Welcome one and all to what is Well In, Lad’s final column of the semester. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve enjoyed myself plenty, so I hope all of you reading have, too. To wrap up the semester, I want to do a little reminiscing on the past and take a look at what the future of soccer might hold.
Even the most casual of soccer fans recognize the names Messi and Ronaldo—referring, of course, to storied legends Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo—the greats who have, for the better part of two decades, dominated the sport of soccer and developed a rivalry that will go down as one of the greatest in sports history. Their stats speak for themselves. Between the two, they have captured 11 of the last 12 Ballon d’Or (best player) awards. Ronaldo is the Champions League’s all-time leading scorer, with Messi a close second before a dropoff to third that speaks volumes about their dominance in front of the net. Messi has won the European Golden Shoe (most goals) award six times; Ronaldo, four. Messi has racked up an incredible 35 major trophies; Ronaldo, 31.
But they’re more than just stellar on paper. The impact they’ve had on the sport and on the soccer community can’t be understated. Since the early 2000s, kids all over the world—myself included—have looked up to them as heroes. They are the players everybody dresses up as for Halloween and the ones kids pretend to be whilst they dribble through their classmates on the playground. And perhaps what has made their impact extra special is the fact that we got to witness them competing at the same time and against each other. We’ve witnessed generational talent before, but never simultaneously like Messi and Ronaldo, who have had every accomplishment since their concurrent rises to fame measured against the other’s.
Essentially, what we have seen since the turn of the century is sheer dominance of the game, on and off of the field, by Messi and Ronaldo. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We’ve started to see, albeit slightly, a decline of the two in terms of their dominance. Messi is now 33, and Ronaldo is 36. Don’t get me wrong—they are still easily two of the best players in the world—but as the curtain begins to close on their careers, the question has arisen: who, if anyone, will take their place? Looking at the game right now, the only logical contenders are prodigy strikers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland, who both seem to have the potential to fill the shoes of the old guard.
Kylian Mbappe, 22, who currently tries his trade in France for the club Paris Saint Germain (PSG), has been one of the most exciting young players in the game for the past few years. Though not possessing the most imposing figure, he is incredibly quick, has ball control that rivals the best of them and always seems to find a way to create goal-scoring opportunities for him and his teammates. In 2018, at the age of just 18, he became the youngest player ever to score in a World Cup Final as he helped lead France to victory. In 2019, he was named French league player of the year following a 39 goal, 15 assist season. He’s racked up an astonishing 27 goals and 15 assists in his few years of Champions League play, and in Ligue 1 play he has netted 89 goals and 27 assists in his four years for PSG.
Erling Haaland, 20, burst onto the scene in 2019 playing with Austrian Club RB Salzburg, where he became the first teenager to score in five consecutive Champions League matches. He transferred to Borussia Dortmund this past year, where he has continued his goal scoring tear. Haaland isn’t known for having great feet or being the creator that Mbappe has come to be known as, but Haaland has an uncanny ability to find the back of the net game in and game out. At Dortmund, he’s continued scoring at an unprecedented rate. In 16 Champions League games, he’s notched 20 goals, and in the Bundesliga he’s put away a whopping 38 goals in 41 games. His 6’4” frame, coupled with his speed, has allowed him to be deadlier in front of the net earlier in his career than almost anyone in the history of the sport.
Mbappe and Haaland are two unbelievably gifted, yet very different, players. Mbappe relies on his foot skills and creativity, while Haaland dominates with his size and goalscoring instinct. Mbappe plays with more flair, while Haaland takes the get-it-done approach—with everything. Check out his interviews and you’ll see what I mean. They certainly aren’t direct analogues to Messi and Ronaldo, but their concurrent rises to fame and immediate linkages of success in the media certainly point towards the potential of a dynamic eerily similar to that of Messi vs. Ronaldo. I don’t want to jump the gun, but everything they have shown us early in their careers indicates they have the potential to lead the next generation of superstars. So don’t be surprised if, in five years time, you see kids walking around your neighborhood sporting Mbappe and Haaland jerseys for Halloween.