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Maradona vs Ronaldo vs Messi: Who’s the greatest?

Whenever you see discussions online regarding Maradona-vs-Ronaldo-vs-Messi, you are in for some endless and fierce arguments. And it is never conclusive. While some would argue each of the three players was great in unique ways, Messi fans will always defend their king to the very end while CR7 loyalists will never take anything that puts their idol below the Argentine World Cup winners.

Since the dawn of football, fans alongside coaches and players have been fascinated with the discussion about who is the best in several different categories. These categories include – the best league, the best team, the best manager, and of course the best player in the world. In this article, we will try to answer a complicated form of the eternal question – Who's the greatest between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but this time we compare them with the late Diego Maradona.

Answering such a question is no easy task, as one may rightfully expect. However, we will do our best to get to a comprehensive conclusion on which of the three is the greatest. The main issue with evaluating these three players’ skills and achievements is the different eras of football that they’ve played in. Although Ronaldo and Messi began playing football almost simultaneously, Maradona retired from his career as a player years before both of them got into senior football.

Everyone is familiar with the constant comparisons between Ronaldo and Messi. They began as soon as both players displayed that they’ve something special about them, and has been going on for nearly 15 years now. Ronaldo vs. Messi is an eternal question on its own, in which most people draw their conclusions based on which team they’ve supported throughout the years – Real Madrid or Barcelona. Similarly, Messi has been compared to Maradona, based on the fact that they are both Argentinians. Which is the greatest Argentinian player – Messi or Maradona? This is the question that even the people in the South American country have struggled to answer.

Maradona vs Ronaldo vs Messi career stats

Before we continue, we will introduce some key biographical data from all of these players’ lives and careers, that will help us make our conclusion.

Diego Maradona


Born in 1960, the football legend, unfortunately, passed away recently at the age of 60. He left behind an enormous legacy that will continue to hail his name for years to come. Maradona is regarded as one of the greatest footballers in the history of the sport, and him jointly winning the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award is just evidence of how highly valued he was.

Maradona's first touch with football came while just at the age of three. He quickly grew fond of the game and became completely devoted to it. Just at the age of eight, he was spotted by scouts while playing for his small neighbourhood club Estrella Roja. This led to him starting to play with the youth squad of the local club Argentinos Juniors, called Los Cebollitas, which translates to “The little ones”. At the age of 12, he was a ball boy at the first-division games played by the Argentinos Juniors’ senior squad. During that time, he used to amuse spectators with a wide variety of astonishing skills with the ball, which he displayed as soon as the referee blew the half-time whistle.

Years of training later, Maradona was given his debut at the age of just 15, setting Argentine Primera División's record for the youngest player to play in an official match. Just minutes after debuting, Maradona kicked the ball between Juan Domingo Cabrera's legs in a nutmeg that will remain in history forever. Soon the Argentinian legend was an integral part of Argentinos Juniors senior squad, despite being a teenager. In total, he scored 116 goals in 166 appearances, before briefly moving to Boca Juniors. What followed was another successful campaign that prompted his first transfer overseas.

Maradona joined Barcelona in 1982 for the then world-record transfer fee of €6.2 Million, only to continue making history. He became the first Barcelona player to receive applause from Real Madrid's fans in an El Classico – one of the fiercest rivalries in the world. His stay at Camp Nou was marked by trophies and success, but also with scandals, on-field brawls, and frequent disputes with the club's officials. After the controversial 1984 Copa del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao, which ended in a massive fight with Maradona being in the centre of it, Barca decided that his time with the club was over. The Catalans reached an agreement with Napoli again for a record fee of €8.7 Million, and Maradona left Barcelona with 38 goals in 58 games.

In Naples, he was welcomed as the star he was and was dubbed the saviour of Napoli. This is also where he reached the peak of his career and was soon promoted to captain of the squad. Being a fan favourite for a reason, Maradona quickly brought the most successful years in the history of the Italian club. Led by him, Napoli soon won their first-ever Serie A title and broke the dominance of teams like A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, and Roma. Furthermore, Maradona helped triumph in the UEFA Cup, the Coppa Italia, and the Italian Supercup. Although adored by supporters for his contributions, Napoli’s board wasn’t too happy with the personal problems of the player. The Argentinian was often fined for missing out on practices and sometimes even games, due to his cocaine use. He was also speculated to have a relationship with the Italian criminal organization Camora. Despite this, he remains a legendary player for the Italian club, as the number 10 jersey worn by him was put out of use. Also, nine days after his saddening passing, Napoli renamed its home stadium to Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

Following his departure from the Italian club, Maradona spent the remaining of his years as a professional footballer playing for Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys as well as returning to Boca Juniors.

Lionel Messi

lionel messi 2019

Funnily enough, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi were just a couple of months away from playing for the same club. Messi's football career began with the team that he has supported throughout his life – Newell's Old Boys in 1994. That same year Maradona departed the club after spending a season with it. In a way, Messi was destined to become his successor. At Newell's the upcoming star was a member of “The Machine of '87” a nickname given to the unbeatable youth squad of the club. During his six years within the youth formations of his favourite team, Messi found the net on more than five hundred occasions, which however wasn't the cause that prompted Barcelona's interest in the youth sensation. The Messi family had relatives in Catalonia, and they were eager to set up a trial with the local Barca. First team director Charly Rexach was immediately sold to the idea of acquiring the youngster, but it was the board of directors that had doubts. At that time, it was fairly uncommon to sign foreign players at such a young age, especially for a giant club like Barcelona. Soon the Messi family began to lose patience and issued an ultimatum to Barca's board, which led to Rexach, who at the time had no other paper, to devise a contract on a piece of napkin. This is how Messi became part of the Catalan club.

Playing for the youth squad – La Masia the young prospect quickly climbed through the ranks impressing everyone in the meantime. His first full season for the Cadetes A resulted in 36 goals in 30 games for the Argentinian. Soon he received his first offer from a foreign club and it was Wenger’s Arsenal. While his teammates with the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerrard Pique preferred to travel to England, Messi decided to remain in Barca.

It was during the season of 2004/2005 that the teenager was granted his senior team debut setting the record for the youngest player to represent Barcelona at the time. Later he set the club’s record for the youngest goal-scorer after netting a pass from Ronaldinho. That same year, on his 18th birthday Messi signed his first senior team contract that included a €150 Million buyout clause. After a magnificent performance against Fabio Capello’s Juventus, Inter attempted to sign the youngster ready to match the mind-boggling buyout clause as well as triple Messi's wage. He decided to remain at Camp Nou and later club officials stated that this was the closest that Barca came to losing Messi. If this transfer came through It would’ve been a turning point in history.

Now 15 years later the Argentinian has won everything there is to win with Barcelona including 10 league titles, 6 Copa del Rays, 7 Supercopa de Espana wins, and also 4 Champions League triumphs. During this time, he has set numerous records with the likes of – Most Ballons d'Or – 6, Most goals for a single club – 648, most goals in a calendar year – 96, and most goals in a club season – 73. However, recently Messi has been facing a decline in his results, which is only normal considering his age.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo BALLON

The Portugues wonder began his career with several local teams' youth squads – Andorinha, Nacional, and most importantly Sporting, who signed him for just €1,500 at the age of 12. A little-known fact is that during his teenage years, Ronaldo was diagnosed with Tachycardia which put his future career as a football player in danger. However, things turned out nicely after he underwent heart surgery which put him out of danger. He was cleared to resume training in just a few days.

At the age of 16, Ronaldo received his first senior squad call-up from the then Sporting manager László Bölöni was heavily impressed by his dribbling skills. It took the teenager another year before he finally got awarded his debut in a 3-0 win over Moreirense in which Ronaldo was responsible for two of the goals. This display immediately caught the eye of several big European clubs, including Liverpool, Barcelona, and Wenger's Arsenal, who reportedly met with Ronaldo at the Gunnars' grounds in an attempt to attract him. However, Sir Alex Ferguson was the most eager one, after suffering a 3-1 defeat from Sporting. Ferguson agreed to pay nearly €14 Million for what he described as “the most exciting young player he has come across.”

At United, he was given the number 7 shirt previously worn by George Best, Eric Cantona, and David Beckham, which served as a confidence boost for the Portuguese. Playing at Old Trafford, the supporters quickly became fond of him, before some scandals and misunderstandings between the players broke out in 2006. This forced Ronaldo to ask for his way out of United but was denied. However, this didn't stop the young prospect from being successful on the pitch, and during the 2006/2007 season, he broke the 20-goal barrier. The following campaign saw him net 42 goals across all competitions, displaying that he is a world-class player. Later in 2009, Ronaldo ended his United career with 9 major honours before completing his record move to Real Madrid for the price of €94 Million in a contract that contained a 1-billion buyout clause.

With Los Blancos, Ronaldo rose to complete stardom. He became one of the biggest names in football, and of course, alongside El Classico, started the Ronaldo-Messi comparisons. He spent a total of 9 seasons at Santiago Bernabeu and only felt short of over 50 goals per season on 3 occasions. Furthermore, his trophy collection kept on expanding with every single major Spanish football trophy acquired. During his time with Real Madrid, the club became one the most feared sides in the Champions League.

In 2018, the unthinkable happened – Ronaldo left Real. He was bought by the Italian team Juventus for a record fee of over €112 Million, the highest a club has ever paid for a player over 30 years. So far with the Old Lady, Ronaldo has contributed to winning two consecutive Serie A titles as well as the Italian Cup. Unlike Messi however, the Portuguese's results are as consistent as possible, and he keeps on delivering even at the age of 35.

Maradona vs Conclusion: Who is the greatest in?

It's hard to compare the state and level of play of Maradona with those of Messi and Ronaldo. However, in the past decades, the game of football has evolved heavily and is much more complicated and tactical than it once was. This leads us to doubt exactly how good Diego Maradona's performances would've been in the present.

Maradona played football at a time when there was little technological impact on viewership, so the stardom that comes with social media evaded Argentina. Many years after he left the pitch and is now deceased, we must admit Diego Maradona paved the way for today's football stars. We still remember the contentious hand of god goal but that is no match to his impeccable career in the beautiful game.

And when it comes to Messi and Ronaldo, we believe that the Portuguese player has shown on more occasions and in more ways that he is the better of the two. The problem with Messi here is that he has spent the entirety of his career playing for a single team that is built around him. Unfortunately, Messi hasn’t shown us that he would be able to replicate the same success he has had in Barca if he were to join another club. However, nearing the end of his career, it's highly unlikely that Messi will choose to retire somewhere else, but not Barcelona.

Everything that we've gone over so far points us in this direction – Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest footballer from these three, and perhaps in the history of the game. Being a sensation from an early age, Ronaldo has shown us that he's able to adapt to different managers, clubs, and most importantly – leagues. Not only adapt, but the Portuguese has always become the key man in the lineup that he's included in. Another advantage that he has over the two Argentinians is that even at the age of 39, his performances haven't dropped the least. Ronaldo is still the leading goal-scorer in Juventus as well as Serie A. It just makes you think how much longer can he keep up with this level of play, and when will he retire.

It is 2024 Ronaldo and Messi are still playing football albeit far away from Europa in what most people refer to as ‘retirement leagues'. CR7 remains a key figure to his side, scoring goals as always for Saudi Arabia's side, Al-Nassr while 36-year-old Messi, 3 years younger than Ronaldo, has found goals hard to come by in MLS.

Messi was the starman in the 2022 FIFA World Cup but that seems to have been his final football stardom, especially if you look at his less impressive stats for Inter Miami CF. CR7 could take a stab at his final world as he continues to keep fit. And for a player who is determined to win everything, Ronaldo is hopeful of bagging the FIFA World Cup trophy should he feature for Portugal in 2026.

Okello Steve

Okello Steve is a seasoned Sports and travel writer with over 10 years of experience in the journalistic enterprise. Steve honed his writing skills from a tender age and went on to study communication at the University and chose to pursue a writing career as an independent journalist crafting engaging content for the web on sports, casino gaming and travel.

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