Football News

How Lionel Messi’s World Cup record compares to his GOAT rivals

By Harry Edwards

Published: 19:30, 18 December 2022

Lionel Messi has finally got his hands on the one trophy to have eluded him in his career: the World Cup.

For many, 2022 was going to be the World Cup of Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo. Expected to be the last World Cup for both men, this was the one major trophy missing for two of the best players in the history of football, and any victory in Qatar would have been used by many as a decider for who is the GOAT (the greatest of all time). After Argentina finished second in their group, there was also the possibility of a Messi v Ronaldo final, but that was ended when Portugal were beaten by Morocco in the quarter-finals.

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Ronaldo’s World Cup career is now likely over, while Messi has attained the ultimate glory. But who has been the better World Cup player? Is it Mr Champions League, Ronaldo? Or the Ballon d’Or king Messi? Or is it someone else?

Often included in the GOAT conversation for World Cups are also Zinedine Zidane, Pele and Diego Maradona. So how does Messi’s record compare to them?

Goals

Cristiano Ronaldo may have scored more goals than any other man in international football’s history, with 118 in total, but just eight of those have come at the World Cup including one in Qatar. If Ronaldo had added one more to his tally, he would have moved level with Eusebio as Portugal’s joint-top scorer at the World Cup, but that appears to be one of the few national records he will retire not having broken.

Messi, on the other hand, has scored 96 senior goals for Argentina with 11 coming at the World Cup. His strike against Croatia made Messi Argentina’s all-time top scorer at World Cups, moving clear of Gabriel Batistuta having already overtaken Diego Maradona’s eight.

Next in Messi’s sights was Pele, who scored 12 goals for Brazil in 14 matches played, including two in the 1958 final and one in 1970 to help his nation scoop two World Cup crowns. His brace in the final against France ensured Messi finished his World Cup career ahead of O Rei.

Of course, as a midfielder, Zidane was never going to hit the goalscoring heights of his attacking opponents but the Frenchman still managed five at the World Cup including in France’s 3-0 win over Brazil in the 1998 final.

Knockout stage goals

When Argentina reached the World Cup final in 2014, Messi did not find himself on the scoresheet in the knockout stages, scoring his final goal in a 2-1 win over Nigeria in the group stage. In fact, Messi didn’t actually score a knockout stage goal at a World Cup until 2022, with Australia the first to concede. Messi added a second knockout stage goal in the quarter-final win over the Netherlands, a third against Croatia, and two more against France meaning he became the first man to score in four successive World Cup knockout stage games in the same tournament.

Pele’s best run of successive knockout stage goals came in 1958 when he netted in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final – six goals altogether including a hat-trick against France in the semi-final. He added another final goal in 1970 to take his total knockout stage tally to seven, with only two players managing more (Brazil’s Ronaldo and Leonidas).

For Maradona, four of his eight World Cup goals came in the knockout stages including two against England in 1986 — the Hand of God and the Goal of the Century.

Remarkably, all five of Zidane’s World Cup goals came in the knockout stages including three in finals.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, looks set to retire without having scored a World Cup knockout stage goal. In eight appearances in knockout stage matches, including third place play-offs, Ronaldo played 570 matches and had 27 shots without scoring.

Assists

Perhaps an expected winner, Messi has provided eight assists at the World Cup, including three so far in Qatar. The first came in the 2-0 win over Mexico as he set up Enzo Fernandez’s last strike, but that has been overshadowed by his next two. First there was Messi’s beautiful pass for Nahuel Molina’s opener in the quarter-final win over Netherlands and then the dribble to set up Julian Alvarez against Croatia in which he turned Josko Gvardiol inside and out.

That third assist for Messi drew him level with Maradona for most assists at a World Cup, with the Argentine legend also recording eight across his career. Maradona’s best tournament for assists came in 1986, rightfully dubbed Maradona’s World Cup as he provided five assists to go with his five goals.

Pele is slightly hurt by the fact that Opta’s assist records only go back to the 1966 World Cup, with the Brazilian playing two tournaments before that. But officially, he has been credited with six assists by Opta, all of which came in the 1970 World Cup.

Zidane recorded three assists during his World Cup career, one on debut against South Africa in 1998 and a further two in the 2006 knockout stages.

More focused on scoring goals, Ronaldo has two assists at the World Cup, setting up one in 2010 against North Korea and another four years later vs United States.

Appearances

In the semi-finals, Messi made his 25th appearance in a World Cup match, equalling Lothar Matthaus’ record – which he surpassed in the final. While reaching number 25, Messi broke the Argentine record of 21 which was previously held by Maradona.

Ronaldo isn’t too far behind Messi to be fair to him, likely to end his career on 22.

You have to go quite a way down to get to Zidane and Pele, however, with the pair managing 12 and 14 respectively which makes the latter’s goal tally even more remarkable.


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Golden Ball wins

Messi’s 2014 Golden Ball win wouldn’t have been much of a consolation after he watched his Argentina side lose the World Cup final to Germany after extra-time. This time around he combined a Golden Ball win with the World Cup trophy, becoming the first man to win the Golden Ball twice.

Since the award was created in 1982, only three players have won the Golden Ball and the World Cup at the same tournament, one of which was Maradona in 1986. Zidane, like Messi, received the consolation prize in 2006 having also been sent off in France’s final defeat to Italy.

Ronaldo and Pele did not win a Golden Ball, though once again the latter has been hurt by how early he played.

Tournaments scored in

When Messi scored in Argentina’s 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, he became the fifth man to score at four different World Cup tournaments after Pele, Uwe Seeler, Miroslav Klose and Ronaldo.

But two days later, Ronaldo said goodbye to the other four as he scored in his fifth World Cup – a record that may not be broken for some time. Ronaldo’s World Cup goals are broken down to one in 2006, one in 2010, one in 2014, four in 2018 and one in 2022.

Maradona, meanwhile, played in four tournaments but scored in three (failing to find the net in 1990), and Zidane scored in two of his three tournament appearances.

Tournaments assisted in

It’s very Messi of Messi to put his own spin on a Ronaldo record. While Ronaldo has scored in five different World Cups, Messi is the only man to have assisted at five. In 2006 he assisted once, adding another in 2010 and again in 2014; 2018 saw Messi record two assists while he has added another three in 2022 so far.

Maradona’s eight assists came across three different World Cups, while Zidane and Ronaldo both assisted in two. Pele, meanwhile, has official assists at just one World Cup though, again, he is slightly hampered by Opta records only going back to 1966.

Knockout stage assists

Five of Messi’s assists have also come in the knockout stages of the World Cup, breaking the previous record of four held by Pele (since 1966).

Zidane and Maradona both recorded two assists in knockout stages, but Ronaldo’s two World Cup assists came in the group stages.