Wea re at that time of the year again. When Lionel Messi is acclaimed as the best there ever was, the greatest footballer in the history of the game, paling Pele and Maradona. There seems almost an inevitable certainty recently, that once Lionel accomplishes yet another feat, a journalist or two seem compelled to make the argument that he is the greatest ever. Ita s getting as d j vu as observing Real Madrid fire their manager.
Not that hea s not in contention, of course. La Pulga has taken the worlda s attention by storm since he burst onto the scene in 2006. He has provided innumerable moments of wonder, of gasps and exclamations of delight, of wondering just how he managed to do that. And for that, he is and will always be, one of the greatest players the world has ever had the privilege of seeing. He has captured four Champions League Trophies, seven La Ligas, a Copa America and is of course, a World Cup finalist. Without a doubt, the greatest footballer of our generation at the moment.
But the greatest ever? Thata s a very small, but pivotal stretch. Every admirer and detractor of Messi knows his record at international tournaments. So Ia m not going to trot out the (lack of) figures here. Ita s merely what I would consider, (feel free to agree or disagree) that should comprise of a player who has the honour to be named as a the best evera .
In terms of skills, therea s nothing that Maradona and Pele have done that Messi has not. In terms of goals, goal ratios, consistency, technique, flair there isna t much distinction. However, the value that these two players possessed and the immortalization of their legends is very different to that of Messia s.
Both of these titans stood for something.
Maradona, as the predecessor to Messi, as he himself claims represented something. A giant of a man, who did not let the failings of his team detract him from his acquisition of footballa s biggest trophy. A player, who single-handedly, grabbed an under-par, mediocre Argentinian side and inspired La Albiceleste to holding aloft the World Cup. He displayed an unbridled aggression, a loathing of fate and proprietary to deny himself that chance. He was the icon of every adolescent, by making the world bend to your will, forcing it to recognize your arrogant genius, demanding that all and sundry accept the fact that he was the greatest player in the world. The fact that he was a troubled, unscrupulous, arrogant man off the pitch cemented the belief that the human will, however flawed, can sculpt the world if it wished. In comparison, Lionel Messi has neither had that impact or influence on his national team nor on the sport of football. He has been worthy of emulation and reverence for his work ethic, his team play, his humility and genius. We are amazed and astounded watching his dribbles and goals. We watch Messi and we . know that he was born to play football and be idolised.
But Maradona made us damn well believe it.
Messi is a lot closer to Pele than he would be to Maradona (Though El Diego would be furious to hear one say it). Pele, as the story goes, was the other side of the coin. A humble, genial lad, the enduring image of Pele will always be a young hysterical lad, fainting, overcome at the thought of winning the World Cup in 1958 with his beloved Brazil. Pele was the fulcrum of an extremely strong Brazilian team featuring the likes of Garrincha, Dida and Gilmar. His second World Cup victory in 1970 was again at the forefront of a Brazilian side, containing Gerson, Jairzinho, Torres, Rivelino and Tostao, often believed to be the greatest side in the history of football. Yet, even amongst all these magicians, Pele was acknowledged as being the best, a cut-above even the most talented. His story was no testosterone-filled ego trip, but that of a childrena s fairy-tale, a boy born to play football and rightly receive his due award, with honestly and virtuously capturing the greatest prize of all, not once but twice. Even the mana s greatest contemporaries and successors couldna t help but shake their heads and speak of him in reverent terms. Real Madrid and Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas once said a the greatest player in history was Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was beyond that.a
With similar declarations about Messi, he came closest to achieving a similar storyline last year. He was within a whisker of guiding a promising Argentinian team to placing their hands on the World Cup, on arch-enemy territory, no less. Had he taken his two clear-cut chances in the final, he would rightly have been acclaimed as the best in the World ever. There was even the perfect opportunity in the 120th minute, with Germany conceding a free kick from a close distance that had, on numerous occasions, previously proved to be no obstacle to the little magician. He could rescue the World Cup, in Brazil, with a free kick and take the game to penalties. It was his moment. With over a billion eyes focused on his every moment, history could have been made.
And he missed.
Thata s the closest he has ever come to achieving the title of being footballa s greatest Player. And no amount of Champions League victories nor La Ligaa s can change that. Not until he has given the entire world a story to believe in.