Poll: Lionel Messi, Pele or Diego Maradona—Who Is the Greatest?

Will Tidey@willtideySenior Manager, GlobalMarch 8, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 07: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona scores his sides opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Bayern 04 Leverkusen at the Camp Nou stadium on March 7, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Lionel Messi was it at again on Wednesday night—becoming the first player to score five in a Champions League match as Barcelona annihilated Bayer Leverkusen 7-1 at Camp Nou to ensure their place in the quarterfinals.

Messi now has 250 goals from his 378 appearances for Barcelona and Argentina, and a remarkable 52 goals in 54 games since last July. His haul of 12 in the 2011-12 Champions League is already tied for the season record he shares with Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The Ballon d'Or winner in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Messi will surely make it four in a row in 2012. The diminutive genius has been so good, so consistently, we're running out of plaudits for him.

"Tonight we witnessed one of Messi's most special nights; watching it was like receiving a gift," Barca coach Pep Guardiola told reporters after the game.

"He deserves to be honoured right now because it's something really incredible that he is now just seven goals behind [Barca's all-time top scorer] Cesar [Rodríguez]—he's only 24.

"It's not easy to score five goals in a single game and that's coming from someone who scored 11 in his entire career. If he wants to, he'll score six one day."

All of which raises the familiar debate of where Messi stands in the pantheon of football greats.

"It is not just about his five goals today, he has been showing this already for years," said Leverkusen's sporting director Rudi Voller last night. "He is now in a region with Pele and (Diego) Maradona."

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Most would agree with him, but has Messi now done enough and achieved enough to outrank either of them?

The most common argument against Messi is his lack of success at a World Cup. Pele won three (1958, 1962 and 1970), while Maradona triumphed with Argentina in 1986. Some would argue that until Messi gets his hands on the trophy, or at least makes his mark at a World Cup, he can't be considered in their category.

The counterargument is two-fold—firstly, that international success is dependent on far more than the talent of an individual (take George Best for example, who never played in one), and secondly, that the World Cup is no longer the game's gold standard.

If that is now the Champions League, then Messi has more than proved his point already. And he's still not halfway through his career.

Of course any debate like this is open to any number of interpretations. Our thinking will be influenced, amongst other things, by the generation we were born into, the kind of footballer we most admire and sometimes by what the writers and commentators we most respect have to say on the argument.

But this is your chance to vote. It's a straight shootout between Pele, Maradona and Messi and you have to decide who is the greatest.

We'll be back in a week with the results for you.