Could Lionel Messi catch Cristiano Ronaldo at top of international scoring charts?

A new frontier has creaked ajar in the seemingly eternal rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In recent years, Messi appeared, by most objective metrics, to have pulled clear of Ronaldo to be considered the greatest player of the modern era.

Messi has a World Cup winner’s medal and Ronaldo does not. Messi has eight Ballon d’Or trophies to Ronaldo’s five. Messi has 12 domestic top-flight titles in European football (10 La Liga titles with Barcelona and two Ligue 1 trophies with Paris Saint-Germain) while Ronaldo has seven, spread across spells in England with Manchester United, Spain with Real Madrid and Italy with Juventus. They have each won their continent’s most prized international tournament, Ronaldo lifting the European Championship in 2016 and Messi the Copa America in 2021.

Messi, however, is not ahead by every metric. Ronaldo has one more Champions League winners’ medal (five) than Messi’s four. Ronaldo has more club goals (765) than Messi (729) but Messi loyalists will point out that Messi has more assists at club level (354) than Ronaldo (238).

Whoever you may favour, this has for a long time been the defining duopoly of modern football. Ronaldo was Real Madrid and Messi was Barcelona. Ronaldo is Nike and Messi is Adidas. It has been the subject of a book by two journalists from the Wall Street Journal, entitled: Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game. There is a website, MessivsRonaldo, where you can pour over their competing records and find the statistic that best suits your narrative.

Cristiano Ronaldo is hoping to break Ali Daei's record

Messi has gone past Daei — could he have Ronaldo in his sights? (Getty Images)

But one man stood between the duopoly and that man was Ali Daei, the Iran forward who scored 108 goals for his country between 1993 and 2006. This placed him joint-second with Messi in the all-time highest goalscoring list of men’s internationals. Ronaldo is top, with 130 goals. Daei’s club career was nowhere near as striking, scoring 134 goals across 13 years, and barely making a mark at the highest level of European club football.

By scoring Argentina’s second goal against Canada in their 2-0 semi-final win, sealing his nation’s place in back-to-back Copa America finals, Messi moved onto 109 goals, cementing Ronaldo and Messi’s No 1 and No 2 status for all-time international scorers. To put this into its historical context, the Brazil great Pele scored 77 goals in 92 appearances, while the Argentine Diego Maradona scored 34 goals in 91 appearances.

Only six other players have crossed the 80-goal threshold; Poland’s Robert Lewandowski (83), Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas (84), Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku (85) and then there is Ali Mabkhout of the United Arab Emirates (85), Malaysia’s Mokhtar Dahari (89) and India’s Sunil Chhetri (94). The latter three all benefited from playing within confederations where the level of football is distinctly lower.

As Messi moved into second, it begged the question as to whether the 21-goal difference between Messi (109) and Ronaldo (130) is one that may yet be overturned. Ronaldo has endured a rotten summer, starting every game of Portugal’s Euro 2024 run, which ended in the quarter-final against France, but failing to score any goals outside of penalty shootouts (sorry Cristiano, but we aren’t counting those towards these records). It has opened a discussion as to whether Ronaldo, who turns 40 in February, may end his international career.

The Portugal captain wrote on social media after Friday’s defeat against France there may be another tournament in him yet. He said: “We wanted more. We deserved more. For us. For each one of you. For Portugal. We are grateful for everything you have given us and for everything we have achieved. On and off the field, I am sure that this legacy will be honoured and will continue to be built. Together.”

Portugal coach Roberto Martinez said after his team’s exit that it was “too soon” to say if Ronaldo, 39, had played his last game for his country. Ronaldo has previously said “I don’t follow the records. They follow me,” implying a humility that has not always been visible in his demeanour while playing for Portugal or his club sides in recent years.

And some of those records are extraordinary. The leading goalscorer in men’s international football, the first man to appear and score in five European Championship and first to score in five different World Cups.

“What’s there left to beat?” Ronaldo asked in June 2023. “I have no idea. I know that there are records that I hold.”

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Messi is in to another Copa America final (JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images)

Should he carry on until 2026, where the World Cup will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico, then Messi is seriously up against it to catch Ronaldo, who would be able to compete in World Cup qualifying, the UEFA Nations League and a World Cup itself, as well as international friendlies. That would take drastic underperformance from Ronaldo and extraordinary levels from Messi over the coming two years to catch.

Yet, should Ronaldo decide to hang up his international boots, then Messi may fancy a shot at one of Ronaldo’s remaining records. Messi has just turned 37, two years the junior of his rival, and he is the more efficient international goalscorer. Messi has 109 goals in 186 caps, a goal every 1.7 games, while Ronaldo’s 130 goals have been scored across 212 games, a goal every 1.63 games.

There are opportunities to score 21 goals. A Copa America final awaits in Miami on Sunday evening, against Uruguay or Colombia, while a further 12 games remain for Argentina in the CONMEBOL (South American) section of the World Cup qualification system.

There are then international friendly matches to consider, as well as a potential Finalissima between the winners of Euro 2024 and this summer’s Copa America, if CONMEBOL and UEFA can find a date within the system.

Then, should Argentina reach the final of the World Cup, that would be eight matches within the tournament to reach it. So there are 22 possible competitive games, before we even take into account friendlies. This all works under the presumption that Messi carries on for another World Cup, having achieved his dream by lifting the trophy in Qatar in 2022.

More pressingly, there is the small matter of attempting to win a second consecutive Copa America for his country. Yet, at the back of his mind, Messi may have one final riposte for Ronaldo.

(EDUARDO MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)

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