ultimate ice-cool penalty king – the truth, is somewhere in between.

Excluding shootouts, Ronaldo has scored an impressive 152 penalties (with 29 misses) over his whole career, whereas Messi has scored 108 penalties (with 31 misses).

This gives Ronaldo an overall penalty conversion rate of 84%, compared to Messi’s overall penalty conversion rate of 78%.

Ronaldo’s stats are clearly better, however he’s not as reliable as he is sometimes portrayed, with other elite strikers such as Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic boasting significantly better conversion rates.

In terms of big penalty misses, Messi missed one in the 2016 Copa America final shootout against Chile, and the 2012 Champions League semi-final miss against Chelsea.

For Ronaldo, his biggest penalty misses came in the 2008 Champions League final shootout against Chelsea (his Man Utd side would ultimately go on to win due to John Terry’s miss), and in the 2012 Champions League semi-final shootout against Bayern Munich (which did prove fatal for Real Madrid).

Who scores more hat tricks?

The rate at which Messi and Ronaldo score hat tricks is scarcely believable, with a staggering 119 between them; 57 career hat tricks for Messi and 62 career hat tricks for Ronaldo.

Ronaldo may still have the overall lead, but Messi has a slight edge in terms of frequencyMessi scores a hat trick every 18.0 games, whereas Ronaldo scores a hat trick every 18.8 games.

These numbers are so tight, and to add to this, their hat trick count in league games is: 36 hat tricks for Messi and 41 hat-tricks for Ronaldo. And in the Champions League8 hat tricks for Messi and 8 hat tricks for Ronaldo.

Who has won more individual awards?

No other footballers in history have sustained such elite levels for such a long period of time. Their stranglehold on the coveted Ballon d’Or award has been relentless, with Messi’s 7 Ballon d’Or trophies edging Ronaldo’s haul of 5 Ballons d’Or. No other player in history has won more than 3! If Messi or Ronaldo didn’t have each other to compete with for the award over the years, it’s not inconceivable that one of them could have picked up the award 10 times or more.

In terms of UEFA’s top award, it’s Ronaldo that has the edge with 4 awards (1x UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, 2x UEFA Best Player in Europe, 1x UEFA Men’s Player of the Year) to Messi’s 3 awards (1x UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, 2x UEFA Best Player in Europe).

In terms of golden boots, Messi has finished as the league’s top scorer 8 times, winning the European Golden Shoe on 6 of those occasions. Ronaldo has finished as top scorer in the league 5 times (once in the Premier League, once in Serie A, and 3 times in La Liga), winning 4 European Golden Shoes in the process.

Ronaldo has won the Puskas award for best goal in a calendar year (2 nominations), whereas Messi has so far failed to win this award despite being nominated 7 times.

Messi has however won the Golden Ball, awarded to the player of the tournament at the World Cup, on two occasions – once in 2014 when he took his side to the final and again in 2022 where he was triumphant. He has also been named Copa America’s Best Player on two occasions, and Best Young Player once.

Who has won more trophies?

In terms of trophies, Messi has the overall lead, with 43 trophies to Ronaldo’s 34 trophies (including Messi’s 2008 Olympic triumph and 2005 U-20 World Cup).

Internationally, Messi has now won both the Copa America and the World Cup with Argentina, while Ronaldo has won the Euros with Portugal as well as a Nations League trophy.

Messi has 11 league titles to Ronaldo’s 7, but Ronaldo has the ascendancy in terms of Champions League triumphs with 5 to Messi’s 4. There’s not a lot in it, but the overall figures means Messi currently edges this one.

Who has more records?

In short, Messi and Ronaldo have a similar number of records to their name. The most startling is maybe Messi’s Guiness World Record for scoring 91 goals in a calendar year in 2012. To put this into context, Messi’s next best is 60 and Ronaldo’s best is 69. To score 91 goals in a year is other worldly.

Ronaldo however dominates the Champions League record books, with most goals, most assists, most free kick goals, most hat-tricks (shared with Messi), and most goals in a single season.

Messi holds many European records at domestic level, with the most league goals scored in a single season (50 goals), and most consecutive league matches scored in in world football (21 matches, 33 goals).

At International level, Ronaldo is the all time top scorer with an unbelievable 123 goals, whilst Messi is the highest scoring South American of all time with 103 goals.

Who’s better at international level?

Both players can claim to have enjoyed fantastic careers at international level – their numbers aren’t quite as other-wordly as what they produce for their club sides, but they are still extremely impressive nonetheless.

Ronaldo scores a goal every 129 minutes for Portugal, and Messi scores a goal every 141 minutes for Argentina. When you factor in assists, Ronaldo makes a goal contribution every 101 minutes, whereas Messi makes a goal contribution every 93 minutes.

Ronaldo is Portugal’s all-time top scorer with 123 goals (in 200 appearances), and Messi is Argentina’s all-time top scorer with 103 goals (in 175 appearances).

In terms of individual accolades for the national team, Ronaldo won the Euro 2021 Golden Boot for the top scorer, as well as the Silver Boot at Euro 2016 for scoring the 2nd most goals in the tournament. Messi has won the World Cup Golden Ball twice (2014 + 2022) (the only player ever to do so) and the Copa America Golden Ball twice (2015 & 2021), awarded to the best player of those respective tournaments. He also scooped the Golden Boot award at Copa America 2021 and the Silver Boot award at the 2022 World Cup.

Messi has experienced more heartache at international level, losing in 4 major finals, but he was finally able to triumph with his country at full senior level at Copa America 2021. He went on to win the Finalissima trophy (UEFA / CONMEBOL Cup of Champions) in 2022 against European champions Italy, and then won the biggest prize of them all later that year: the World Cup!

This is in addition to his Olympic Gold medal (with an Argentina U23 side) and the FIFA U20 World Cup trophy.

Ronaldo has reached 2 major international finals with Portugal, winning one of these at the 2016 European Championships, and losing the other at Euro 2004. He also won the UEFA Nations League with Portugal, and has the most goals in the history of international football!

Ronaldo has the better goalscoring record, but Messi has more individual accolades (4 Best Player awards at major tournaments – the most in history), and has now won both the Copa America and World Cup!

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