Mumbai, There is an odd similarity between Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas, Michel Platini, Alfredo Di Stefano, George Best and Zico. They are all legends of football, but never managed to lift the FIFA World Cup -- the most prestigious title the sport has to offer.
As the clock ticks down for the start of the 24th edition of the biggest tournament for the sport also called Joga Bonito -- The Beautiful Game -- in Qatar on Sunday, the two most successful stars of the last two decades -- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have achieved everything that club football has to offer and who are adored by millions of fans around the world -- are facing a threat of joining the above-mentioned legends that have never won the coveted Cup.
The duo have scored numerous goals for their respective mega clubs in Europe and led their national sides with distinction for over a decade. They have won many titles -- domestic and in the Continent -- for their clubs. But they have also faced much criticism for not being able to win silverware for/with their national teams.
As they gear up for their fifth World Cup in Qatar, both Messi and Ronaldo will be hoping to go out in blazing glory by winning the title in what will be their last appearance in the World's biggest tournament. While Argentina's Messi is 35-year-old, Portuguese star Ronaldo is 37 and it is highly unlikely that they will play another World Cup. And this is apparent that they have not had the same kind of success in the last few years and it is clear that they are in the home stretch of their illustrious careers.
Both are the highest scorers for their respective countries on the international stage with 114 goals for Messi and 117 for Ronaldo. Messi has won the Ballon d'Or, the trophy given to the best player in a year in European Leagues, seven times while Ronaldo has bagged it five times.
At the World Cups, Messi has done slightly better than Ronaldo, having taken Argentina to the final once -- in the 2014 edition played in Brazil when they lost 1-0 to Germany to finish runner-up. Ronaldo's two successes with Portugal are winning the Euro 2016 and the 2018 edition of the UEFA Nations League, beating Netherlands 1-0 in the final.
But as they get ready for their fifth World Cup, both Messi and Ronaldo have not had the best of preparations. Messi has recently settled in at Paris Saint-Germain after he moved to the French Club from Barcelona and is a regular feature in the playing XI along with Neymar Jr and Kylian Mbappe. However, unlike Barcelona, PSG's playing style is not centered around Messi and the Argentine has not had a similar impact.
After a highly disappointing opening season with PSG, Messi started by scoring four goals and seven assists across nine matches early in the season. He has thus far scored 12 goals this season and faces a huge challenge in gelling with his young teammates and excelling in the World Cup. he is no longer the central figure in Argentina's side and though still a player that can change the complexion of the game, success has been limited.
On the other hand, Ronaldo is unhappy at Manchester United, which he joined for a second stint in 2021, after attempting to leave the club during the summer break after his season. Despite being the top scorer for his club, he has lost his place in the starting line-up to the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, featuring rarely in the domestic league and playing only in European competitions, as he does not feature high in the plans of coach Erik ten Hag, who took over early this season.
After allegedly refusing to come out as a substitute and walking off to the dressing room in disgust, Ronaldo's relations with the club and head coach Erik ten Hag soured further after an explosive interview in which he criticised the club and the manager.
In the interview with Piers Morgan, Ronaldo had said he felt "betrayed" by ten Hag and "two or three others" who wanted Ronaldo to leave the club, adding that he did not respect ten Hag "because he doesn't show respect for me".
On top of that, Ronaldo was stuck down by a stomach bug and missed a couple of training sessions. There are some doubts that he may miss the opening match.
Though both Messi and Ronaldo have done reasonably well in the qualifying stage, pressure will be on them to repeat some of their scintillating exploits of yore in Qatar.
At the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Argentina are in Group C with Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland as their opponents. This is a relatively easy group and Argentina should easily advance to the next stage. Their main challenge will start after that. Mexico is expected to finish second but Poland with the ever-dangerous striker Robert Lewandowski in good form could cause a few surprises.
Portugal, on the other hand, are in a slightly tougher Group H and face the challenge of Ghana, Uruguay, a two-time winner, and South Korea. They will start their campaign against Ghana on November 24. Portugal and Ronaldo have to be at their best to successfully negotiate this group and make it to the Round of 16.
Coach Fernando Santos' team is quite strong, which is reflected in their FIFA Ranking of No.9. The team is quite dependent on Ronaldo and he has to come up with his best performance to help them top their group.
If he manages to lead Portugal to success in Qatar, Ronaldo may revive his career and tide over the problems at Manchester United, which seems intent on sacking him after his recent interview.
The pressure really is on the two superstars to make the most of their last World Cup appearance.