Teenager Kylian Mbappe’s two-goal haul for France initiated talk of a new dawn and the end of the duo’s reigns for their respective countries.
There is plenty of substance to that argument and their chances of winning a World Cup now look as good as done, especially when you factor in Messi would be 35, and Ronaldo almost 38, when the next edition rolls around in 2022.
For these two players – who are still as good as ever at club level for Barcelona and Real Madrid and both sit comfortably at the top table in the debate of who is the best of all time – could their early departures from Russia affect their pursuit of individual prizes at the end of this year?
Namely, the Ballon d’Or. Ronaldo and Messi, deservedly so, have exerted a 10-year stranglehold over football’s most prestigious and coveted individual prize. Not since Kaka in 2007 has there been a different winner, and they each have five trophies apiece.
For over a decade it has been a continuous battle between them. Their ridiculous levels of consistency and longevity, combined with ever-lasting hunger to keep improving, have been truly staggering.
The game has not witnessed such staying powers of excellence previously but there is no doubt without each other as rivals, we may have seen the duo tail off as has been the case for previous Ballon d’Or winners such as Andriy Shevchenko, Ronaldinho and even Kaka post-30.
Ahead of the World Cup, Ronaldo was undoubtedly the out-and-out favourite to win a sixth Ballon d’Or crown at the end of this calendar year and retain the title he received last December, given his Champions League exploits with Los Blancos.
Messi, meanwhile, after a vintage season for the Blaugrana in which they won La Liga and almost finished the league campaign unbeaten, would probably have had to settle for second place again.
It might not be so set in stone now, not that Ronaldo was a fallen giant this summer for his country, far from it.
In previous World Cup years, like it or not, football’s showpiece event has had a large bearing on the destination of the accolade. It shouldn’t. Principally, it should be an award, voted for by the world’s media, encapsulating 12 months of continuous achievement and excellence.
However, a World Cup can add serious clout to one’s case.
Take the ‘original’, Brazilian Ronaldo in 2002. The striker made just 16 appearances, scoring seven goals, in all competitions for Inter Milan in the 2001/02 campaign leading up to the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
His recovery from a serious cruciate ligament knee injury was obviously the reason for his lack of game time but he went on to help Brazil lift a record fifth Jules Rimet trophy, memorably scoring eight goals to finish as Golden Boot winner.
Ronaldo was not at the peak of his powers physically nor did he offer much aside from his clinical cutting edge in front of goal. Nevertheless, it was still enough to win the Ballon d’Or that year.
Four years later, Juventus defender Fabio Cannavaro became the first out and out defender to win it since Franz Beckenbauer in 1976 after Italy’s 2006 triumph. So it certainly carries weight. Versatile sweeper-come-midfielder Lothar Matthaus, who captained Germany to the title in 1990, is another example of someone who went on to triumph individually.
It begs the question of whether a similar circumstance could occur at the end of 2018? In previous years, voters have been inclined to vote for Messi and Ronaldo given threats to their throne, like Antoine Griezmann, Neymar and indeed Franck Ribery, could not gather the evidence required to win a prize that has significantly grown in stature.
That said, it should be noted, that in 2014, after the finals in Brazil, Ronaldo and Messi finished one-two with Manuel Neuer coming third, so it doesn’t always play to the major tournament rulebook.
But, given how wide open this tournament is in Russia, it is theoretically possible that someone like Luka Modric could scoop gold off the back of a Croatia triumph or even Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne. Both have had stunning club seasons to boot.
It would be nice to see and a win for such talents would go some way towards FIFA finally recognising the master strokes of creative playmakers. Barcelona legends Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who both made the winners’ podium often between 2009 and 2012, being two such examples of stars who deserved to win the whole thing outright but didn’t.
Neymar, and even Mbappe despite his tentative years, are obvious candidates to challenge Messi and Ronaldo too should either of them win a World Cup.
It’s certainly set-up for a more intriguing contest this year.
Benjamin Pavard celebrates scoring one of the goals of the tournament as France beat Argentina 4-3.
France roared back against Argentina to reach the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday as Kylian Mbappe sent Lionel Messi home empty-handed following a seven-goal thriller.
Antoine Griezmann gave France the lead from the penalty spot but the South Americans levelled through a sweet hit from Angel Di Maria and edged ahead shortly after half-time through Gabriel Mercado.
But defender Benjamin Pavard equalised with a thunderous strike to pull France level before Mbappe netted two goals in four second-half minutes to become the first teenager to score at least twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.
On the same day Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were dumped out of the tournament thanks to an inspired display from Edison Cavani. Uruguay booked their place in the World Cup quarter-finals with an excellent 2-1 win.
Not that anyone believed Cavani isn’t a star player in his own right, but when Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo were given top billing for this game, it wasn’t the least bit controversial, even though there are plenty who think Cavani has surpassed Suarez as his country’s top player.
No matter. On Saturday, Cavani wasn’t just his team’s leading light, he was the best player on the pitch.
His two goals showcased just how well-rounded he is as a striker. He released Suarez with a wonderful cross-field pass and then finished off a brilliant long-range one-two with a run into the box to put a superb header past Rui Patricio, and then he produced a beautiful curling finish to round off a sweeping Uruguay counter-attack for what turned out to be the winning goal.
Being the outstanding player in a World Cup knockout game is a surefire way to stamp yourself into footballing memory. Just ask Cavani – he and Uruguay were on the receiving end at the last tournament when James Rodriguez scored twice as Colombia knocked them out.
Cavani probably won’t be following in James’ footsteps with a big-money move to Real Madrid because of Saturday’s showing. He’ll have to be satisfied with playing in the World Cup quarter-finals.
With the group stages complete we’re getting down to the business end of the World Cup. The tournament in Russia has thrown up some shocks already at the mid-way point in the competition and there’s plenty more where that come from as we look at the best Hublot Moments from each day of the knockout phase.
Saturday 30th June
France 4 – 3 Argentina
Uruguary 2 – 1 Portugal
Sunday 1st July
Spain 1 – 1 Russia (Russia win 4-3 on penalties)
Croatia 1 – 1 Denmark (Croatia win 3 – 2 on penalties)
Monday 2nd July
Brazil 2 – 0 Mexico
Belgium 3 – 2 Japan
Tuesday 3rd July
Colombia 1 – 1 England (England win 4 – 3 penalties)
Sweden 1 – 0 Switzerland
Friday 6th July
Uruguay 0 – 2 France
Brazil 1 – 2 Belgium
Saturday 7th July
Sweden 0 – 2 England
Russia 2 – 2 Croatia (Croatia win 4 – 3 on penalties)
Tuesday 10th July
France 1 – 0 Belgium
Wednesday 11th July
Croatia 2 – 1 England
Saturday 14th July
Belgium 2 – 0 England