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Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi show national pride amid differing fortunes

Both their summers ended in tears. Lionel Messi, devastated after losing to Chile in the Copa America Centenario, his third straight loss in an international final; Cristiano Ronaldo, stretchered off the field in the 25th minute of the Euro 2016 final, only to see his agony turn to tears of joy as Portugal defeated France to lift the trophy.

Portugal's success and Argentina's defeat means that Ronaldo now looks likely to take back that Ballon D'Or from Messi. He has achieved the one thing that Messi has not in international football, but it would be impossible to say that this summer really settles any debate about who will go down in history as the best.

The summer started with hope for both players but few will forget the look of anguish on Messi's face as he sat on the New Jersey turf and stared into the middle distance last month, his mind clearly running back over his penalty shootout miss and three consecutive final defeats over the past three summers. Despite winning everything at club level with Barcelona, and picking up all the personal prizes available, the 29-year-old had been left disappointed at each of his seven senior international tournaments.

The pain in his voice was clear that night as he said he could no longer go on playing for his country.

"My thinking now, is that I'm done playing for Argentina," Messi said. "It's over. I've fought a lot, I've tried, it's been four finals and not one won. It hurts me more than anyone, but it's clear this is not for me. I want more than anyone to win a trophy with the national team, but unfortunately it's not to be. I did everything possible to try to win, but that's four finals lost."

Would Ronaldo follow suit and retire from international football? It was a key topic in the run-up to Sunday's final in Paris.

Ronaldo had scored in each of his seven international tournaments but as a team, Portugal always seemed to disappoint. The collective never seemed to match their star's performances. The then-19-year-old's tears stained the pitch after a painful home defeat to underdogs Greece in Euro 2004's final, while a decade later at the 2014 World Cup, their leader's struggles against injury clearly had a negative effect as the team went out in the group stages.

The opening games at Euro 2016 brought new personal records for Ronaldo, but his frustration was also evident as both he and the team failed to click. His semifinal goal and assist against Wales finally seemed to show they were in tune, but then came the ugly challenge from France winger Dimitri Payet in the final and Ronaldo was no longer able to lead his side forward. Suddenly, for the first time in 24 major tournament games, Portugal had to play without their superstar.

But was it a blessing in disguise? Without their best individual, Portugal the team were able to play together. When on the pitch, Ronaldo always demands the ball, just like Messi for Argentina, with the other 10 players often appearing to be working just for him. Without that responsibility, Portugal were able to focus on their own jobs and take more responsibility themselves.

Proof of "The Ewing Theory" appeared even more evident when 79th-minute substitute Eder unexpectedly hammered in the winning goal from 25 yards in extra time. The former Swansea forward, now at Lille, would likely not have been on the pitch had Ronaldo not been injured.

However, none of Ronaldo's celebrations of the goal, actions on the sideline or joy in eventually lifting the trophy suggested he felt he had missed out by not being on the pitch when the game was won. Though in characteristic fashion, his interview with UEFA afterwards did come pretty close to a Ballon D'Or acceptance speech.

"I'm so happy. This is something I have sought for a long time, ever since 2004," he said. "I always asked God to give me another chance. The Portuguese people deserve this, the players deserve this. Unfortunately things went badly for me, I was injured in the first minutes. But I always believed these players had the ability, and the coach had the strategy, to beat France.

"I always said I wanted to win a trophy with Portugal and to make history. And I did it. I'd like to thank my teammates, our coach, and the fans who were with us from the start. This is a unique moment for me, and for all the Portuguese people, and it's an unforgettable moment."

In the end, both Ronaldo and Messi's commitment to their country's cause was unquestionable. Messi has been criticised by a surprisingly large number of Argentines for not showing his Barcelona level in his national shirt, while some in Portugal think Ronaldo's quest for personal glory means he plays too many games for Madrid during the season, and is then not fresh enough for summer tournaments.

But neither of those arguments stack up. The emotions showed by both Messi and Ronaldo this summer were genuine and their reactions -- retiring feeling he has no more to give; celebrating joyously as his teammates won without him -- came straight from the heart.

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan


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