Between 2008 and 2019, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have won 11 Ballon D’Ors between them, out of a possible 12. Luka Modric in 2018 was the only human to step out in between these two giants. As Messi takes home his sixth Ballon D’Or - possibly stepping out in front of his rival for good (Cristiano turns 35 next year, and even he should begin slowing down at some point), we take a look at their battles over the years.
It begins with Ronaldo’s coming-of-age season at Manchester United. The then 23-year-old had been part of a fearsome Man Utd attack, one which featured Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, and Dimitar Berbatov at their very best. But while Ronaldo had been coming into his own in the previous seasons, earning himself a reputation for showboating and selfishness in the process, he grabbed the reins from the other three in 2007/08. He scored 42 goals in all competitions, and led Man Utd to the EPL title, as well as their first Champions League trophy since the 1999 treble.
His exploits won him his first Ballon D’Or, while Lionel Messi finished a distant second. Little did we know then of just how devastating this rivalry would turn out to be.
Ronaldo’s following season would see him score 26 goals, sixteen fewer than in his Ballon D’Or season. Man Utd would win the EPL title again, but would lose 2-0 to Messi’s Barcelona in the UCL final. Ronaldo would win the Puskas award in this, his last season at United, for a 40-yard strike against Porto. Following this campaign, Ronaldo would leave Man Utd in a then-world record transfer of 80 million pounds to join Madrid’s Galacticos.
His numbers in this season pale in comparison to Lionel Messi’s. Barcelona’s diminutive Argentinian blossomed in this campaign, after the transfers of Deco and Ronaldinho. Messi was made the team’s focal point, and he destroyed everything in his path as he led Barcelona to six titles in 2008/09. Messi had arrived, and he would not relinquish his throne for four years following this season.
2010-2012 Messi dominated the Ballon D’Or during this stretch, winning an unprecedented 4 in a row. He beat out teammates Xavi and Iniesta in 2010, after the pair had led Spain to a World Cup crown. 2010 might be the most contentious title Messi has won, with many people believing the Ballon D’Or that year should have gone to Inter Milan’s playmaker Wesley Sneijder, who had won a treble with his club - including a win over Messi and Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals. Over the next two years, however, Messi would shut all his doubters up as he embarked on a historic run - one which cemented his place as one of the greatest to ever play the game. In the 2011/12 season, Messi scored 73 goals and assisted 29 more. In 2011, the team collected 5 titles, including the La Liga and Champions League. There was no question who the world’s best player was at that point.
Ronaldo too had found his groove at Madrid by now and was scoring for fun, but this version of Messi was beyond human understanding. The Argentine continued his goalscoring form as 2012 began, and carried it on through that calendar year. By the end, even though Ronaldo claimed his first league title with Real Madrid, he couldn’t keep Messi from his fourth Ballon D’Or.
Lionel Messi, whose team had faltered in the league and UCL in 2012, finished the calendar year with 91 goals in all competitions. 91. He broke Gerd Muller’s 1972 record of 85, the crown in a series of broken records that year. His 73 for 2011/12 broke Muller’s 1972/73 record of 67 in a single season, and his 50 in the league for 2011/12 was the most in La Liga history. This was also the year he became Barcelona’s all-time leading league scorer - at the age of 25. This was when Cristiano Ronaldo decided that he had had enough. He felt he was every bit as good as Messi, and the adulation his rival received needed to be aimed at him instead. So what did he do? He went and won two Ballon D’Ors in a row.
As Messi began to suffer from injuries, Ronaldo stepped up to shine. In 2013, Messi’s Barcelona had wrapped up the La Liga even before Messi’s injuries began limiting his minutes. Madrid won no trophies in the year, with finalists Borussia Dortmund eliminating them in the semi-finals of the UCL in the 2012/13 campaign. But the summer window that followed brought in Gareth Bale, who would join Madrid to form their three-headed attacking monster. With Bale’s arrival, his former Tottenham teammate Luka Modric stepped up his game. And Ronaldo thrived as a result. He finished 2013 with 69 goals, with Madrid well poised to challenge for trophies in the latter half of the 2013/14 season. His highest year-end goal tally saw him win his second Ballon D’Or, with Messi missing out due to an injury-riddled second half.
The latter half of the 2013/14 season saw Madrid reap the fruits of their summer harvest. While they missed out on the league title as Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid won every neutral’s heart, Real dominated in their quest for the elusive tenth UCL title - La Decima. Supported by Bale and Karim Benzema, Ronaldo went on a tear in the UCL, finishing the campaign with 17 strikes to his name. He was subdued in the final due to injuries, but scored a 120th-minute penalty to see Madrid lift their tenth UCL title by beating Atletico Madrid 4-1. This title, along with the Copa del Rey win over Barcelona, helped Ronaldo win his third Ballon D’Or, taking him level with Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, and Marco van Basten.
Messi roared back in 2015, leading Barcelona to their second-ever treble, after 2009. He won 41.33% of the vote, with Ronaldo getting 27.76%. While Barcelona’s success was down to their attacking triumvirate’s overall performances, Messi had a historic year on a personal level as well. Near the end of 2014, he broke Telmo Zarra’s record for most La Liga goals, and in 2015 he recorded his 106th assist, taking him above Luis Figo for most La Liga assists. He also recorded his 32nd hattrick in 2015, taking him above Zarra in that record as well. With his personal accolades adding to Barcelona’s treble, there was no doubting Messi’s claim to the Ballon D’Or - his fifth.
Ronaldo had had quite the memorable 2015 himself, having become Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer in the league and in all-competitions that year, along with surpassing Messi as the all-time leading scorer in the Champions League. However, Barcelona’s titles won in 2015 tipped the scales in Messi’s favour. 2016 saw Ronaldo take revenge for that snub. Messi scored more goals than him in 2016 (and claim the La Liga title), but Ronaldo’s victories in the Euros and in the UCL saw him claim his fourth Ballon D’Or over his rival. 2017 was more of the same for Ronaldo, as his Real team raced to the La Liga title and then beat Juventus to win the UCL for a third time in four years. This, plus his 50 goals in the year saw him finally draw level with Messi at 5 Ballon D’Ors.
2018 saw Luka Modric win the Ballon D’Or as he helped Madrid to yet another UCL title, this time over Liverpool. He then took an underdog Croatia team to the World Cup finals, where they lost 4-2 to the heavily-favoured French team. In 2019, Messi took it upon himself to ensure that the break in tradition was nothing but a blip. While his team failed to win the UCL, losing in the semi-finals to eventual champions Liverpool, Messi remained a force domestically. While Madrid floundered in the post-Ronaldo era, Messi and Barcelona continued to thrive. The Argentine wizard took his La Liga goal tally over 420, climbing ahead of Ronaldo’s league goal tally, and he then scored his 607th and 608th goals in all competitions, taking him above his arch-rival in that category as well. His goalscoring form saw Barcelona lift yet another La Liga crown. This led to Messi lifting his record sixth Ballon D’Or, over Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk, whose defensive performances had seen Liverpool win the UCL for the sixth time in their history.
As both legends hit their mid-thirties, we have to wonder just how many more seasons like the above they have left in them. This past decade has given us football fans the two greatest players to ever grace the sport, and whether you support either of their teams or not, you have to marvel at their continued excellence. It almost feels like they'll be doing this forever.
But one day they will slow down, and then we will have to look for new players to fill these impossibly large boots. Kylian Mbappe is poised to be one of those, and who else will step up to challenge him the way Ronaldo and Messi have challenged each other? Joao Felix? Erling Haland? Whoever it is, they're stepping into the biggest challenge they will ever have - equalling these two monsters.
Equalling is enough. Surpassing them is going to take a good, long while.