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Messi or Ronaldo? Who is the better player? by Rinu Senan & Hark Atwal

Categories : Figure It OutSport
You cannot escape arguments in Football. Be it heated exchanges between fans around their respective teams to managers and players on the pitch (some of you may have seen the ‘interesting’ exchange between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho this past weekend), arguments appear to be part and parcel of the beautiful game.

For years, debates have raged on between fans, pundits and the media around the greatest of football rivalries. Cryuff or Beckenbauer? Keane or Vieira? Pele or Maradona? Each side have their own respective supporters with their own respective views on the matter.

Nowadays, there are two players who dominate discussions within world football.

There is no doubt that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have cemented their place among the echelons of the world’s greatest but who can be considered the better player? Die hard Madridistas would argue that their ‘commander’ (as famously quoted by the FIFA President Sepp Blatter) is better whereas the Catalan majority would argue in favour of Messi.

To analyse these two as individuals, let us first consider the pinnacle of individual footballing greatness. The World Player of the Year award (or now known as the FIFA Ballon d’Or) has been a significant component in the debate around Messi and Ronaldo. Since 2008, both players have consistently finished in the top 2 (albeit one year for Ronaldo) for this iconic footballing award.

Now if we were to go by these simple figures alone then there appears to be no argument. Messi presently has two more awards than Ronaldo (an overall total which is more than any player in the history of world football) and although Ronaldo is presently the reigning holder of the award, one can argue that Messi is the better player due to the number of awards won. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper though. Both these players have stimulated this ongoing debate and have been able to win these awards due to their highly prolific goal scoring records, both domestically and in Europe. Let’s consider their goal scoring stats since the first World Player of the Year award (WPOTY) win in 2008.
Domestic vs. Europe

If we observe the above stats to analyse both players’ Domestic and European performances, we can gain some valuable insights. Up until the 2010-11 season, the winner of the WPOTY award would have scored more goals both domestically and in Europe. The variance occurs in both the 2010-11 and the 2012-13 season whereby the player who scored the most goals in Europe ended up winning the award. For the 2010-11 campaign, Ronaldo had an overall greater goal scoring record compared to Messi (combined total of 53 compared to Messi’s 50) however Messi ended up taking the award. During this period, there were reports that one reason for this decision is that Messi’s team Barcelona had won the Champions League and League double in that particular year, with Messi being a focal point in that success.

If however we consider the following season, whereby Real Madrid and Ronaldo had secured the League Title in Spain (La Liga) with Messi and Barcelona’s only triumph coming in the Spanish cup (Copa Del Rey), the trend would suggest that if trophy success determined the winner of the WPOTY award, then the winner should be Ronaldo. As we’ve already noted, Messi won the award that year.

The same logic followed through in the 2012-13 season however with one notable difference. In reverse, Messi this time outscored Ronaldo overall (58 to 53) and also won La Liga in that particular season. Ronaldo and Real Madrid completed that season with only the Spanish Super Cup (Supercopa de Espana) yet he was awarded the WPOTY award.

The trend which is clear is that the individual, who scores the most goals in Europe, ends up winning the WPOTY award. It should be noted that in the above figures, each time Messi or Ronaldo won the WPOTY award, they were also the top scorers in Europe. This trend doesn’t stop with both these stars. In the 2006-07 season, Brazillian Kaka finished as top scorer in Europe with 10 goals and thereafter won the WPOTY award. Now the decision of who wins this award is left in the hands of the National team coaches, National team captains and selected worldwide journalists; however the above stats could be a clear indication that these individuals are heavily influenced by European performance. If we hold this to be true, Ronaldo may in fact be closing in on his third WPOTY award win.

Game by Game

Now these figures are all well and good in understanding season by season performance but what do these goals indicate as a game by game statistic. If we use the figures above and the stats on both players for their performance internationally and across all competitions in these 8 seasons, the result changes somewhat.

Although very close in number terms, the goal per game average between Messi and Ronaldo is sided slightly more towards Ronaldo. Domestically,  in Europe and in all other competitions, Ronaldo has a higher scoring average compared to Messi indicating that out of the two, Ronaldo is more consistent in achieving a high goal tally in relation to appearances made (albeit slightly).

Interestingly, both have a much lower average when considering international games. There have been many reports calling in to question both players’ international forms, questioning why both are unable to replicate their club form to the international game. Messi has undoubtedly come the closest after making the World Cup final this past year and being named player of the tournament however both have not broken or achieved records internationally that can rival their club careers.

We can go on and on with the analysis into these two players (we haven’t even touched on their assist and pass completion records) but from the findings above, what conclusions can we make?


Now if we take only goals scored as a measure to answer the question of who is the better player, the stats are slightly in favour for Ronaldo. Ronaldo has outscored Messi overall across the 8 seasons, holds a slightly better goal scoring average and is presently averaging at 2.17 goals a game domestically (13 goals in 6 apperances), which would mean he would break the 80 goal mark this coming season!

However this is not the key message we should be taking away!

The WPOTY award is decided every year by a jury consisting of all National team coaches, all Natioanl team captains and a selected number of Worldwide journalists. Our analysis shows that it’s possible that European performance may have been a driving force in acquiring more votes that lead to both players receiving the award. As we’ve already noted, each time Messi or Ronaldo have won the award, they have outscored each other in Europe and also finished as tournament top scorers. The message here may be that by performing so well in Europe, both players became more marketable in the eyes of their respective voters.

Just as in the business world, when a product or service is appealing or marketable in the eyes of the consumer, there is a postive outcome on sales and the receptiveness of that commodity. The Champions League is seen as the epitome of club football so therefore it makes sense that when deciding who should win the award for World’s best, the performance within the competition is held in such regard.

Now this is only one way of looking at the drivers which determine the award destination. Analysis into previous winners or future winners may yield different  or supportive results. Who knows, this may yet get picked up in a future blog post!

About the author

Hark Atwal
Hark Atwal
Analytics leader at Capgemini Consulting with track record of driving business performance through data driven solutions.

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