Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Can Lionel Messi break Cristiano Ronaldo’s all-time international goalscoring record?

For some, the debate over Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo ended at Qatar 2022.

Messi got his hands on the World Cup, the most coveted trophy in football and the only major piece of silverware that’s evaded Ronaldo over the course of his illustrious career.

The Argentina captain produced some of the best football of his career out in Qatar and was named the tournament’s best player. Ronaldo, meanwhile, featured off the bench and couldn’t find the back of the net as Portugal suffered a shock quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

What is inarguable is that both players have had extraordinary careers, both for their clubs and on the international stage.

Ronaldo is the all-time top goalscorer in the history of international football, and – if we’re talking officially-recognised non-friendly goals – he’s also the all-time top goalscorer in football history period.

“I’m very happy,” Ronaldo said after his achievement was recognised with a special FIFA award last year. “It’s a special award for me to be the best goalscorer ever. It’s a great achievement. I’m so proud. I never thought that one day I would be the number one. It’s a great honour for me. It’s great to be the [record] goalscorer of all time.”

The Portuguese icon turned 38 earlier this year and appears to be winding down the final years of his career with a lucrative deal at Saudi Pro League club Al Nassr.

Messi, 35, might have a few more years at the top of the European game, although his immediate future is in doubt with his contract at PSG up at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to consider when the two era-defining legends do decide to hang up their boots, both for good and in international football.

But by the time they retire, might Messi surpass Ronaldo’s proud international goalscoring record? We’ve delved into the numbers to find out.

– Ronaldo’s international goals tally for Portugal stands at 118. That’s nine more than Iranian striker Ali Daei, who he overtook with two goals against the Republic of Ireland back in September 2021.

– Messi is 20 goals behind. The Argentinian took his tally to 98 with a brace against France in the World Cup final. He stands only behind Ronaldo and Daei on the international stage and is on the cusp of becoming only the third player in history to notch a century of international goals.

– Twenty goals sounds like a lot, and it is. But it’s not impossible. Especially when you consider that Messi caught up 15 goals on Ronaldo in his remarkable 2022 – the PSG forward scored 18 goals in 14 appearances for Argentina last year, while his old rival only managed three goals in 12 appearances.

– Should both players maintain that kind of output, Messi can surpass Ronaldo. But it will be tough to emulate his best-ever scoring year for Argentina, especially this year when there’s no Copa America or World Cup to participate in. There are five international breaks scheduled for 2023 – March, June-July, September, October and November.

– The key question to consider for both players is – what does the future hold? Will Ronaldo retire any time soon? Will Roberto Martinez keep selecting Ronaldo or look to phase him out as he looks to a new generation? Will Messi keep going to the next Copa America (2024) or even the next World Cup (2026)!?

– Ronaldo has made no hint that he’d ever take the decision himself to retire from Portugal duty, so the decision will likely be Martinez’s. The Spanish coach has a remit to modernise the Selecao and bring through the next generation, but for now he’s happy to call upon their all-time top goalscorer, even out in Saudi Arabia. “Cristiano Ronaldo is a very committed player. He can bring experience and is a very important figure for the team. I don’t look at age,” Martinez said.

– After winning the World Cup, Messi was asked if he would retire there and then. He responded: “I enjoy being with the national team, the group, I want to continue living a few more games being world champion.” In a later interview, he was asked about playing in a record sixth World Cup in 2026, and said: “Because of age it’ll be difficult to make 2026. I love playing football and while I feel like I’m in good shape and enjoying this, I’m going to keep at it. It seems like a long time until the next World Cup, but it depends on how my career is going.”

– Meanwhile, Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni has backed Messi to keep playing for another three years: “I think Messi can make it to the next World Cup. It will depend a lot on what he wants and what happens over time, that he feels good. The doors will always be open.”

– For now, both players have been called up and have big opportunities to fill their boots and add more goals to their international tallies in March 2023. Messi and his fellow world champions have friendly fixtures on home soil against Panama and Curacao. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s Portugal have Euro 2024 qualifiers against minnows Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

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