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The 2021/2022 season saw Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United eliminated from the Champions League by Atlético Madrid and Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain knocked out by Real Madrid in the Round of 16. For the second consecutive season, neither football’s two biggest names featured quarter-finals or beyond the sport’s biggest competition. Short of their retirement or pending move to the MLS, their failure to propel their teams to the quarter-finals of the elite competition is a clear marker that the Messi-Ronaldo era is over.
While it is always a dangerous thing to make a conclusive statement about a thing when it is, in fact, not over, and the pair is still playing, it is easier to say so because it has felt that the Messi-Ronaldo era is over. It has felt so for some time. Ronaldo’s and Messi’s names went missing when the lights shone brightest, a signal of what many fans feared. The season before these two, Ronaldo’s Juventus was knocked into the Round of 16 by Olympique Lyon. Only Messi made it to the quarter-finals when Barcelona got steamrolled, 8–2, in a one-legged quarter-final against Bayern Munich. For three seasons now, the two stars have largely been irrelevant in the main competition of the game.
When Ronaldo and Messi ruled European football in the 11 UEFA Champions League tournaments between the 2007–08 and 2017–18 seasons, a team led by them won the title eight times. During this stretch, one won the European Golden Boot, awarded to the most prolific league goal scorer on the continent nine out of 11 times. Not only did Ronaldo or Messi win 10 of the 11 Ballon d’Or handed out from 2008 to 2018, but the two also finished first and second in the final voting nine times as well. Their dominance was truly remarkable, and their teams fired on all cylinders. They owned European football and performed at a ridiculously high level whenever they stepped on the pitch.
In the 2021/22 season, Ronaldo’s Manchester United finished outside the Champions League places, meaning they will have to settle for a Europa League berth. On the other hand, Messi’s transfer to Paris Saint Germain did not turn out as expected, as he finished the season with six goals, the first time that has happened since his second year at senior professional football in the 2005/06 season. Age seems to have caught up with them and can no longer spur their teams to glory as they did at the peak of their powers. Ronaldo is 37, while Messi will soon be turning 35. The two were stars in La Liga, where they competed against each other. In the Premier League and French Ligue 1, the two stars find themselves outshone by Kevin De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane, Kylian Mbappe, and Neymar.
Ronaldo and Messi are no longer capable of delivering their performances four or five years ago. A performance for the ages from either of them would likely be a swan song at this stage of their footballing careers. If it ever happened, it would be a final memory to commemorate what has already passed, the last flickers of color in the sky before the sun finally sets and day turns to night. An end to an era.