Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo in the test match: Julian Gressel is there

The two best players of the past 20 years will meet again in a friendly match. Right in the middle: a relatively unknown German.

The debate about who is the greatest footballer of the millennium has been simmering for a while. Cristiano Ronaldo, some say. After all, the Portuguese has won the Champions League five times alone, has been called European champion since 2016 and has been impressing with an almost unprecedented hit rate for what feels like an eternity. The others believe Lionel Messi is the best there ever was. After all, the Argentine is hardly inferior to his arch-rival when it comes to goals, was able to collect a number of titles in his career and was crowned world champion in 2022.

The duels between the two world stars were absolute highlights of the season, especially during their time in Spain. Barcelona against Real Madrid meant one thing above all: Messi against Ronaldo. The two of them are now getting on in years. Messi is 36 years old, Ronaldo will be 39 in just a few days.

Both no longer play in Europe, but have essentially faded into footballing insignificance. Ronaldo plays for Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia, Messi for Inter Miami in the USA. A meeting between the two opponents is actually impossible. Not quite. Because on February 1st the two stars will face each other again in a friendly match. At Messi’s side: a German who is relatively unknown in this country.

Through college to MLS champion

We’re talking about Julian Gressel. The midfielder was born in Neustadt an der Aisch. But Gressel essentially spent almost his entire professional career in the United States. Trained in the youth ranks of Greuther Fürth and SG Quelle Fürth, he had his first experiences in the men’s field at TSV Neustadt/Aisch in 2011 and then moved to FC Eintracht Bamberg for a year before moving to Providence College in the USA.

In Rhode Island, where the university is located, Gressel played for the Providence Friars team for three years. Then his big day came. In the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, a common selection system for young players in the US league, he was drafted by the Atlanta United franchise, which was starting for the first time this season.

Already in his first season he knew how to impress. In the regular season he was on the field in 32 of 34 possible games, scored five goals and prepared nine more goals. In the end, Gressel also won the “Rookie of the Year” trophy, the award for the best young player.

Things went even better a year later. “We clearly want to win titles,” Gressel told Sport1 during the season. “This is not just a dream, but absolutely realistic.” And indeed: at the end of the season, Gressel and Atlanta were crowned MLS Cup winners.

Dual citizenship and suddenly a national player

“I would regret it if I didn’t try to go to Europe.” This is also a statement from Gressel from this time, shortly before winning the first title with Atlanta. But the right-wing rail player has remained loyal to his adopted home of North America to this day.

The Atlanta chapter ended for him after the 2019 season. Gressel then played for DC United, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Columbus Crew. With the team from Ohio State he managed to win the MLS Cup again last season.

“I have made this country my home,” said Gressel in an interview with “Kicker” at the beginning of 2023. He had just made his international debut for the USA national team. It had become clear a few months earlier that he had close ties to the United States. Since the end of 2022, the now 30-year-old has had both German and US citizenship.