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Legacy standards differ for Messi, Ronaldo over international success

In all the hand-wringing about Messi's lack of an international trophy impacting his legacy, the same is hardly said about Cristiano Ronaldo.

As anybody who’s ever said anything in public about Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo will know, there is an apparently vast section of the football-watching world that sees everything through the prism of their rivalry.

It’s a strange mentality that creates a polarity where none needs to exist, and insists on dividing supporters and even journalists into two camps: pro-Messi and pro-Ronaldo. It’s as though the notion that somebody might think both of them are pretty good–while regarding the Ballon d’Or, the symbol of their eternal struggle, as a meaningless, perhaps even corrosive, gewgaw–is so outlandish as to be impossible.

But what is intriguing is that there’s an argument that is regularly heard about Messi that is never used about Ronaldo, which is that he’s never won an international tournament. Messi, having enjoyed an extraordinarily successful club career, is expected to do what Diego Maradona did and lead Argentina to a major trophy, yet a similar demand is never made of Ronaldo.

Perhaps the issue is simply that Portugal has never won a major tournament and so the expectation isn’t there. Ronaldo is already deemed to have surpassed Eusebio as the greatest Portuguese player of all time (although the case perhaps isn’t as clear-cut as some would make it). His battle is simply with Messi, whereas Messi’s is with Ronaldo and Maradona.

Or perhaps it’s that Ronaldistas have had to accept that trophies aren’t the mark of the man: after all, to do so would be to acknowledge that Messi has won eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues to their man’s three Premier league titles, one La Liga title and three Champions Leagues.

And in that, at least, they’re right. Greatness is not something that can be simply mapped out with medals. Messi has played in a World Cup final and three Copa America finals and lost them all, two of them on penalties.

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If Gonzalo Higuain were a better finisher under pressure, he might have won three of them. Realistically, winning or not winning those games should matter little to his legend. In fact, in some ways to return from international retirement to end Argentina’s long trophy drought at the World Cup final in Moscow would be even better for his narrative than a couple of straightforward Copa America successes.

Of course it would burnish Ronaldo’s legend were Portugal to beat France in the final of the Euro 2016–all the more so were he to have a decisive impact on the game.

“France is a bit more the favorites than us, but I think Portugal will win,” Ronaldo said. "It would mean a lot. It's something I've always dreamed of, to win with the national team. I have won everything at club level and the individual level, this would be a great achievement to win something for the Portuguese team. I believe that this is possible, as do my colleagues and the whole country also believes. We must have positive thinking, because I believe that on Sunday will be the first time that Portugal will win a major trophy."

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But the truth is that he doesn’t need to win. His reputation is secure. Portugal is a country of 10.5 million people, which is not enough for it to be consistently excellent. Necessarily there are peaks and troughs. It has reached, in total, seven major tournament semifinals–Ronaldo has played in four of them. Whatever his complaints about the level of his teammates, whatever the concerns about his individualism, the fact is that he has elevated squads that have been over the past decade quite ordinary to a consistently high level.

When Portugal lost the Euro 2004 final on home soil to Greece, Ronaldo wept and vowed he would win a trophy for his nation. Twelve years on, he could similarly deny a host in its own stadium.

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And after years of carrying his nation’s hopes almost single-handedly, Portugal could win without Ronaldo being the biggest factor. Although he has scored three goals and set up two, he has been a strangely dislocated figure as Fernando Santos has essentially solved Portugal’s two biggest problems–what to do about the lack of a center forward and what to do with Ronaldo–with the same solution.

Using two banks of four, Santos has created a structure that has made Portugal hard to break down–just one goal conceded in 300 knockout minutes–leaving Ronaldo and Nani to create something up front.

"We started in a soft way, results in the early games were not what we wanted,” Ronaldo said, “but on balance the benefit is positive, because to get to a final which takes a lot of merit and we have the players, coaches and the whole structure of the team. We are all to be congratulated."

If Portugal, that one-man team in which the team is the important bit, is to win on Sunday, it almost certainly needs that structure to frustrate France.

The irony is that, as well as giving Portugal its first senior trophy, sublimating Ronaldo to the demands of the team, would provide new impetus to the Messi-baiters among Ronaldo’s fan base.