Some old romantics may still feel that accolade belongs to Pele or Diego Maradona, but that’s getting harder and harder to argue as Ronaldo and Messi just keep on setting new standards of greatness with each passing season, and almost each passing game.
But how to pick out of the Portuguese goal machine or the Argentine maestro? At this point it feels like it comes down to personal taste, more than anything else.
There are plenty of good arguments for both, and it was interesting to watch Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher debate this on Monday Night Football last night.
See below for their arguments in full…
Gary Neville’s case for Cristiano Ronaldo
“It would be Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Neville. “It would absolutely be Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I looked at his goal breakdown. He can score with his left foot, his wrong foot. He can score with his right foot. He can score from distance. He is probably the best poacher now in world football.
“He can score penalties. And if you stick him in the box and hang it up there he will go and score with a header. He might even score with a free-kick.
“So if you think about who is the greatest player of all time, I do think he is the greatest football player who has ever lived. He is the player who could win me a football match in the most different ways. He is the most complete player.
“There is no doubt that Messi has scored an obscene amount of goals, he is a ridiculous player.
“But Ronaldo, the three big differences are the headers, that Ronaldo has scored four or five times more, the wrong-footed goals, that Ronaldo has scored 30 or 40 per cent more, and he has scored more penalties.
“It just took me to the point where he is more complete.
“The international goals, the Champions League wins, in teams that were not as good as the teams that Messi played in, just takes me to the point where I think he is the greatest player of all time.”
Jamie Carragher’s case for Lionel Messi
“You are talking about the different types of goals,” Carragher said.
“It does not matter how a ball goes in the net. It does not matter if one is a header or a free-kick. Messi has a better goal record than Ronaldo.
“Messi is also a playmaker. Messi can run a game. Ronaldo cannot do that. Again, not a criticism. But there is no way in the world he is the greatest player of all time.
“You talk about who you would want coming off the bench. Messi has scored double the amount of goals coming off the bench. It is a ridiculous thing to say. It does not matter if Messi’s goals all come with his left foot, the stats prove he has more chance of scoring.
“Two wonderful players. In terms of all the attributes, Ronaldo is a more complete player. He can do things that Messi can’t in terms of his weaker foot and in the air.
“But Messi can take you to a place where you can’t actually believe what you are seeing. What Ronaldo does is what other players can do, Messi can do things you have never seen before.”