Soccer is inherently a team sport, but it is important to take into account individual statistics when assessing the success of individual players. Each player has a unique impact on their team, but there are some statistical metrics that lend themselves to comparison. In recent decades, two players have risen above the rest in the GOAT conversation: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
In looking at both Ronaldo and Messi’s careers, it makes sense to compare both players’ records for the team they play for the most: Their clubs. Attackers’ main statistical measurements are goals and assists, which together are known as goal contributions. In 731 club appearances, Lionel Messi has 634 goals and 256 assists, an average of 1.22 goal contributions per appearance. In 850 club appearances, Cristiano Ronaldo has 638 goals and 195 assists, an average of 0.98 goal contributions per appearance. Although Ronaldo spent time in the English Premier League, which is considered the hardest league in the world, he also played in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Both the Italian and Portuguese leagues are considered to be easier than the Spanish league, where Messi has been his entire career.
Although both players have spent significantly more time with their club teams, their international careers must also be considered. In 138 international appearances, Messi has 70 goals and 42 assists, with an average of 0.81 goal contributions per appearance. In 164 international appearances, Ronaldo has 99 goals and 28 assists with an average of 0.77 goal contributions per appearance.
Typically, Ronaldo is credited with more international success based on Portugal’s win at the 2016 European Championship against France. This, however, is a misattribution. Ronaldo, due to an injury, was subbed out early in the game when the score was 0–0. Messi, who is considered the weaker international player, was awarded the Golden Ball for best player at the 2014 World Cup. Messi had previously won the Golden Ball, as well as the Golden Boot for most goals scored, in the 2005 U-20 World Cup, which Argentina won. Messi is also a frequent recipient of the highest individual award a soccer player can receive, the Ballon D’or. Messi has won it six times, most recently in 2019, while Ronaldo has won it five times.
Cristiano Ronaldo is widely considered to be the greatest soccer player of all time for his unparalleled success individually, at the club level and at the international level.
Since his professional debut in 2002, Ronaldo has scored 641 goals in 854 club games, scoring 0.76 goals per game. He is the all-time leading scorer in European club soccer’s highest level of competition, the UEFA Champions League, and has won nearly every individual accolade in soccer, including the prestigious Ballon D’Or on five occasions.
The best players must be successful in different European Soccer Leagues as each has its own style of play. The English Premier League has a fast and aggressive game compared to the slower but more technical Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A. While Ronaldo has succeeded at the club level in all three of these major European leagues, Messi has only found success in the La Liga, and thus cannot be considered as adaptable as Ronaldo. Ronaldo also has five Champions League titles, two La Liga titles, three Premier League titles, and two Serie A titles to his name.
Apart from individual and club success, Ronaldo has led the Portuguese team to win the UEFA European Championship in 2016—the first major tournament title for the Portuguese National Team. Although the FIFA World Cup trophy has eluded both Messi and Ronaldo, the European Championship is what many consider to separate Ronaldo from Messi as the greatest of all time.
Although Ronaldo has been dominant at many levels of soccer, especially the UEFA Champions League, Messi has the more impressive resumé. With significantly more goal contributions per game, a Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and six Ballon D’or awards, Messi is the stronger all-around player.