The World Cup stage is set for perhaps one final shootout between the two greatest soccer players of their generation — and to many, the two greatest of all time.
Surely, this year's tournament in Qatar presents Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with one last chance to win the ultimate trophy. Even by their own remarkable powers of endurance, it is unlikely either will be around for the next tournament in 2026 when Messi will be 39 and Ronaldo 41.
Pele and Diego Maradona — perhaps the only two players who can still challenge the supremacy of Messi and Ronaldo in the history books — earned their reputations from their achievements on this stage.
Pele won the trophy three times with Brazil, while Maradona led Argentina to the title in 1986 with a performance of such individual brilliance that it left an indelible mark on the tournament.
For all their genius, Argentina's Messi and Portugal's Ronaldo have yet to emulate the two men they have spent their careers trying to surpass.
These are the final stages of their storied careers, which have seen them share 12 Ballon d’Or awards, nine Champions League titles, 18 league titles and plenty of other accolades. But to add the World Cup would be the ultimate at a time when both players are seeing their powers wane.
Messi has recently spoken like a man who finally accepts he cannot go on forever.
“I’m lucky to be able to be at this World Cup at 35 years old,” the Argentine told DirectTV in October. “After this World Cup, we will see what could happen with my career.”
Meanwhile, Ronaldo heads to Qatar with his career in disarray after failing to secure a move away from Manchester United and being dropped by manager Erik ten Hag. Last month, he was dropped from the squad and had to train apart from the first team as punishment for refusing to come on as a substitute against Tottenham.
At this point, it's impossible to judge what condition he might be in mentally or physically at the World Cup.
Likewise, it's impossible to rule out a player who has repeatedly set new standards even into the twilight of his playing days. He recently scored his 700th career club goal.
Of the great rivals, Messi appears to have the edge right now. Even if he may not have replicated his best years at Barcelona since joining Paris Saint-Germain, he is proving more influential in his second season in France, with the goals flowing once again.
That both are in a position to compete at the World Cup is a testament to the way they have looked after their bodies.
Former England physiotherapist Dave Hancock, who went on to become director of training and performance for the New York Knicks and is now CEO of sports data management app Apollo, believes soccer players have followed the lead set by American athletes.
“You see that in a lot of American sports," Hancock told The Associated Press. "I’ve seen that over the years looking after people like Kevin Durant, and Saquon Barkley, privately.
“If you look at Tom Brady, he’s 45. He has his own guy. There is a team around them so they realize the longer they play the more money they are going to earn.”
Hancock said Messi and Ronaldo share the same mental traits — even if they are physically different.
“They are slightly different players and different, what we call somatotypes, which is their body physique,” he said. “But clearly those guys playing at the highest level for so long have understood what they need to do to sustain it, whether that is working in the gym, watching what they eat, sleep.
“With all these guys, if you look at any industry, the best of the best will either keep recreating themselves, but will keep continuing to work at being the best of the best.”
Neither Messi nor Ronaldo will be defined by the World Cup even if it continues to elude them. Times have changed and club soccer has largely overtaken the international game in terms of profile and popularity because of the success of the Champions League and the Premier League in particular.
Fans around the world have been able to witness the brilliance of Messi and Ronaldo on a twice-weekly basis, which was never the case with Pele or Maradona.
Their respective feats for Barcelona and Real Madrid, especially, created a rivalry unlike any seen in the sport, with the Ballon d’Or almost becoming a personal duel for more than a decade, while their scoring tallies were driven to ever-increasing heights.
Such have been their achievements at the highest levels of the club game that any argument suggesting they need to prove themselves in international competition have been rendered redundant. Not least because both have ended their barren runs with their national teams with Ronaldo inspiring Portugal to victory at the 2016 European Championship and Messi winning the Copa America with Argentina last year.
But the World Cup is the final frontier — and perhaps an opportunity for one of these remarkable players to write one glorious final chapter.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
James Robson, The Associated Press