It has to be Lionel Messi.
That’s why the winner is obvious.
The cold hard facts say Messi has now overtaken his compatriot Diego Maradona as the greater player.
Lionel Messi has scored a total of 324 goals in 388 appearances for Barcelona compared to Maradona, who over his entire career scored a similar amount of goals in club football with 311, but took just over 200 more appearances to score them.
In the Champions League, recognised as the highest standard of football in the world now, far superior than the World Cup, Messi has scored 62 goals in 80 games, while Maradona managed just a meagre two in six appearances for Napoli in the 1980s.
Messi has won the Champions League three times as part of a team lauded as possibly the greatest club side ever; Maradona only made it as far as the first round in 1987 and the second round in 1990.
While Messi has also captured six La Liga titles and two Copa del Reys, Maradona has an impressive, but more modest haul of two league titles in Italy and Argentina and two domestic Cups in Italy and Spain, as well as the UEFA Cup with Napoli in 1990.
So Messi can already boast a significantly superior goals record and trophy collection than Maradona, and he is still only 26 with around another decade of top-flight football ahead of him.
So that’s agreed then: Messi is better than Maradona?
Well, actually no.
That’s the problem with these debates; they don’t allow for any nuance, or the emotions that dictate our love for the game.
I find it very difficult to declare with any great conviction that Messi is the better player because I grew up during the 80s when Diego Maradona dominated football.
In the summer of 1986, I sat transfixed in front of the television at age 13 watching the World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina as Diego Maradona collected the ball on the half-way line before evading five challenges and passing the ball in to an empty net.
It remains the greatest goal, or moment, I have witnessed on a football pitch.
Four minutes earlier Maradona had blatantly cheated by punching the ball into the net to give Argentina the lead, but that was quickly forgotten after this second goal.
It was impossible not to stand and applaud the sheer beauty and overwhelming genius of the man.
That game encapsulated Maradona, the good and the bad.
He would become a villain for that style of cheating, and for failing a drug test at the 1994 World Cup, but you could never bring yourself to truly dislike him because he had conjured up so many moments of joy and sheer wonder on a football pitch.
For the moment, Maradona’s trump card over Messi is the World Cup. Maradona won it in 1986 and reached the final in 1990, while Messi has a comparatively poor record of scoring just one goal in eight appearances during the 2006 and 2010 tournaments.
At the moment at Barcelona, Messi thrives in a side surrounded by some of the game’s finest players who have been placed around him to get the best out of his talent.
Maradona never had that luxury.
At the 1986 World Cup, Maradona dragged a good, but not great, Argentinian side all the way to become world champions.
In the tournament in Mexico, Maradona scored or created ten of Argentina’s 14 goals.
Maradona also repeated the feat in club football with Napoli, taking a side who had never before been champions of Italy to their first ever Scudetto in the 1986-87 season, and again in 1989-90.
“Maradona always took charge of the team,” said the former Argentinian national manager Cesar Luis Menotti last year as reported by Telam (via Goal.com).
“Diego naturally took responsibility. Instead Messi plays a part, important though it is, in the operation of an orchestra as excellently tuned as Barcelona.”
Could Messi emulate Maradona’s greatness by bringing success to a side who had no great history of it?
So at first glance the winner should be obvious—it should be Messi—but delve just a little deeper and the truth isn’t that simple.
An intriguing addition to the debate would be if Messi were to win the World Cup next year in Brazil.
But for the moment he hasn’t surpassed Maradona, who retains his place alongside Pele on the plinth of the greatest ever footballers.
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