Had they both prevailed, they would have collided Friday in the quarterfinals, reprising their epic Barcelona-Real Madrid showdowns.
Instead, both are done, not only with this year’s competition but probably with the World Cup forever. By the time it’s held again, in winter 2022 in Qatar, Messi will be 35½ years old, Ronaldo almost 38.
Messi has been to the final (2014); Ronaldo made a semifinal (2006). Neither will be defined by World Cup performance; they are masters in their generation at the ultimate levels of professional soccer. Shortcomings on this stage, in an event held every four years, will not detract from their weekly greatness.
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Messi and Argentina were fortunate to escape group play, needing a late goal by Marcos Rojo against Nigeria to overcome a tumultuous two weeks and avoid terrible embarrassment.
Ronaldo was awesome in the opener, recording a hat trick against Spain that he culminated with a magnificent free kick in the waning moments. He scored again in his second outing, but it became clear that Portugal was not diverse enough to go much further.
In Argentina’s defeat, many in the Kazan crowd saluted No. 10 in blue as he left the match for a substitute. Except it wasn’t Messi, but his counterpart wearing that uniform number, France’s Kylian Mbappe, a 19-year-old forward who had wrecked Argentina all afternoon with his speed and scoring prowess.
Mbappe drew a penalty kick in the first half — converted by Antoine Griezmann — when he raced some 60 yards and pulled away from three pursuers before being taken down in the box.
Midway through the second half, he shattered a 2-2 tie by scoring twice in four minutes to send France to a fully deserved quarterfinal date against Uruguay.
A passing of the superstar’s torch? In some ways. Aside from his national team rise, Mbappe starred at Monaco before moving on loan to Paris Saint-Germain last summer.
Messi has a lot of soccer left in him. The World Cup is not the be-all and end-all. La Liga titles and UEFA Champions League trophies remain on his Barcelona agenda.
Even if age doesn’t stop him, he might be done with the national team. Two summers ago, frustrated by the Argentine federation, he retired from international soccer, then reversed course.
The national team’s problems here in Russia — stagnant play, paucity of ideas and reports of Messi formulating lineups and strategy amid discontent with Coach Jorge Sampaoli — seem likely to trigger a permanent departure. He’s been to four World Cups; that’s enough.
Like Messi, Ronaldo will continue to perform at ungodly levels every weekend in Spain. Portugal won the European Championship in 2016 but wasn’t going to last long here. He was terrific; his supporting cast was not.
On Saturday, the star of the show was Edinson Cavani, Mbappe’s teammate at Paris Saint-Germain. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows the European club circuits closely. Cavani, 31, has scored 110 goals in five French seasons with Ligue 1 titan PSG.
Eight years ago, he and strike partner Luis Suarez were members of the Uruguayan squad that advanced to the semifinals — an astounding feat in modern soccer for a country of some 3 million.
Cavani’s first goal Saturday came through combination play, but not a typical exchange in tight quarters.
With possession 35 yards from the target, he lashed a cross-field pass to Suarez. Isolated with one defender, Suarez drew the attention of others protecting the penalty area.
With one forward creating distractions, the other, Cavani, discreetly drifted into a defender’s blind spot. Eye contact engaged, Suarez delivered a sublime cross to the unmarked Cavani, who headed the ball into the near side of the net.
Cavani has Suarez, and vice versa. Ronaldo has no such partnership.
Portugal did respond early in the second half, Raphael Guerreiro crossing to Pepe for an eight-yard header. But Cavani was at it again in the 62nd minute on a sequence that began with a mundane action (a free kick from Uruguay’s penalty area) and ended seconds later 100-plus yards downfield with an exquisite goal.
Rodrigo Bentancur squared the ball across the top of the penalty area and into Cavani’s path. You could see what was coming. He’s a goal scorer; his instincts tell him to go for goal.
And so he pivoted his body, selected the one spot he knew goalkeeper Rui Patricio could not protect and one-timed an 18-yard shot with pace and accuracy to the far low corner.
Of the victory, Cavani said: “I am happy, happy, happy. Look at the people [in the stadium], the way they’re celebrating. We have to keep on dreaming.”
Cavani’s night would end 10 minutes later, betrayed by a calf injury. He will have five days to recuperate.
Next stop: Nizhny Novgorod. Mbappe will join him there. Messi and Ronaldo will be on a beach somewhere, 12 years of World Cup dreams unfulfilled.
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