Lionel Messi is currently regarded by many as the best player in the world.
He has already won three Spanish league titles and two European Cups.
Still only 22, some observers are suggesting that if he maintains his current standards throughout his career, he could become one of the game’s true greats, in the same class as Pele, Diego Maradona, and Johan Cryuff.
Messi will encounter obstacles on his path to such a status. Injury put an end to Brazilian striker Ronaldo’s challenge, and will be the factor that Messi has the least control over.
Complacency has cost Ronaldinho his shot at the big time. Only time will tell if Messi remains hungry enough to maintain his high standards after achieving so much so young.
Desire aside, involuntary loss of form appears unlikely.
Messi’s brilliance is no flash in the pan; he has turned in frequently dynamic, destructive performances for over four years with little respite.
A less tangible foe in determining the Argentinean’s eventual standing is that of the context within which he will be examined.
It could well be that Messi will remain at his beloved Barcelona throughout his career and go on to further success with the Catalan club.
If he does, much will depend on the standard of competition in La Liga when determining his ultimate worth.
The Spanish top flight is certainly a better standard than the corresponding leagues in Italy, Germany, and France. But is it as good as the English Premier League?
The Premier League is certainly the most watched domestic tournament throughout the world. Punters vote with their feet or in this case, their television remote.
If La Liga was better, wouldn’t it be winning the lion's share of ratings for audiences outside of Europe?
True, Barcelona and Real Madrid capture the attention like few others, but they are anomalies, the exception rather than the rule in Spanish football.
Both clubs are 21 points clear of Valencia in third, while only four points separate the top three in England.
Messi is playing on a team with some of the best players in the world, in a league where only two teams compete for the title. Few of the ordinary clubs are even able to threaten them during a match.
Premier League leaders, Manchester United and second-place Chelsea, have lost a combined 11 games this season. Barcelona and Real have only four losses between them.
Since joining Barcelona, Messi has been raised with the footballing equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth. While his ability is undeniable, he has been ably assisted by arguably the greatest alignment of talent in the club’s history.
He has certainly produced top-class performances in key games against Real and in the latter stages of the Champions League in recent seasons.
If Messi is to remain in Spain and dispel any doubts about being a flat-track bully, he will need the standard of other clubs to rise—or Barcelona’s level to fall—in order for his true value to be determined.
The performances of Diego Maradona in single-handedly taking Napoli and Argentina to glory are the benchmark for an individual proving value with an inferior team.
Messi is unlikely to go slumming with an also-ran Italian outfit anytime soon. He does have an opportunity in South Africa this summer to make a decidedly shaky Argentina team greater than the sum of its parts.
If Messi can drag Maradona’s ragtag Albiceleste to World Cup glory, it would go a long way to dispelling any doubts about whether he can inspire and improve more ordinary teammates than those he is blessed with at Camp Nou.
There is one more option at his disposal. He could join an English Premier League team.
In this writer’s opinion, the Premier League, as a home-and-away domestic league, is currently the pinnacle of modern football.
For long years, the British tradition of the game, best described as "end-to-end" football was a recipe for muddy pitches, long balls, and aerial challenges.
During the 1990s, there was an influx of foreign players and managers. The subsequent rise in technical and tactical standards has resulted in a glorious hybrid of hectic, aggressive football, played with a high level of skill.
In the last 15 years, only Zinedine Zidane has threatened the unofficial top 10 or so best players of all-time. Messi must reach and perhaps surpass his level in order to be considered a true great.
In addition to meeting the traditional requirements of World Cup and European Cup glory, Zidane also won domestic titles with Juventus and Real Madrid. He proved his ability to perform consistently in what was the world’s best leagues at the time he played in them.
When Zidane was at the peak of his powers, the Premier League was still in its gestation period. In the time of Messi and Ronaldo, England’s top flight has become the toughest challenge in world football and a magnet for the world’s best players and managers.
Cristiano Ronaldo might come up just short of Messi in terms of sheer skill, but the Portuguese is a more athletic player. There are no doubts about his capacity to withstand the unique physical challenge of the Premier League.
Messi is under no obligation to play in England, and he may never to do so. But in this modern age, the best players invariably showcase their talents in the best leagues.
If the Premier League continues to be the world’s most popular and competitive tournament, Messi should have the courage and ambition to challenge himself in an environment inherently hostile to his particular brand of football.
If he doesn’t, questions will always be asked about whether Messi would have been able to adapt his gift to thrive in England.
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