There's no doubt that the current era in football will be defined by Lionel Messi and his constant pursue of greatness. Over the past three seasons, the little Argentine has performed at a level his peers simply can't match, and he has set levels of consistency arguably never seen before in the game's history. His firm individual dominance over the sport over the past three years has made him not only cement his status as the greatest player of his generation, but also one of the greatest in any generation.
But there's clearly something missing. Most all-time great athletes, in any sport, have had a rival, namely another all-time great, to compete with consistently during their prime years, and that rival ended up enhancing their own legacy in the sport. Would Mohamed Ali be held in such high regard without Joe Frazier? No, just like Roger Federer wouldn't have been as great without Rafael Nadal (even if his head-to-head is frankly negative).
Strange as it may seem, losing a few times might actually enhance an athlete's legacy; it's significantly more impressive when an athlete dominates his sport having to fight off a worthy, also all-time great opponent. In short, by dominating in an era of another all-time great, you prove beyond any doubt that you deserve to be hailed among the greatest.
A credible rival is exactly what Messi has been missing. His domination of the sport has been impressive, but at the same time a bit disappointing, since it just seems too easy. No one has been able to challenge him consistently, if at all. If we look at all the major individual awards since 2009 (when Messi began his reign as the undisputed best player on the planet), the only constant is Messi in first place; the second place is occupied by someone different each time.
Using the Ballon d'Or, football's most prestigious individual award, as an example, Cristiano Ronaldo was second in 2009, Andrés Iniesta in 2010 and, if the UEFA Best Player in Europe awards is any indication, Xavi Hernandez will be second this time around. No matter how good Messi might be, he can only occupy one place at the podium. These different runner-ups every year aren't a testament to his greatness, only to the lack of a consistent challenger for top individual honors, a player that can go toe-to-toe with him. If we consider that Xavi and Iniesta are his teammates at Barcelona and are actually helping him to reach new standards of excellence, the lack of genuine competition becomes even more apparent.
This does not mean, in any way, that the current football generation lacks talent. Far from it. There are as many top quality players as in any other generation. There are players in the world who can match Lionel Messi's ruthless goalscoring, others who can match Messi's brilliant playmaking skills and on-pitch intelligence and even some whose dribbling skills can rival Messi's. It's just that no player can put it all together and make Messi fight for his best player in the world status.
Statistically, last season kind of proved this point. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a fantastic 53 goals, and Mezut Ozil had an equally incredible 25 assists. The problem is that Messi matches both Cristiano for goals and Ozil for assists. This highlights the high standards Messi has set, and no one has managed to follow so far.
The media constantly tries to find rivals for Messi, namely Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. But while the idea of Ronaldo being a credible rival to Messi would definitely enhance Messi's accomplishments (dominating a sport like football for three years in a row is an impressive feat in itself; doing so by constantly surpassing another all-time great is beyond phenomenal), it is just senseless. A rival is someone who "damages" your career; for instance, without Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer would have won 23-25 Grand Slams by now instead of 16 (but there would be questions marks over his greatness because he'd have never had to face another truly great player), but, in perhaps a strange way, ends up enhancing it.
So far, Cristiano has taken nothing from Messi, nor has he been a consistent runner-up in individual award ceremonies (and not just the Ballon d'Or). How would Messi's career and stand in the game be any different without Ronaldo? In short, it would be exactly the same. There can't be a rivalry when the same athlete wins all the time.
Logically, Messi can't be blamed for the fact that no one has been able to keep up with his high standards. As the saying goes, you can only beat what's in front of you. But it's impossible to shake the feeling that other all-time greats faced much stiffer competition to become the best player of their own generation than Messi has so far.
That said, Messi has been convincingly outperforming all his peers for three years in a row, and he doesn't look like slowing down. This kind of sustained domination is incredible and will surely not be repeated by anyone in the foreseeable future. But it'd still have been better for his overall legacy in the game to do so by surpassing a genuine rival.
It may sound bizarre to say this, but Messi needs to lose a few times. He needs to be seriously challenged for his crown as the best player in the world. And while you may now watch Messi and think it's impossible for someone to match his level, the odds suggest that he'll find that rival very soon. Whether that rival is a new up and coming star or an already established world class player seriously stepping up his game, it just seems downright impossible that, in the world's most popular sport, played by millions across the globe, a single player can dominate unchallenged for more than five years (even three years seems way too much).
If you look back at the careers of Pelé, Maradona et al., they did define their generation, but they did not outperform everyone in every single year. In a time where more and more people play football and training and conditioning are more advanced than ever, Messi doing it seems not only unlikely but impossible. If he can really continue this kind of domination much longer, then he definitely deserves to be hailed as the greatest player of all-time.
But the laws of probability dictate that someone will appear and challenge Messi. At some point, Messi's aura of invincibility will be threatened. The way he responds to that challenge might forever define him. The title of greatest player of his generation is already locked, but in order to be among the very best of all-time, he'll have to step up when he's eventually challenged by another great of the game.
There will always be some question marks in the future over how great he really was if he can only dominate the game in a time where arguably his two closest "rivals" (or at least two of the three) play in his team, setting up plays for him every week. Knowing Messi, he'll definitely step up to the challenge when it comes.
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