In the light of Lionel Messi’s five-goal carnival against Bayer Leverkusen in this week’s Champions League tie winner, all manner of comments have been made as to him being the greatest footballer. While that may be tempting, it’s worth further analysis based on a respectable standard of measure.
Against the sea of swooning comments, I'll single out two comments that were more realistic. The first is the statement made by his club coach after that 7-1 Champions League dismantling of Bayer Leverkusen this week. The second viewpoint was from Pele, a player considered to be the greatest, who injected himself into the debate when he rightly noted the crucial yardstick that counts.
Those two former players are among those who are best placed to know what ought to be the standard for the greatest player—not some armchair writers or professional pundits hugging the limelight.
Pep Guardiola said (via Mirror Football):
He [Messi] is the best. There's no one else...It’s not easy to score five goals in a game.
The circumstances don’t matter. He competes against himself. We only try to provide the conditions so that he can receive [the ball] as many times as possible where he feels comfortable [on the pitch].
We are very fortunate to have a player like this. We can only enjoy him and this team...
The throne is his. Only he will decide when to leave it.
To be sure, the Argentine is presently without comparison in the sport.
The little magician continues to rewrite what passes for standards of individual excellence in soccer. Certainly in the arena of club football, he is in a place all by himself.
However, the story changes when national team achievements come into the picture. Barca’s scoring wizard has a poor report as far as playing for Argentina is concerned.
A string of Argentine managers have tried various formations to get Messi to reproduce his Nou Camp magic to no avail. That mystery frustrated Maradona while he managed Argentina. A fierce debate has grown around Messi’s national team performances over time, especially since he has won three times the World Player of the Year awards.
In fact, in some quarters, his motivation for the national cause is hotly disputed, and some view him as being more Spanish than Argentine. The fact that he left Argentina as a young boy and essentially grew up in Spain, where his initial health and welfare was carefully programmed, may have played a part. Hence, residual mistrust lingers back home as to his true loyalty to the blue and white jersey.
That is not the focus here; we will assess him using the ultimate yardstick—the World Cup—as the standard. This measuring barometer is indisputable as both the good and the great have been assessed based on it.
Diego Maradona, another famous soccer Argentine to his credit, single-handedly delivered the cup with a string of hypnotic performances in Mexico in 1986. He rightly has earned his place among the game’s immortals.
Needless to say, the former Santos Football Club prodigy—Pele, the game’s undisputed greatest of all time—did so for Brazil three times. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pele, injected himself into the current superficial debate when he told French newspaper Le Monde (via BBC Sport): “When Messi's scored 1,283 goals like me, when he's won three World Cups, we'll talk about it.”
Therefore, until the pint-sized but likeable game-changing maestro delivers the cup of cups, his record achievements thus far would have an asterisk next to it. As desirable as they are, winning the Champions League, World Club Championships and all the Spanish league and cup tournaments pale when compared to the sport’s ultimate label—a World Cup.
Indeed, while it’s uncomfortable and miserably unfortunate to consider, it’s nonetheless the reality that would not go away until Messi leads Argentina to the summit of world football crown once and for all.
If not, Catalonia’s adopted favorite footballer would go the way of quite a few gifted ones: George Best (Ireland); Ryan Giggs (Wales); Kenny Dalglish (Scotland); Emilio Butragueno and Raul (Spain); Michele Platini, Jean Tigana and Eric Cantona (France);Zico and Socrates (Brazil); Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham (England); George Weah (Liberia); Enzo Scifo (Belgium); Roberto Baggio (Italy); Ruud Gullit, Johan Cruyff and other Dutch greats who never got to win the big one.
Therefore, while Lionel Messi is an unquestionably supremely gifted player and perhaps the best in club football currently, he isn't the greatest of all time. Despite the feeding frenzy that has ensued since his brilliance on Wednesday night, that honour remains exclusively Pele’s.