Ronaldo and Messi at the 2022 World Cup? Don't bet against them
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are back on Friday. It's been two-hundred and sixty-five days since we last saw them, each bowing out on the same day, at the same stage of the World Cup, likely with the same heartache.
Lionel Messi was in Kazan, where his Argentina side had let a 2-1 second-half lead slip in a wild, drunken shootout of a knockout game that saw France advance 4-3. Cristiano Ronaldo was in Sochi, a thousand miles away on the banks of the Black Sea, yet shoulder-to-shoulder with him in spirit. His Portugal side had also fallen, 2-1 to Uruguay.
They would not be meeting in the next round, as many had hoped. Another four years would go by without two of the greatest players in history winning the game's greatest prize.
For a while, there was speculation that we might never again see them play for their country. They missed the next three international dates, a total of six matches. There was never an official explanation for the hiatus, just leaks and speculation. For Messi, it was that he wanted a break after the tumultuous Russian debacle that had seen the squad turn on coach Jorge Sampaoli, who was later fired. For Ronaldo, the explanation was that -- after nine years at Real Madrid -- he wanted to focus on settling into his new club, Juventus.
Valid reasons? Sure. Though that did not stop the speculation that, perhaps, we had seen the last of them.
Fortunately, that won't be the case. In fact, they'll be on the pitch at the same time Friday night: Ronaldo's Portugal host Ukraine in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Lisbon, Portugal (ESPN+, 3:35 p.m. ET), while 15 minutes later, Messi and Argentina kick off their friendly against Venezuela in Madrid.
No prizes for guessing what brought them back. These are competitors, and there's silverware at stake in the summer. Portugal are in the UEFA Nations League finals, a "Final Four" that will see them pitted against Switzerland, Netherlands and England. Messi will take a run at the Copa America, a competition he has never won, for the fifth time.
Then, looming on the horizon, is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It's the first winter World Cup in the Northern Hemisphere, and that puts it exactly 1,299 days from Friday, their return to the international scene.
Messi will be 35 years old, Ronaldo three months shy of his 38th birthday. The former would become the third-oldest Argentine to play in a World Cup, after Martin Palermo in 2010 and the legendary Angel Labruna in 1958. Ronaldo would become Portugal's oldest ever World Cup player.
Were we not talking about superstars, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But these two transcend much of what we thought was possible in the twilight of a footballer's career.
Messi turned 31 last summer. He has scored 39 goals in 37 club appearances this season. Ronaldo is 34 and has 24 in 36 games in this campaign. Pele managed nine in 40 the season he turned 31, and at 34 -- his final year at Santos before decamping to the New York Cosmos -- he had 10 in 27.
Diego Maradona? He had 10 in 26 the year he turned 31, though his season was cut short by a 15-month ban after testing positive for cocaine. The year he turned 34, he was serving another ban, this time for failing a dope test at the 1994 World Cup. (He did come back and play another two years for Boca Juniors before retiring for good on his 37th birthday.)
We bring up Pele and Maradona not to reopen the eternal GOAT argument but rather to note how Messi and Ronaldo defy conventional wisdom and expectation so often that we've become numb to it.
It's not just the continued productivity, which you might chalk up in part to how the game has changed and how talented attackers receive greater protection from referees, it's the way they avoid injury and beat their bodies into submission. They are footballing machines.
Enjoy this. And be glad their international careers did not end on June 30.