Lionel Messi stood on a stage in Paris, clutched his award and grinned as he spoke about the ‘tremendous year’ he’s enjoyed.
Another gala occasion, another individual accolade for the collection, another acceptance speech blending humility, appreciation and faux surprise.
It was the second time the Argentine has won FIFA’s The Best award, drawing him level with Cristiano Ronaldo in that particular sub-category of their rivalry.
But is anybody still counting? It’s merely window dressing now, surely. The tit-for-tat Messi vs Ronaldo debate kept us entertained for the better part of two decades – but it’s been settled, right?
As soon as Messi lifted the World Cup in Qatar just before Christmas, the argument was finished in the eyes of many football fans. It had been fun while it lasted, but Messi was officially the GOAT.
Lionel Messi cradles his FIFA The Best award during the Paris ceremony on Monday night
It was a reward for Messi’s exceptional World Cup campaign with Argentina in Qatar
Messi bent the World Cup to his will, scoring in every knockout game to inspire his team
While Ronaldo stormed out of his final World Cup in floods of tears, having been demoted to Portugal’s bench, Messi bent the entire tournament to his will.
He scored in each of Argentina’s knockout games, proving even at the age of 35 he still possessed that winning influence that has defined his wonderful career.
Messi netted twice in a final with France so outlandish at times it could have been played between two eight-year-olds on FIFA.
As he finally got his hands on the most famous trophy of them all and was lifted shoulder high by team-mates just like his idol Diego Maradona, it had truly been Messi’s World Cup.
For him personally, it was the last tick in the box, the emphatic final line on the CV, the elusive shiny sticker smoothed into his album at last.
Fans and pundits alike clamoured to acclaim Messi and proclaim the great debate over. It wasn’t about Ronaldo anymore, the more pertinent debate was comparing Messi to Pele and Maradona as the all-time GOAT.
There will always be a rump of Ronaldo loyalists who’ll keep fighting the good fight for the 38-year-old Portuguese star.
He’s always had a powerful case – he was to Portugal’s victorious Euro 2016 campaign what Messi was to Argentina in Qatar, he still has more Champions League wins, has claimed league titles in more top leagues and still boasts the career better goalscoring record.
While Messi triumphed, Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup campaign ended in tears and misery
Demoted to the bench for Portugal’s knockout round games, Ronaldo left the World Cup stage in floods of tears after they were shocked by Morocco
It came against the backdrop of Ronaldo trashing his reputation at Manchester United
Supremacy in the argument has always ebbed and flowed, season-by-season, trophy-by-trophy and even match-by-match when their careers ran in parallel for Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain.
Especially then, in direct competition, they simply couldn’t ignore one another. If Messi scored twice on the Saturday, Ronaldo would score a hat-trick on the Sunday, or vice versa.
If Messi scored with one of those trademark magical dribbles, beating five defenders, for Barcelona one week, Ronaldo would come up with some absurd overhead kick or 40-yarder for Real the next.
Or so it seemed for a good while, anyway.
Ronaldo had just won the Champions League and the European Championship, so after much deliberation I argued he was just ahead of Messi, who was at that time without International honours.
Obviously it sparked massive debate back then but advocating for Ronaldo has become a hard sell now despite his incredible career achievements.
The Greatest of All Time debate has been raging for years between them (pictured in 2008)
When they both played in Spain, they would attempt to out-do one another on a weekly basis
The pair’s careers have dovetailed together, with both sweeping up many Ballon d’Or awards
There was something poignant in Messi’s fairytale World Cup win coming against the backdrop of Ronaldo trashing his legacy at Manchester United with that wholly self-centred, spite-laden interview.
He was even more sulky and argumentative than usual during Portugal’s campaign, being symbolically dropped by Fernando Santos and then lacking his old powers of salvation when called upon against Morocco.
The upshot is that Ronaldo is now playing in Saudi Arabia with Al Nassr. He’ll boost his bank balance and his career goal tally but it was telling how quickly options to continue playing at an elite level in Europe evaporated.
The final chapter in Ronaldo’s career looks set to be fun, however. He has found his goalscoring touch for Al Nassr, netting eight times in six outings, and his career goal return of 709 in 955 appearances will surely skyrocket over the next couple of years.
Ronaldo made clear even before the World Cup his intention to continue until Euro 2024 with Portugal. That will depend on whether Roberto Martinez has patience with him but he’ll want to reach 200 senior games for his country (four to go) and add to his astonishing 118 goals.
Ronaldo looks set to boost his career goalscoring record playing for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia
The 38-year-old seems to have embraced the local culture in the last chapter of his career
The top prize in world football will elude Ronaldo now but then it was always going to require a superhuman effort to drag Portugal to World Cup glory.
There will always be regret at a return of just eight goals and two assists in 22 World Cup appearances – including not one in the knockout stages.
The way Ronaldo inspired Portugal to their surprise European Championship success in 2016, however, memorably ‘coaching’ from the sidelines after he went off injured in the final, is hugely noteworthy.
Messi has the advantage of being younger and could easily continue playing at a high level in European football for another two or three years if he has the will.
He has 129 career Champions League goals and may yet usurp Ronaldo’s competition record of 140 with a couple of good seasons at Paris Saint-Germain.
There will be no shortage of adulation for Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia during his career twilight
Ronaldo has won the Champions League five times – one more than Messi has
You suspect that would be a painful one for Ronaldo, who probably cannot now do anything about it.
If Messi were to lead PSG to Champions League glory, lifting the trophy for a fifth time to match Ronaldo, that would be another win chalked up in their rivalry.
Having illuminated world football with that World Cup win, Messi would really have to go some to tarnish his legacy.
The final chapter of his playing career may see him follow Ronaldo to a wealthy club in the Middle-East, take on a challenge in the MLS, or return home to Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina.
There has always been a respect between the pair deep down amid the strong competition
The latter option would certainly be the most romantic but it all comes down to desire. Now Messi has achieved everything his heart desired, how much longer do you want to keep going?
If the GOAT debate is truly settled, Messi’s next career move isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. We all want to see those final flickers of brilliance as the light slowly fades.
For now, the fire clearly still burns – he has scored five times for PSG since returning from the World Cup – and Messi finds himself enjoying that rare football nirvana of universal appreciation.
Who wins the debate?
THE CASE FOR MESSI
World Cup winner with Argentina last year – the crowning glory of his career at the age of 35. Scored in each knockout round and twice in the final to inspire his team to victory.
Helped Argentina win the Copa America in 2021 – his first senior international honour – by scoring four times in the finals.
Winner of the prestigious Ballon d’Or seven times – more than anyone else (Ronaldo has five). It’s also now 7-5 in Messi’s favour when it comes to FIFA best player gongs.
Won 35 trophies with Barcelona, including 10 LaLiga titles, seven Spanish Cups and four Champions Leagues.
Holds the all-time record for most goals in LaLiga (474).
Has won more trophies in this career than Ronaldo (42 to 34).
Holds the Guinness world record for scoring 91 goals in a calendar year in 2012, plus the most league goals in a single season (50).
THE CASE FOR RONALDO
Inspired Portugal to an unexpected European Championship success in 2016, scoring three times during the tournament.
Has won more Champions League titles than Messi (five to four), including one with Manchester United and four with Real Madrid.
Has been a league champion in three of Europe’s leading leagues – England, Spain and Italy. Whereas Messi has won only in Spain and France.
Holds the record for most goals in the Champions League with 140 (Messi has 129).
World record-holder for international goal with Portugal (118) and is closing in on 200 international appearances. Messi has scored 98 goals for Argentina.
Has the superior all-time goal total (827 in 1151 appearances). But Messi (798 goals in 1012 games) is three years younger and has a better minutes per goal record.