FIFA World Cup: End of an era in world football

6:52 am on 2 July 2018

By Coen Lammers*, in Russia

Opinion - The FIFA World Cup moves at such an astonishing pace with news events and results unfolding every few hours that there is often little time to reflect until the dust has settled after the final.

Lionel Messi.

Lionel Messi Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Amid all the play-off dramas on Sunday morning, however, world football may have witnessed the end of an incredible era.

Lionel Messi's Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal were both eliminated in the round of 16, and it is highly unlikely that we will see these two superstars back for another World Cup. In 2022, Messi will be 35 while Ronaldo will be ancient in footballing terms, at 37 years of age.

The two leaders of Barcelona and Real Madrid have dominated world football and have competed for titles and the limelight unlike any other double act in the past.

The Argentinian and Portuguese captain have won every FIFA World Player of the Year trophy since 2007, sharing the spoils with five titles each.

They have also set goal scoring records at domestic, Champions League and international levels that looked impossible only a few years ago.

Cristiano Ronaldo.

Cristiano Ronaldo Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Read more of our FIFA 2018 coverage:

  • Safe space for LGBT community at FIFA World Cup shut down
  • Japan sneak into knockout phase of World Cup
  • Squeaky Bum Time: A FIFA World Cup podcast
  • Germany crash out of World Cup
  • FIFA World Cup: A dummies' guide
  • Messi is generally acknowledged as the greater all-round player and has won more domestic titles with Barcelona, but Ronaldo has been more prolific on the bigger stage, winning more Champions League titles and most importantly, winning a major title with his country, the Euro 2016.

    Despite Messi's greatness, he will also be remembered for never being able to crown his success with lifting a major trophy with Argentina, losing the 2014 World Cup final and three Copa America finals in South America.

    Messi was desperate to put that right in Russia, but he was never able to dominate the games, and his team of Argentine stars failed to operate effectively around the little master. In fact, Messi almost seemed to get in the way at times and stop his team-mates to fully express their own skills. Instead they kept looking for their captain but he was unable to singlehandedly turn the World Cup fortunes as Maradona had been able to in the 1986.

    With his Euro medal in the sock drawer, Ronaldo had hoped to repeat that success at the global stage, but similar to Messi's performance, the world's most recognisable No.7 was not the player he was in France in 2016. More importantly, his support actors seemed tired and past their use-by date and were clinically exposed by Uruguay.

    Millions of young footballers from Wellington to Reykjavik will still be wearing their Messi and Ronaldo shirts tomorrow, but as both these icons ride into the World Cup sunset, the youngsters will look for the new superstar to adore and impersonate on the Playstation.

    Numerous players have been tagged with the "New Messi" or "New Ronaldo" tag over the past decade, only to disappear into the pack of mediocrity.

    True greatness, through sustained and consistent success over many years is only for a very few.

    If Messi decides to retire from the international stage, it may be fitting that his last match was against the young French boy wonder Kylian MBappé.

    The 19-year-old prodigy is widely seen as the main contender to take of the crown of the co-kings Messi and Ronaldo, and he was the key factor in Argentina's elimination, scoring two goals and earning a penalty.

    MBappé this year became the most expensive teenager in football history with his move to Paris St Germain from AS Monaco for a staggering €180 million ($NZ311m).

    This makes him the second most expensive player on the planet, behind PSG teammate Neymar Jr. from Brazil, but sadly these price tags often put unbearable burdens on young football talents.

    However, judging by his startling performance on the biggest stage on Sunday, MBappé may just have the class and the temperament to take it all in his stride.

    MBappé only needs three more in wins in Russia to carve his name into sporting history and repeat the legendary feat by that other teenager called Pele, back in 1958, to lead his country to World Cup glory.

    * Coen Lammers is RNZ's correspondent at the FIFA World Cup, online and on air. Russia 2018 is Coen's fifth World Cup.

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