Cristiano Ronaldo v Lionel Messi. The debate that gripped many a schoolyard, office, pub, 5-a-side pitch, terrace, and more ever since they met for the first time in 2008.
And yet, the rivalry has taken a strange turn in recent weeks. In truth, it is a stretch to call it a rivalry at all anymore.
Messi v Ronaldo: Final matchup will feel very different
On January 19th, PSG will travel to Saudi Arabia to play a mid-season friendly against Al Nassr. It was originally scheduled to take place last season, but was called off due to the ongoing chaos presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, knowledge of Al Nassr has increased ten fold in the footballing community in recent weeks, with the bombshell announcement of Cristiano Ronaldo's arrival at the club, in the mildly disgraced twilight of his career.
Ronaldo received a two-game ban from the FA after smashing a phone out of a fan's hand after Manchester United's loss to Everton last season, but left the club under a cloud before being able to serve the ban in England. That means he will miss the first two competitive games of his time with Al Nassr - and, furthermore, means his debut is likely to come in the glamorous friendly against one of Europe's most star-studded teams.
And, of course, that means Ronaldo v Messi, likely for one last time on the global stage.
We had two matchups between the pair during Ronaldo's first spell at Manchester United, and countless when they duelled for La Liga supremacy in the 2010s. Even when Ronaldo departed Real Madrid for Juventus, the pair faced each other one last time in the Champions League in 2020-21.
This game, however, will have an altogether more farcical feeling to it - depending on your preference between the pair, it may even have a said air to it.
When Messi and Ronaldo first faced off at club level, it was in a Champions League semi-final in 2008. The following year, they met in the final. They would meet in the semi-finals again in 2011, and fight for domestic supremacy in Spain for almost ten years.
At every turn, they were regarded as the two best players in the world - even as far back as that 2008 semi-final, when Ronaldo was only 23, and Messi only 20. Those who have only watched the past four or so years of this rivalry perhaps cannot quite comprehend just how superior these two players were at the top of the world for over 10 years, an unprecedented rivalry at the very highest level.
Both have had their moments of brilliance, and the arguments twisted and turned throughout the Real v Barca era. More often than not, it was Messi who came out on top when they faced off with each other - he came out on the winning side of those 2009 and 2011 clashes, scoring in both, while he also won six La Liga titles to Ronaldo's two during their shared time in Spain.
Then again, Ronaldo consistently ruled the roost at European level at Real Madrid, driving them to four Champions League crowns in just five years in the mid-2010s, finishing the season as top scorer in each of those seasons.
Those Champions League statistics are always what the Ronaldo corner have come back with in their battle to assert his superiority over Messi over the years, and they are to his credit. But the eye test doesn't fail, and you would have to be deluded not to appreciate that his Argentinean counterpart has done things on the pitch fans previously couldn't have comprehended.
We can continue breaking down the debate over the years but, as the clock winds down on both players' careers, fans will be coming to terms with the fact that the January 19 friendly could well be the very last time the pair ever face off in professional football (that is, if PSG will risk their biggest star in a friendly match).
And what a sad end it is to this rivalry.
One corner of this debate may disagree with me on that - for the Messi corner, this is about as triumphant an ending to their rivalry as one could have dreamt of. The game against Ronaldo's Al Nassr will be one of Messi's first games back in the PSG setup, after a lengthy period celebrating Argentina's World Cup win in December.
That final in Qatar, which saw Messi score twice and convert in the shootout, was undoubtedly the crowning moment of Messi's career, and he comes into the final showdown with Ronaldo with the one thing neither player had claimed hitherto - a World Cup winner's medal.
For many, this was the moment that settled the "GOAT" debate once and for all, one that had raged on for nearly 15 years. That may be because of the fact that it happened against the backdrop of Ronaldo's downfall at Manchester United - one of the most spectacular falls from grace ever experienced from a high level sportsperson.
Cast your mind back to December 2021. A botched Champions League draw had briefly set up Ronaldo's United to face Messi's PSG in the last 16 - yet another matchup in Europe's finest competition, between its two finest ever players. Even though the draw was corrected hours later, the excitement was palpable.
Messi had scored a wondergoal against Manchester City in the group stages, and was settling in in the French capital (somewhat slowly) after his Barcelona departure. Ronaldo, on the other hand, had dragged Manchester United into the knockouts with six goals in five group stage games. The "last dance," if you will, of this epic rivalry would see them both performing at peak capacity, even so late in their respective careers.
That was little over a year ago. Since then, Messi has transformed again at PSG, with performances that hark back to his very best days in Barcelona blue and red, and he has won a World Cup. Ronaldo, on the other hand, forced his way out of Manchester United after publicly disrespecting his manager and former teammates in a ludicrous interview with Piers Morgan, after storming out of a game against Tottenham early.
Ronaldo's actions were inexplicable, especially as his form was not exactly stellar, and had seen him dropped from United's starting XI. Clearly, the hope was to force his way out of the club for some unbeknownst reason - though we have heard the word "ego" thrown around with Cristiano from time to time. The expectation, on the other hand, was that every major club in Europe would come running to snap him up after a surefire triumphant World Cup campaign.
That interview with Morgan contained a snippet in which Ronaldo said he dreamed of beating Messi in the World Cup final in Doha. While Messi was off winning the whole lot, Ronaldo was dropped from Portugal's starting lineup, and saw his team crash out at the quarter-finals, after only scoring one goal in the tournament.
So, Al Nassr it was. Of course, that was his plan all along. Or, at least, he says it was.
🗣️ @piersmorgan: "If it was just about money, you'd be in Saudi Arabia earning this king's ransom, but that's not what motivates you. You want to keep at the top.
Cristiano Ronaldo: "Exactly."
👀 👀 👀 pic.twitter.com/W8ZUD7PfzZ
— The Sportsman (@TheSportsman) January 4, 2023
Yeah, not so sure about that.
There has been plenty of revisionism around Ronaldo in recent weeks, especially after Messi's recent heroics in Qatar, but it is relevant to remember this is the rivalry that defined European football for over a decade. Messi may well be from another planet, but the brilliance of Ronaldo pushed him and Barcelona on to bigger and better things on countless occasions.
Whatever your opinion on either of the duo, seeing them face off on a football pitch was one of the sport's great thrills, and they were each other's match even if not, perhaps, each other's equal. This author - though younger than many of his counterparts - would wager these two are comfortably the greatest players of all time.
They will face each other one last time (probably) in two weeks time, but you can't imagine there will be too much fanfare over a friendly between PSG and Al Nassr.
Perhaps this is how it was destined to play out. It will certainly put into perspective the very different manners in which they are seeing out their respective careers - Ronaldo, after disappointing spells in Turin and Manchester, resigned to his final years being played far below the level he has become accustomed to, with Messi off the back of a World Cup win and on the verge of a seventh Ballon d'Or.
Messi v Ronaldo. It ain't what it used to be, it ain't a debate. It will be bittersweet to see them face off one last time but there is also something quite final in a different way. They are not ending their careers in this manner by chance. Messi is where he is because of his quiet brilliance on the pitch, Ronaldo is where he is largely because of his loud petulance off it.
Até logo, Cristiano. The GOAT will see you on his way out.