Lionel Messi Is Not the Messiah: Why the 'Greatest of All Time' Debate Is Flawed

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Lionel Messi Is Not the Messiah: Why the 'Greatest of All Time' Debate Is Flawed
David Ramos/Getty Images

Lionel Messi has been a busy "Atomic Flea" lately. Along with dizzying defences on a bi-weekly basis, re-marrying his left foot to ball after ball, and scoring goals at will, the 24-year-old has reignited one of the most indulgent sporting debates of them all:

Who is the greatest footballer of all time?

So came the media chorus after Messi's latest Messi-anic act, in which he scored five goals against a Bayer Leverkusen team so awed they fought for his sweat-stained shirts when the two sides met in Germany (the shirts were later auctioned for charity).

And so the voting began—an orgy of polls asking football fans to choose between the most celebrated men ever to put leather to leather, or leather to plastic, or plastic to plastic.

(Who knows what boots and balls are made of these days? But more on that later.)

What we do know is that the majority who voted think Messi—no more than halfway through his career and as balanced of mind as he is on his feet—is already greater than Diego Maradona and already greater than Pele.

They also think he's greater than Franz Beckenbauer, Ferenc Puskas, Cristiano Ronaldo, George Best, Zinedine Zidane, Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano.

Guardian.co.uk poll result - March 2012

And by that we must surely also assume the consensus has him ahead of Garrincha, Michel Platini, Eusebio, Ronaldo, Carlos Alberto, any and every footballing soul who came before him, and everyone still lacing up his boots in the game today.

It's not just football fans trawling the Internet who carry the view, either. Players, coaches and football pundits alike have joined in, too, heaping lofty accolade after lofty accolade upon the Argentine's slight and ever-slippery shoulders.

"The throne is his. Only he will decide when to leave it," said Pep Guardiola, Messi's coach at Barcelona.

"He is the best player in history, we have never seen anyone like him," said Cesc Fabregas, his Barca teammate.

"I had the pleasure of once sharing the same pitch with Diego Maradona," wrote Alan Smith for the Telegraph. "Up until now, he is the best player I had ever seen. Yet Messi takes things further."

"Messi is a joke. For me, the best ever," tweeted Manchester United's Wayne Rooney after watching Barca level Leverkusen 10-2 on aggregate.

"He's the best player in the history of football," said former Argentine international Ossie Ardilles.

The wave of adulation for Messi has long since turned tidal, but there are still large numbers who stand at the shore and hold their ground.

Many feel Messi needs to succeed at a World Cup to bear true comparison to the likes of Pele and Maradona. Some believe even that wouldn't be enough to assure his position perched atop the pantheon of footballing greatness.

But there is another position; one that I increasingly find myself erring toward, as the case for Messi grows louder and louder with every miraculous, match-winning performance. And that is that all sporting debates of greatness are inherently flawed, and thus ultimately pointless.

Here are the fundamental principles that underline this argument—here is the case for never talking about the greatest anything of all time, ever again.

 

EVOLUTION

When we say "greatest," what do we really mean?

Messi might be the best player of his generation—and if we traveled through time and put him in an 11-a-side match with Pele and Maradona in their pomp, he may well prove to be the most impressive player over 90 minutes, too (another one for debate)—but does that really make him the greatest?

Messi has benefited from advancements in every area of the game. He's had better coaching than Maradona, who in turn had better coaching (with more to draw on) than Pele. Each generation has learned from the last, so it goes without the saying that in isolation the latest "greatest" should be best equipped to excel.

"People before say Pele was running 5,000, 6,000 meters [in a match]," said Ardilles. "Now they are running 9,000 meters. Now players eat better, train better, the pitches are better. So this is why I believe Messi is the very best ever."

But surely you can only be as good as the environment allows you to be, right? To that end, footballers should continue to get better, just as sprinters will get faster and golfers will hit the ball farther, until advancements cease—which they never will.

So Messi should be better than Pele. And he should be better than Maradona. Whether he is greater can never be ascertained, because we can never say how each would have fared in the others' eras.

When we watch old footage of Pele, Di Stefano, Garrincha and Co., we're comparing what they can do with the ball with what Messi can today. But we shouldn't. They were playing with a heavier ball, heavier boots and on heavier pitches, and they were being kicked to death half the time.

To some extent, it was a completely different sport. And that's exactly the point.

 

CHANGING FOOTBALL LANDSCAPE

One of the recurring themes in the "Who is the greatest?" debate is Messi's lack of success at a World Cup and his failure to match his influence for Barcelona in an Argentina shirt. 

"To call Messi the all-time greatest now might be premature by around two years, but I'm certain he's heading that way," wrote Paul Hayward in the Telegraph. "The 2014 World Cup in Brazil could satisfy the traditionalists who insist that FIFA's circus is still the pinnacle."

Many would agree, but are we putting too much emphasis on a tournament that happens once every four years and perhaps no longer represents football's gold standard?

"This game is the most important in the world," said Jose Mourinho ahead of the 2010 Champions League final between his Inter Milan team and Bayern Munich. "It is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can't buy the best players."

Former Germany coach Oliver Bierhoff also believes the Champions League is now king:

There are so many demands on the players now, the media, personal sponsorships, the club's demands. The peak for the top players is becoming narrower and narrower—once you had a 10-year career at the top and the brilliant players did it at the World Cup.

"Now, after three or four or five years, it seems like the player is gone. Look at Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and other players. Everything is much more intense, and the Champions League is the pinnacle, not the World Cup."

Has club football now outstripped the international game?

It's certainly not a stretch to suggest that Barcelona, if entered in a parallel universe, would have won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, especially when you consider the heavy Barca influence in the Spanish national team and the fact that they could have added Messi to their ensemble.

But even aside from any notion of falling standards, there's also the changing nature of international football to consider.

Pele's three World Cup wins—in 1958, 1962 and 1970—were achieved in 16-team tournaments. Messi has played in two World Cups and both have consisted of 32 nations. Moreover, the globalization of football has meant far more international teams can be considered to be at a competitive standard.

There have also been revolutions at the club level, with the world's best players now almost unfailingly ending up in Europe. It wasn't always thus, and you have to assume that if Pele were playing today, he'd be at Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Put simply, different generations have come upon different footballing landscapes—so it's impossible to compare their achievements.

 

GENERATIONAL LOYALTIES

To some extent, every generation demands ownership on greatness. It's a way of validating our place in history and making our lives feel somehow more relevant, and it applies to practically every field of achievement.

One generation had Elvis, the next had the Beatles. And if you lived through either as a teenager, the likelihood is that your loyalties lie with the one who sound-tracked your coming of age.

The same can be true in sport. And when you consider that the majority of people voting in football's most recent "greatest" polls are of the Messi generation, should it really be a surprise that he comes out so far on top?

Try as we might to apply perspective, there are powerful forces at work in our thinking—not least our generational loyalties.

Add up the hours you've spent watching Messi, in the age of prolific television coverage of football, and compare it to the time you've really spent watching Pele, or Di Stefano, or Best, or even Maradona.

That might work in Messi's favor, but it might work against him too.

We've all see this clip of Maradona's goal against England many times, but the generation born after he retired will never watch him play badly. Meanwhile, every second of Messi's career, good or bad (nearly all good so far) will be played out before our eyes.

There are other things at work, too.

Consider the fact that the football media today needs Messi to be the greatest, just as they needed Zidane before him and Maradona before him. They're selling the game to us. What better tactic than by making us feel lucky to be present during the reign of "the greatest ever"?

It's a lot more complicated than just a collection of men who make a football dance.

 

POSITIONAL BIAS

Football, like all team sports, comes with its lead actors and its supporting cast. But in a game where the romantic currency will always be goals, and the headliners will always be the men who score and create them, it's not always the most deserving who garner the most attention.

With the exception of Beckenbauer, defenders rarely come into the conversation when it comes to football's all-time greats. And most top-10 lists you'll see will find no place at all for a goalkeeper.

This is despite their playing an equally vital role in achieving success and, in the case of goalkeepers, enjoying a longevity that puts them at the pinnacle of the game for far longer.

Dino Zoff and Lev Yashin both played into their 40s, but neither can compete with the affections afforded to players who did their work at the opposite end of the field.

 

LUCK AND TIMING

When we talk about success on the international football stage, luck and timing play a huge part in a player realizing his potential.

First, you need to be born to a country with footballing stock strong enough to at least challenge at a major tournament, and you must be given the opportunity to do so. This was certainly true for Pele and Garrincha (Brazil), Maradona (Argentina), Beckenbauer (Germany) and Zidane (France).

And it's also true for Messi (Argentina) and Ronaldo (Portugal) today.

But it was never the case for Best (Northern Ireland), nor was it for Di Stefano, who, despite representing Argentina, Colombia and Spain during his career, never appeared at a World Cup.

George Weah (Liberia) is another who never played in a World Cup. And Ryan Giggs (Wales) will almost certainly miss out too.

Actually winning a World Cup, in most cases, is also reliant on the generation into which a player is born. Zidane was a genius, but he would not have the 1998 World Cup without the likes of Emmanuel Petit and Marcel Desailly for company.

The Brazil team with which Pele won the 1970 World Cup is widely considered one of the greatest ever, while Beckenbauer's West Germany triumphed four years later with no shortage of pedigree in its ranks.

This is where the Maradona argument comes in, of course, with many suggesting he took an average Argentina team to World Cup glory in 1986 and delivered perhaps the most dominant and remarkable individual performance in the tournament's history.

Getty Images/Getty Images

Even then, you could argue Best never had the chance.

 

SO HOW SHOULD WE ASSESS GREATNESS?

When you consider the flaws in contrasting players of different eras, there seems only one rational way to measure greatness moving forward—by assessing each generation in isolation.

That way we're at least comparing footballers who have lived and played a similar sport.

Players from the same generation have used the same equipment, been party to the same advancements in coaching, adapted to the same changes in the rules, and lived comparable lifestyles away from the stadium.

They can also be measured purely based on their achievements in relation to the footballing landscape into which their were born.

To address the positional issue, perhaps "greatest" should always be qualified by either "goalkeeper," "defender," "midfielder" or "striker"?

The skill sets are different, so why should Iker Casillas be compared to Messi? More importantly, how should he be?

Of course, there will still be flaws because players will rise and fall based on far more than their talents. Similarly, World Cup success is for some impossible. But despite those issues, we'll be a lot closer to serving out justice.

And with that, I'll leave you to begin debating who might hold the four "greatest at their position" titles in the game today—very much assuming you'll only need to think about three.

Messi is not the messiah—he's just the greatest forward of his generation.

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