MOSCOW – Lionel Messi stared, hands on hips, pain etched across a face once boyish and filled with limitless joy, now obscured by a brown beard and hardened by expectations for his nation unmet.
Four hours later and 950 miles (1,530 kilometers) away, Cristiano Ronaldo’s eyes were wide in anger as he shouted in protest just ahead of the final whistle, once again arguing with a referee. The tirade got Ronaldo a second yellow card that would have suspended him for the next match. No worries, Portugal’s World Cup ended with a loss.
Saturday will likely mark the end of an era for the World Cup, a decade in which much of the hype and pre-tournament talk has been about the best players in the world, the Spanish league rivals who have evenly split the last 10 FIFA Player of the Year Awards. Once again, both men have failed to replicate their club success for their countries.
Messi is a week past his 31st birthday and Ronaldo 33, former phenoms unlikely to reach Qatar 2022 or retain their exceptional skill if they manage to hang on.
For both superstars, a World Cup title remained an unreachable star. On Saturday, they were both outshined by a pair of Paris Saint-Germain teammates, France’s Kylian Mbappe and Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani. Younger legs have more speed and endurance. Most importantly, Cavani and Mbappe had more support and less pressure.
Messi hasn’t won a senior title with his nation, losing finals at the 2014 World Cup, and the 2007, ’15 and ’16 Copa Americas, the last when Messi failed on his penalty kick during a shootout. He faced massive criticism at home and retired from the national team only to be lured back for this World Cup cycle.
Ronaldo lost a World Cup semifinal in 2006 but never got past the second round again. He did help Portugal to its first European Championship in 2016.
If Argentina and Portugal won Saturday, the rivals would have matched up for a spot in the semifinals. Instead, they’ll race to the airport. Argentina lost to France 4-3 in Kazan and Portugal fell to Uruguay 2-1 at Sochi.
Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona became national treasures at home, celebrated for World Cup titles and global superstars. Fans who never saw them play for their clubs know of Pele and Maradona’s accomplishments every four years at the global tournament.
Messi and Ronaldo will be remembered for great club success, but not country triumph.
Barcelona signed the 13-year-old Messi to a contract scrawled on a napkin in 2000. He was 17 when he made his competitive first-team debut. Titles accumulated at an unprecedented rate: four in the Champions League, nine in La Liga and six in the Copa del Rey. Adulation at Camp Nou turned into worship; media called him “La Pugla (The Flea)” for his small frame and unparalleled acceleration, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger equated Messi’s moves with a video-game creation, proclaiming he was “like a PlayStation.”
He scored at a rate once unfathomable: 383 goals in 418 league matches, 100 in 125 Champions League games and 552 in 637 first-team appearances overall. He was a lifer for one of the most popular clubs in the world, a brand of his own, earning love in Spain but detachment from his countrymen in South America. Too often, his World Cup failures were compared to Maradona’s successes.
Ronaldo, too, debuted at 17, for Sporting Lisbon. His crossover dribble was already famous when Alex Ferguson snatched him for Manchester United ahead of the 2003-04 season and gave him the No. 7 of just-departed David Beckham. After six seasons that included three Premier League titles, one Champions League and one FA Cup, he moved to Real Madrid and scored 450 goals in 438 matches, winning four Champions League titles, and the league and cup twice each. He’s set a Champions League record with 120 goals, leaving Messi a distant second.
They were soccer’s yin and yang, Messi understated and distant, Ronaldo flamboyant with a model girlfriend and attention-grabbing hairdos. They are global spokesmen, Ronaldo for Nike, Toyota and many more; Messi for the likes of Adidas and Pepsi.
Ronaldo grew a goatee for this World Cup. He said it was because of a bet with Portugal teammate Ricardo Quaresma, but it coincided with the release of a commercial of Messi with a real goat — as in “Greatest of All Time.”
They have entertained, becoming household names in continents far afield, royalty of the internet age when satellites beamed their twice-a-week matches to homes, bars and laptops in ways Pele, Maradona and predecessors couldn’t envisage.
But now their time at the top has come to an end. Mbappe, just 19, and others in the next generation are ready for leading roles. It is too soon to proclaim which will emerge to become the best. As dusk descended late on a midsummer Russian night, dawn was just ahead.