Argentinian Star Is About Making Others Better, While Portugal's Top Gun Tends To Be More About Himself

By Sean Hartnett
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Bird vs. Magic, Manning vs. Brady, Palmer vs. Nicklaus, Ali vs. Frazier, Crosby vs. Ovechkin and McEnroe vs. Borg are just some of the individual rivalries that have captivated American sports fans over the years.

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A younger generation of Americans have fallen head over heels in love with “the beautiful game” and no debate draws more fiercely divided opinions than whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest footballer on the planet.

In what some are calling “The Summer of Soccer,” Americans are following Copa America and Euro 2016 with ravenous interest. Just check out the crowds packed inside watering holes in the East Village and Midtown, biergartens in Brooklyn and Queens, and outdoor viewing parties in Hoboken and Jersey City.

Even though Messi’s Argentina routed the United States 4-0 in Tuesday’s Copa America semifinal, fans will turn out in droves to watch Sunday’s Final at MetLife Stadium to see Argentina take on the winner of Colombia-Chile. Current prices on StubHub range from $315 just to get in the building, $465 minimum to sit field level and upwards of $950 to watch from field level at the halfway line.

With Messi close to leading Argentina to its first major title in 23 years, fuel has been added to the already raging Messi vs. Ronaldo debate. Messi has scored five goals at Copa America, while providing a tournament-high four assists, while Ronaldo is without a goal or an assist thus far at Euro 2016 in France.

Messi broke Gabriel Batistuta’s record for most goals for the Argentine national team in sensational fashion, scoring top corner from a free kick on Tuesday night. His unstoppable 55th international goal left American keeper Brad Guzan no chance.

Ronaldo’s frustration has been on display for all to see in France. He’s failed to score on 20 shots and missed a penalty in a goalless stalemate against Austria. He lashed out at Iceland for having a “small-time mentality” after their players defended bravely to earn a 1-1 draw against Portugal in their group stage opener. Then he threw a reporter’s microphone into a lake while walking with teammates and staff.

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Ronaldo and Messi have each tasted every club success imaginable during their sparkling careers. Messi has won eight La Liga titles and captured the Champions League title four times at Barcelona, while Ronaldo has won four top division titles (three with Manchester United, one with Real Madrid) and lifted the Champions League trophy once while at Man United and two other times since joining Los Blancos.

Both can score on the free kick, cut and finesse their way past the world’s best defenders and keep possession while getting hacked repeatedly at top speed.

What seems to separate Messi and Ronaldo is how the diminutive Argentine makes teammates around him better. Messi constantly creates passing lanes for teammates. At Barcelona, he will defer to Luis Suarez or Neymar if they are in better position. Same goes for international matches for Argentina alongside the like of Gonzalo Higuain, Kun Aguero and Angel Di Maria.

How many times have we all seen Ronaldo go for personal glory and fail while better-positioned teammates hold up their hands to signify their disgust? Or the times he’s not joined in with teammates while the rest of the team embraces one another? He walks alone and shakes his head petulantly because he didn’t score the goal himself. It’s his selfish streak that hurts him.

When Ronaldo holds the ball, it’s to find a better space for himself while sometimes ignoring the runs of teammates. When Messi holds the ball, he draws defenders out of position to allow a patch of space for a teammate and delivers a clever flick or through ball for an attacking run.

Playing in two prestigious tournaments on two separate continents, the world is watching Messi serve as the ultimate team player. That’s why he’s better than Ronaldo. Messi isn’t just an equally prodigious scorer, he’s a master creator as well.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey