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.
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