Lionel Messi scored five goals in a Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen. Bayer Leverkusen are a professional football team from Germany, they recently beat Bayern Munich 2-0. This goal scoring feat prompted quite a response on my twitter time-line and the debate of “who is the greatest” was quick to emerge like the creepy unwanted guy who always shows up at parties despite nobody really being sure who invited him or how anybody actually knows him. So to deal with the socially awkward elephant in the room, I thought I’d write a users guide.
Round 1: Messi vs. Maradona
This is always the first port of call. The comparisons are obvious. They are both small, quick, skilful Argentinians. They both played for Barcelona, they have in many ways a similar style. To compare players you have to be aware of the ground rules. You can’t just wade in willy-nilly, there’s an etiquette to it. The Church of the Modern Day Messi Advocates will start their opening sermon with his goal-scoring record, his pace, the fact that the game is quicker now, players are fitter, stronger and perhaps more professional than they have ever been.
But the People For The Use Of Cocain In Professional Sport or PUCPS have the answers. They will claim that Diego Maradona relentlessly had the living snot forcibly kicked from within him. He won a World Cup almost single-handedly. He carried Napoli to a league title. And last but by no means least, he was completely off his tits on coke for the duration, making his achievements all the more incredible.
Result: Messi 1-2 Maradona
Diego just nicks it although there are questions as to whether it may have been a handball.
Messi is an incredible player, but he’s limited by the fact that he’s only 24, whereas for Maradona we’ve his entire career to consider. The World Cup performance has some baring on the outcome of the tie but winning a World Cup is winning just that, a cup where strange things often happen (I once saw Greece win the Euros).
The far more impressive part of Maradona’s career was what he managed in Italy at Napoli. Winning the title as the captain of a team that really shouldn’t have achieved all that, his goal scoring record of 81 in 188 league games is only part of his contribution to a club that he turned into winners at a time when Serie A was considered the strongest league in Europe, reflected by Uefa’s coefficient. Sadly I don’t think we’ll ever see Messi leave Barcelona, at least not anywhere near the peak of his career, so in order to level the score he’ll have to do something pretty incredible with Argentina.
Round 2: Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo
Defeat to Maradona in round 1 doesn’t eliminate Messi from the competition, it doesn’t work like that. So here we find ourselves inexplicably in round 2. This is the favourite argument of the trusty “Man in the Pub”. Man in the Pub likes to put forward a good argument, often supported by very limited evidence. He might have a stat or even 2 up his sleeve to crown his position, anointing his opinion with regal sophistication and clear evidence of inbreeding. Largely however, the argument usually boils down to “I like him more” well you may very well think that, but “I like the other guy more”.
When supposedly grown men sit around and passionately discuss, often vehemently disagreeing about which of two men they like more, it’s easy to see why their wives or girlfriends regardless of their interest in football can get a bit tired of it. I’ve seen woman in a pub argue about football and although I’d like not to perpetrate a stereotype too much, they were far better communicators which actually meant they were happy to acknowledge each others opinion and the entire situation didn’t devolve into shouting “YEAH BUT CAN HE DO IT FOR ARGENTINA?!”.
The Church of the Modern Day Messi Advocates will point to his all round game. The assists as well as goals, the passes, the link play, the cog in the machine as well as the cherry on top of the ice-cream Sunday. The Cristiano Ronaldo Secret Man Crush Club will actually make a similar argument, almost blaming the fact that Messi plays in a “better team” for his success. Then pointing to his perceived “failure” with the national side as “evidence”. The use of quotation marks is pretty painful but I simply don’t have a better way to express the way in which this “argument” is usually “expressed”. The basic point they try to make is that Ronaldo is better at carrying a team than Messi.
Result: Messi 3-1 Cristiano Ronaldo
Messi hits a hat-trick and dominates proceedings as Ronaldo, peripheral for much of the game bags a consolation at the end.
The argument that Ronaldo is a better individual than Messi is invalid. In fact Madrid probably rely less on Ronnie than Barca do on Lionel. What you cannot argue against is that Ronaldo has played in England and Messi hasn’t. It’s not always explicitly mentioned, but I think it adds a lot to what “Man in the Pub” thinks of a player if he’s played in England and banged in goals against his team, or he’s a closet Manchester United fan, which lots of men in pubs seem to be.
Their records for their respective national sides are similar, Messi with 0.32 goals per game, Ronaldo with 0.36, at club level Messi undoubtedly adds more to the team than Ronaldo and tends to contribute more in “big games” than the Portuguese stallion. Yes the Barcelona team is built for Messi with Xavi and Iniesta feeding him the ball, but Messi could play for Stoke and feed off Peter Crouch knock-downs and still look like the best player in the world, very much doing it on a wet night in Stoke. His ability as a passer of the ball and a play-maker will ensure the longevity of his career way beyond when Ronaldo’s physical attributes have began to fade.
Round 3: Messi vs. Zidane
Zinedine Zidane was more than a footballer, he was an artist. He is the epitome of the phrase that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, also that football is about more than just how many goals and assists and trinkets you collected over your career. Zizo is about more than that. Sure he’s got goals to his name, plus he’s won a World Cup, although his contribution is overstated largely because he played so well in the final.
I prefer to think about Zidane in terms of the World Cup final he lost for France all on his own rather than the one he won anyway. With his super-power headbutt of doom on cliched Italian henchman who we all love to hate but I just simply love; Marco Materazzi. Of course The Zizo Arts Appreciation Society would hate for me to remember him this way, but the headbutt to me showed a man who was beyond such things as professionalism, he was a man of heart and passion, a man of art, who liked fine wine and poetry and didn’t ever compromise, so of course he was French, well sort of.
I have to say that it wasn’t a comparison that I was familiar with at first, so the rules of the game were new to me. The simple argument started along Maradona lines with “Zidane won a World Cup”. Yes I counter, so has Stéphane Guivarc’h and you don’t see anyone making a case for him, especially not Newcastle fans. How much can you really tell about a player from what he’s won? It’s an indication sure, but longevity and consistency are far better indicators of “greatness”. It’s hard to quantify Zidane’s contribution, you have to talk more about the way he made you feel when you watch him play. The experience of watching him in a football match, this isn’t the usual debate the greats.
Result: Messi 3-2 Zidane
Zidane takes the lead with a header from a set piece, then doubles his tally from the penalty spot only to get sent off leaving Messi to dribble into an empty net and secure victory.
Zidane was a true football genius and like all the best of them, he was deeply flawed. Messi is less flawed but just as brilliant. The chipped goals he scored against Leverkusen were yet another indication that he’s more than just a footballer about the numbers. He can almost match Zizo’s artistic insperation, but whereas the indescribably moody and impossibly difficult to manage Frenchman was sublime then ridiculous, Messi is simply sublime.
Some of the more jaded, me included, might alluded to the fact that it makes Messi boring. After all, much of my love for Ballotelli stems for the fact that he’s bat-shit-insane. However, this is personal preference and it’s important not to shift the goalposts from who is the greatest to who I like the most (we’ll do this later on), stay dispassionate, Messi is the only possible winner, but it’s with a heavy heart I say this. I can only enviage a baby faced Messi doing a rather poor Russel Crowe impersonation infront of a bewildered Camp Nou as a means to justify my choice. After yet another hat-trick that was both scintillating and stunning in equal measure, Messi turns to the jaded crowd who by now are used to his antics and proclaims: “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!”.
The Final: Messi vs. Pele
This is it, the final, it was a tricky route but Messi got there, even though he lost in the first round. It’s an unorthodox method of reaching the final, but then this is no ordinary footballer. Awaiting any debate of the greats in football terms, which this has inadvertently turned into is Pele. Edson Arantes do Nascimento is a player who has made a career after his time playing the game, as being the de facto “best/greatest/more respected player ever”. Pele scored over 1000 goals you know, although admittedly some of them were for New York Cosmos.
Pele never played club football in Europe, these days that would represent a enormous hole in the resume. He did however score 77 goals in 92 games for Brazil, which is quite good and makes him Brazil’s all time leading scorer 15 ahead of fat Ronaldo. He also played in 4 World Cup’s and won 3 of them, although his contribution in 1962 was ended after one game and only recently did FIFA see fit to award him a winners medal, making him the only player to have 3, which could almost be considered greedy.
The three era’s of Pele are as follows: Wonder-kid, Striker, Clever-attacking-midfield-play-maker-second-striker-behemoth-of-victory. The Pele we saw in 1970 was the best in my humble opinion, not that I was anywhere near close to being alive at the time. 1970 World Cup winning Pele, was a player of supreme confidence who had complete control of every game he played in.
Pele was the chief conductor of what is often called the best team ever to play the game. He made the simple look brilliant, he made the brilliant look brilliant. His displays of individual brilliance are perhaps not as frequent or as impressive as the magical individual goals of Maradona or Messi, but Pele is the ultimate example of being very good for a very long time and pretty much doing anything on the football pitch you can think of. The sheer audacity of some of the things Pele attempted live long in the football psyche, from his attempt to score from the half way line to the most famous miss in football history where he ran round the wrong side of the keeper before hitting his shot wide.
Result: Pele 3-2 Messi
In a predictably high scoring encounter Pele comes out on top with the aid of the sheer tonnage of his goals finishing Messi off with a trademark thumping header.
At 24 Messi has plenty of time to catch the quintessential legend of the game but he’s not there yet. Meanwhile Alfredo Di Stéfano (the completest of complete players), Johan Cruyff (the technical master) and George Best (the piss-artist magician) are livid at not even getting to play Messi in this fictional competition of sorts. It’s rare in sport that you can truly point to someone who rises above the rest, especially in team sport.
Often when people argue about “who is the greatest” what they are actually arguing about is how to frame the question. It’s all about what you’re really asking. Who is the player you enjoyed watching the most? This is the most sensible question, because that’s simply what matters to you and how you define it. Obviously for me there is one player who stands head and shoulders above the rest and that’s Grant Holt, he is truly, the greatest, predictable wasn’t it?