How the evolution of football has affected Messi and Ronaldo

Player Analysis
Cheuk Hei Ho

Cheuk Hei Ho


Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the two best footballers in the last decade. They share nine FIFA Ballon d’Ors, eight UEFA Champions Leagues, ten La Liga titles and seven Copa del Reys. Ronaldo and Messi register 620 and 592 goals respectively, placing them as the 6th and 7th highest goal scorers in the history of football.

They are undoubtedly two of the best players of all time. Here I looked beyond the sheer number of goals and sought evidence on how good Messi and Ronaldo are when compared to the historical greats. Are they better than players like Pele or Diego Maradona? Are they pushing their teams to the historical levels of greatness? And most importantly, what are the meanings of their insane goal-scoring records?

Ronaldo and Messi’s era is the best periods for Real Madrid and Barcelona

It is critical to have a quantitative measure to evaluate a team’s performance across time. The number of titles is not an ideal measure because there is only one winner every year. The number of points is a better indicator. But it is not quantitative enough: a team can get at most three points in each match no matter how much stronger it is to its opponent. I chose to use the goals differential because there is not a maximum number of goals one team can score and therefore, an excellent indicator to quantitatively measure a team’s performance.

I compiled the goals differential per game for Real Madrid and Barcelona in the last 77 years in La Liga. The data show that, by this measure, Ronaldo’s and Messi’s teams are the best teams in their club’s history.

For Real Madrid, there are three great historical teams. The first team was headed by legendary strikers Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano between 1958 and 1963. The second team contained Emilio Butragueño, Manuel Sanchís, Martín Vázquez, Míchel, Miguel Pardeza and Hugo Sanchez, collectively known as La Quinta del Buitre from 1987 to 1990. The third one, also the best one, is Ronaldo’s team. The excellence of Ronaldo’s Real Madrid has lasted for eight years (and is still ongoing) while the one of Puskas and Di Stefano lasted only six years.
For Barcelona, Messi’s team is by far the best team in their history. Only the team guided by arguably the first superstar coach Helenio Herrera and legendary striker László Kubala is remotely close. However, the excellence of that team only lasted for three years, compared to Messi’s eight years of excellence. In fact, the teams headed by the legends like Johan Cruyff, Romario, and Brazilian Ronaldo measure significantly worse than Messi’s.

These data show that aside from their historically great individual goal scoring records, Ronaldo and Messi also help lead their teams to almost unprecedented historical greatness. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona are at the dominant peak levels since the birth of the clubs.

Ronaldo and Messi cannot reproduce their club successes for their countries

Many argue that compared to their club’s performances, Ronaldo and Messi perform significantly worse for their national teams. Messi and Ronaldo may have led their national teams to many finals (Portugal even won the UEFA Euro 2016), but their national teams are far less dominant than Barcelona and Real Madrid. How much worse do Messi and Ronaldo perform in the national teams compared to the clubs?

I complied a list of some of the best attackers in history and measured their club’s and national team’s scoring rates (goals per game). The list contains 46 players, most of them played in the last three decades. I also include some legendary players like Zico, Maradona, and Pele:

For the club’s scoring rate, Ronaldo and Messi rank 2nd and 4th among these players, scoring about one goal per game. However, when measuring the national team’s scoring rate, Ronaldo and Messi only rank 24th and 28th among these players, respectively. In Argentina, Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo scored at a higher rate than Messi. In Portugal, Eusebio and Pauleta (not in the list) score better than Ronaldo.

In fact, when measuring the difference between the club and the national team’s scoring rate, Ronaldo and Messi rank the lowest and the third lowest among the 46 players on the list. More importantly, their struggles in the national teams are significantly worse than most of the players on the list. The average scoring rate difference is +0.06 (club’s rate minus national team’s rate). Other than Ronaldo and Messi, only Eusebio’s scoring rate is 0.3 (or worse) lower in the national team.

This data suggests that there is another factor(s) contributing to Messi and Ronaldo’s historic goal-scoring records in Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Club revenue plays a factor for Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s historical greatness

In the last few decades, the world is more connected than ever before. Digital technologies, international trades and capitalism sped up the globalisation of the world, and in many areas, makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. The wealth gaps increase in many sectors globally, and football clubs are no exceptions.

I used the clubs’ revenue data from the Deloitte Football Money League to measure the increase in the wealth gap between football clubs. I measured the difference between the income of Real Madrid/Barcelona and the 20th wealthiest team each year from 2004 to 2016 (the data older than 2004 are not publicly available). I account for the inflation by converting the yearly difference into the 2017’s value. I then compare the annual revenue differences to the club’s domestic league goals differentials. All the values are normalised to the 2004 values to measure the yearly changes:

The result of this comparison is astonishing. There is a strict correlation between the club’s revenue difference and the goals differential. The correlation efficiency between the parameters is 0.84 for Real Madrid and 0.92 for Barcelona (0 means no correlation. 1 means 100% positive correlation). Therefore, the more income a club generates, the stronger it is compared to the rest and vice versa.

In 2016, Barcelona operated with at least 200% more money than they did in 2005. Their goals differential also increased by close to 100%. For Real Madrid, they ran with almost 100% more money in the same time span. And their goal differential increased to about 60%. The annual revenue of both clubs decreased in 2012 because of the global financial crisis of the same year. For Barcelona, their performance (goal differentials) seems to follow very closely with the club’s revenue. For Real Madrid, their performance experienced more fluctuations between years compared to the steady increase in the club revenue, possibly linked to their frequent changes of the coaches (Real Madrid made twelve coaches changes while Barcelona made five changes in the same period).

Although a correlating relationship does not necessarily equal to a causative relationship, such a tight coupling between the club’s revenue and performance makes logical sense: The more money you operate with, the better player you can buy. Both teams were running with over 600 million euros in 2016. On the other hand, the better a team performs, the more commercial success it can achieve (more fans, merchandises, and audiences). The two factors positively influence each other and in some ways, result in a self-amplification loop.

If the amount of operating income has a positive effect on the team’s performance, one will imagine that players other than Messi and Ronaldo will also perform better than when a club operates with more money than when there is less money. I calculate the number of goals scored by the first leading scorer, the second leading scorer and the rest of the players of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last twenty years. I divided them into two groups, one between 1997-2007 and one between 2007-2017. Because the annual club’s revenue increases every year, I assume that the same trend is also true from 1997 to 2004 and from 2016 to 2017 when the financial data are not available. I test whether there is a difference between the number of goals scored by the leading scorer, the second leading scorer and the rest of the players between the two groups. I tested the hypothesis that when the club revenue is higher, a team can afford better players and most players in the team will perform better:

For Barcelona, every group of players scores more goals when the club operates with more money. The difference ranges from 50% to 100%, and all comparisons achieve statistical significance in two-tails student t-test. For Real Madrid, every group of players also scores more goals when the club operated with more money. The difference ranges from about 20% to 70%, and all comparisons except one achieve statistical significance in two-tails student t-test. Even the group with the smallest difference almost reach statistic significance (the lower the value, the higher the significance. The general cut-off to separate significance vs. insignificance is 0.05).

Therefore, these results are consistent with the idea that the increase in operating incomes of Barcelona and Real Madrid improve their teams’ performances. Moreover, my calculations here are underestimating the widening wealth gaps between Real Madrid/Barcelona and the poorest clubs. It is because my calculation was based on the club revenues of the top earning teams versus the 20th richest club(s) but not the poorer clubs.

In conclusion, their dominance in the last few years are not only because of the brilliance of Messi and Ronaldo but the higher qualities of every player. Furthering that argument with their inferior national teams’ performances, one can argue that the overall teams’ qualities at the club level improve Messi’s and Ronaldo’s scoring brilliance. Consistent with this argument, the Spain national team dominated from 2008 to 2012, winning two Euros and one World Cup. A lot of the starting players of the Spain national team, such as Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos also played for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Messi’s and Ronaldo’s scoring records mean a lot more than individual brilliance

This analysis suggests that in watching Messi and Ronaldo scoring, we are not just watching their brilliance. Their insane goal-scoring efficiency is the results of many different factors: the increasing club revenue, better teammates, and possibly more factors (tactical revolution from coaches). Therefore, their goals mean more than just sport. They are the reflections of the individual talents, the national success of youth development, the tactical revolution by inspiring coaches, the increased international trades and the commercialisation of sports business through globalisation, and the widening wealth gap due to extreme capitalism. Their scoring records, in a way, are the reflections of our society changes.

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