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Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s struggles prove there are no guarantees in sports

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Lionel Messi was booed by Paris Saint-Germain supporters on Sunday. A day earlier, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick for Manchester United and swapped G.O.A.T. talk with NFL icon Tom Brady in a post-match meeting of the greats at Old Trafford, conveniently in full glare of the cameras on the pitch so that the whole world could see it.

Those two moments in time could not have been more contrasting for two players who have dominated world football for the best part of 15 years. But appearances can be deceptive, and Ronaldo’s virtuoso performance in front of Brady masks the reality of his time at Old Trafford since returning to the club, 12 years after leaving for Real Madrid, from Juventus last August.

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Prior to his hat trick against Tottenham — the 59th of his remarkable career — Ronaldo had scored just one goal in 2022. One goal in 10 appearances, to be precise, and he had been dropped to the bench by interim manager Ralf Rangnick for a game at Burnley during that run. His absence from the squad for the 4-1 defeat at Manchester City on March 6, officially attributed to a hip injury, led to the player returning to Portugal with accompanying headlines suggesting that he was unhappy at United and ready to leave in the summer.

Questions over Ronaldo’s presence in the United team have grown in recent weeks — is he able to play as a centre-forward? Is he now showing his age (37)? Have United foolishly sacrificed a team ethic in order to accommodate him? These are all issues that continue to be raised whenever Ronaldo doesn’t do what he did on Saturday, when he performed like a man 10 years his junior.

It is a similar story for Messi at PSG. The Argentine, who is three years younger than Ronaldo, was signed by the Ligue 1 leaders to become the final piece of the club’s Champions League-winning jigsaw. The idea, which makes sense from a fantasy football perspective, was that a forward line of Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe would prove to be unstoppable in Europe’s premier competition. Yet reality always trumps fantasy and Messi was booed during Sunday’s win against Bordeaux (Neymar was also targeted) because PSG exited the Champions League at the round of 16 stage after blowing a 2-0 aggregate lead against Real Madrid in the final half hour of the second-leg.

Messi, a player who once dominated the competition and has won it four times, contributed nothing other than a missed penalty in the first leg. He scored five goals in seven Champions League games, including two against RB Leipzig that secured a 3-2 win, while a stunning strike against Manchester City last September led to a 2-0 victory in Paris. But PSG signed Messi to deliver more than that, or the two goals he’s contributed in 18 league games so far. He was signed to win the Champions League, but PSG are already out and even Messi hasn’t been able to make a difference.

Still, at least PSG should be back for another shot at the Champions League next season. A 15-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 ensures they will win the French title and give Messi something to celebrate. It also gives him something over Ronaldo, who will end the season empty-handed unless he can inspire United to a highly unlikely Champions League triumph in Paris in May. (They host Atletico Madrid on Tuesday with things tied 1-1 from the first leg.)

Although the re-signing of Ronaldo was a nostalgia trip with a major commercial uptick for United, he was primarily signed to make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team serious competitors for the Premier League title. Yet Solskjaer was fired in November and United are no-hopers in the title race, and they’ll struggle to even finish in the top four, with Arsenal one point ahead and enjoying the luxury of three games in hand.

Ronaldo signed up for a trophy-winning end to his career at United, but his first season may fizzle out into nothing more than a race to avoid playing in the Europa Conference League next season. His 18 goals in 32 games may count for nothing.

Yes, there have been some highs for both Messi and Ronaldo. Messi’s goal against City is probably as good as it has been for the PSG star, while Ronaldo has his Spurs hat trick and several match-winning goals in the Premier League and Champions League. But has any of it really been worth it for United or PSG? Have Messi or Ronaldo actually made their teams better? Neither have helped their club deliver their objectives and, at times, both have been a distraction from the necessary, but time-consuming, work of team-building.

It has been no Last Dance, the ESPN+ series which revolves around Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls, for either. Messi’s time in Paris has been a tale of false steps and unfulfilment, while Ronaldo has been like a solo artist missing a partner.

And it may not get any better. A year older and with even more pressure to deliver, nobody can say that it will all come good for either of them next season.



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