The last time they appeared in national team colors was on Russian soil in the summer of 2018, but Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will both be returning to represent their countries on Friday.
The iconic duo have sat out all their respective nations’ games since they exited the World Cup on the same day – June 30 – last year, and by a twist of fate both are expected to return to international action almost simultaneously.
Messi will end his self-imposed mini-exile as he captains Argentina in a friendly against Venezuela at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, a game which kicks off 15 minutes after Ronaldo will likely lead Portugal out in their UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier against Ukraine at Estadio da Luz in Lisbon.
The pair’s return comes more than nine months since they suffered World Cup agony at the last 16 stage, where Argentina lost a 4-3 thriller to eventual winners France and Portugal were rolled over 2-1 by Uruguay.
Much has unfolded since then. Ronaldo completed a $117 million switch from Real Madrid to Juventus in the summer, but is also facing rape claims – which he vehemently denies – after alleged documents relating to a 2009 incident in Las Vegas were reported in September.
The forward, 34, had already made the decision to take a break from Portugal duty while he focused on building up his fitness at Juventus at the start of the season, but his absence dragged on to become lengthier than initially expected.
Ronaldo will end that with tonight’s Euro 2020 qualifier, as he makes his 155th appearance for Portugal.
He is his country’s all-time scorer on 85 goals, and during the World Cup in Russia moved to second in the all-time international scoring charts, behind only Iranian legend Ali Daei, who bagged an incredible 109 goals in 149 games.
The Portuguese number 7 has been in fine form for his club team this season, netting 19 times in Serie A and recently sealing Juventus’ place in the Champions League quarterfinals thanks to his hat-trick heroics against Atletico Madrid.
He will be looking to steer defending European champions Portugal through a group that contains tonight’s opponents Ukraine, as well as Lithuania, Luxembourg and Serbia.
Fellow five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi has been in no less spectacular form for club team Barcelona this season, scoring 39 goals in 37 games in all competitions.
He returns to lead an Argentina team that has seen significant changes since their disastrous World Cup campaign in Russia.
The manager behind that debacle, Jorge Sampaoli, has been replaced by Lionel Scaloni, whose latest squad has some big-name absentees including Manchester City star Sergio Aguero.
Messi at Argentina training this week. © Global Look Press / www.imago-images.de
However, they now have the return of the prodigal son in Messi, who has netted 65 goals in his 128 games for La Albiceleste.
After winning his 129th cap in Madrid, Messi could add to that in a friendly against Morocco in Tangier on Tuesday, although there are reports he could skip that game.
© Global Look Press / Petter Arvidson
The diminutive magician, 31, will seek the international glory that has so painfully eluded him so far, and could even take his team into the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 – where you wouldn’t bet against Ronaldo featuring, despite his advancing years.
Friday, then, is a big night for two returning stars, and the latest chapter in two careers that have seemingly been intertwined for more than a decade.