(Express illustration)

For the past decade, the Ballon d’Or market has been defined by a duopoly. Take a glance at the past 10 winners of the top individual honor in men’s soccer and the breakdown says it all: five titles for Cristiano Ronaldo, five for Lionel Messi.

Although the Champions League superstars are intrinsically linked, they couldn’t be more different. Ronaldo is the quintessential soccer celebrity, a marketing maestro at Real Madrid whose brand has planted flags from Beijing to Brooklyn. The Portuguese forward is often lambasted as a diva obsessed with individual glory. But when you score as many goals as him, does it matter?

At 5 feet 7, Messi is physically dwarfed by his 6-foot-2 rival. Ronaldo’s outsized personality overwhelms the Argentine as well. But while Ronaldo is a more purely prolific scorer, his counterpart at archrival Barcelona is the complete package — a crafty speedster with the ability to kick-start attacks, deliver the final pass and bury chances of his own.

On the club level, their trophy cases are filled to the brim. Ronaldo has five Champions League crowns; Messi has four. Ronaldo has five domestic league titles, spanning stints with Manchester United and Madrid; Messi has nine, all with Barca.

For two players who each belong in the “greatest player of all time” conversation, the World Cup represents a glaring hole on their résumés. For Ronaldo, 33, and Messi, soon to be 31, this World Cup in Russia likely represents a final shot at the international game’s most elusive prize.


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And while deep-pocketed clubs stack the deck with the finest players to ensure plentiful trophies, the international game features much more parity. For Ronaldo, this summer’s task is steep. Portugal’s squad is populated with promising prospects and gritty veterans, but the side lacks star power beyond its charismatic captain. Ronaldo claimed a major piece of international silverware anyway, directing a run to the Euro 2016 title.

“I always say I never win something for the Portugal national team — but I win tonight,” an emotional Ronaldo said in July 2016, after a 1-0 victory over France in the European Championship final. “It’s something unbelievable in my career, and something that I deserve.”

The World Cup, of course, is still a priority for Ronaldo, but he’ll be revered in Portugal whether he wins it or not.

Messi’s relationship with Argentina is more complicated, even though he — like Ronaldo — is his nation’s all-time leading scorer. After Germany defeated Argentina in extra time of the 2014 World Cup final, Messi and Co. fell to Chile on penalties in the 2015 and 2016 Copa America title games. To date, Messi has never emerged victorious from a top-level international tournament.

That’s no small lapse for Argentina, a two-time World Cup champion where soccer is a huge source of national pride. This is the nation that produced the legendary Diego Maradona, who carried the Albiceleste to their last World Cup win in 1986. More recently, the Argentine pipeline has gifted Messi with a supporting cast featuring such generational talents as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano.

So until Messi lifts a trophy, he’ll be resented back home and viewed as a lesser version of Maradona — another bombastic foil for the diminutive forward. That burden was apparent when Messi hastily announced he was retiring from international soccer in June 2016, minutes after missing a penalty in the Copa America final loss to Chile.

“[A championship] was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over,” Messi told reporters. “There’s a lot of people who want this, who obviously are not satisfied, as we are not satisfied.”

Messi, of course, reversed that decision, appearing for Argentina less than two months later. If there’s one thing Messi and Ronaldo do share, it’s a deep passion for wearing the national colors.

For two players who have won nearly all there is to win, it’s only natural to crave the grand prize. When it comes time to reflect on the faces of an era, neither star wants that asterisk on his legacy.

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