Where Does Lionel Messi Rank Among Top 10 Players in World Football History?
An old, well-trodden path with a new twist. For the past few decades Brazil striker Pele and Argentina No. 10 Diego Maradona have enjoyed an unbreakable hegemony at the top of the imaginary rankings of most football fans.
While the debate will always rage on over which one of those two may be the best of all time, few would argue at this stage that it is a fight between that pair for the top spot.
However, at just 24 years old, Barcelona and Argentina forward, Lionel Messi, has arguably already joined the pantheon of the all-time greats. That may seem excessive but, considering what he has already achieved and the way he has played, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he will one day be universally hailed as the greatest ever to play the game.
But for now, here is my (personal and in no way definitive) list of the top 10 players of all time:
10. Lev Yashin
That's right, a goalkeeper. Get over it.
The Russian keeper, nicknamed The Black Spider, is the only custodian ever to win the Ballon d'Or, and he advanced the art of guarding between the sticks by leaps and bounds during his 20-year career, spent entirely at Dynamo Moscow.
Whereas before the keeper was merely an extra obstacle on the line, Yashin showed the world that coming out to meet the striker and closing down the angles could be as important as lightning reflexes and agility, which he also possessed in spades.
Yashin played in three straight World Cups between 1958 and 1966, helping the Soviet Union to fourth place in the last of those three, six years after they had been crowned the inaugural European champions.
Goalkeepers are all too often overlooked in any ranking or shortlist for an award, but no team would get anywhere without them. As such, recognition of Yashin is important to honour the job that all keepers do.
The most lethal finisher in modern football, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima's status as the World Cup's all-time top goal scorer is thoroughly deserved.
There were mysterious circumstances surrounding his appearance in the 1998 World Cup final—when he was left off the team sheet only to eventually play, but have little effect as France romped to a 3-0 win—but he banished those demons to fire Brazil to their fifth title four years later, scoring twice in the final.
The big-boned striker racked up 247 goals at club level and 62 for Brazil—an international strike rate for the Selecao second only to Pele—and he claimed an incredible three FIFA World Player of the Year awards. Had his career not been blighted by injury, he could have been even further up this list.
8. Alfredo Di Stefano
The great forward is now honorary president at Real Madrid, the club for which he helped land eight La Liga titles and five straight European Cups from 1956 to 1960. However, he had originally been on his way from his homeland of Argentina to Barcelona before a combination of administrative confusion and meddling from the authorities led to him moving to the Spanish capital instead.
Di Stefano formed a fearsome partnership with Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas, and went on to score 307 goals in 396 appearances for Los Merengues, winning five 'Pichichi' awards as the Spanish league's top scorer along the way.
The man nicknamed The Blonde Arrow, also scored 23 goals in 31 games for Spain, despite having won the Copa America for Argentina in 1947 and also making a handful of appearances for Colombia.
Another player to be find greatness representing a European country despite being born on a different continent, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira was born in Mozambique but found fame and glory with Benfica and Portugal.
A short but strapping centre-forward blessed with good touch and a predatory eye for goal, Eusebio helped Benfica retain the European Cup by scoring two goals in the 5-3 win over Real Madrid in the 1962 final, and led them to another three finals before the decade was through. Eusebio also won 11 Portuguese league titles with Benfica and scored an incredible 638 goals in 614 official games for the club.
His performances for Portugal in the 1960s were no less astounding. He was the top scorer at the 1966 World Cup, with nine goals as he and his teammates finished the tournament third.
6. Johan Cruyff
As part of the famous Ajax and Dutch teams of the 1970s who were the exponents of what became known as 'Total Football', Cruyff helped change the way people envisioned how an attacking midfielder could play the game.
Starting nominally as a centre-forward, Cruyff would give defenders a nightmare as he would drift wide to either flank or drop deep to evade his markers, pulling the back line apart and allowing his teammates to utilise the space.
And, that was when he didn't even have the ball at his feet. When in possession, Cruyff's supreme technical ability was too much for most to handle, and he led Ajax to three straight European Cups between 1971 and 1973.
Cruyff was just as effective for the Dutch national team, and he was named the player of the tournament at the 1974 World Cup when he led the Oranje to the final. His exploits led to him winning the Ballon d'Or three times, but his legacy on the game goes much further than those individual awards.
5. Zinedine Zidane
A unique brand of fire and grace, the legendary playmaker was the architect of the greatest era in France's footballing history. With Zizou pulling the strings, Les Bleus were simultaneously world and European champions at the turn of the 21st century and reached another World Cup final in 2006.
Zidane scored twice in the 1998 World Cup final in Paris to see France lift the trophy as hosts, but it was at Euro 2000 when he enjoyed his finest moment on the international stage, exhibiting a fluent skill and natural artistry, all too often lost in the athletic style of the modern game.
It is no coincidence that he was injured in 2002, when France were dumped out of the group stage of the World Cup without scoring a single goal, the worst World Cup title defence in history.
Having come out of international retirement to help France's stuttering 2006 qualification campaign, Zidane again inspired them all the way to the final, where he was at the centre of one of the most shocking moments in the game's history by receiving a red card for head butting Italy's Marco Materazzi in extra time.
Oh, and he also scored one of the greatest European Cup final goals of all time with his spectacular 45th-minute volley, in the 2002 final that saw Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1, and claim their ninth crown in the competition.
4. Franz Beckenbauer
Just as Cruyff can be credited with changing the perception of how an attacker should play, so Beckenbauer helped reshape the expectations of defenders.
One of the most inspirational captains of all time, he was not nicknamed Der Kaiser for nothing. He led Bayern Munich to three straight European Cups in the 1970s and also won the World Cup and European Championship with West Germany.
After starting his career as a midfielder, Beckenbauer dropped back into defence and came to personify the role of the modern sweeper, a central defender who could bring the ball out of defence and up the field, immediately advancing his whole team forward and creating great pressure on the opposition.
An elegant, stylish and unflappable player, Beckenbauer won two Ballons d'Or as a player and went on to lead his country to another World Cup as their manager in 1990.
3. Lionel Messi
At 24 years old, Messi can already be ranked up there with the very best of all-time. In his short career he has already won three European Cups, five Spanish league titles and two World Player of the Year awards. It seems unimaginable that he will not claim another host of individual awards the next time they are all dished out.
His goal scoring records are too many to mention, and he seems to break a new one every other week.
Yes, he is part of arguably the greatest club side ever assembled, but he is an integral part of this current Barca team. Besides, what Messi does on the pitch on a weekly basis is quite simply extraordinary.
You do not have to be a fan of the game to be able to marvel at his jaw-dropping pace and control with the ball at his feet, his deft touch or his agile and swift turn of pace. What Messi does transcends football, just as Roger Federer transcends tennis.
It is often argued that a player cannot ever be classified as a true great until they have won the World Cup, something which seems a rather discriminatory criteria. Messi was Argentina's best player at last year's tournament in spite of, and not due to, Diego Maradona's management, and he still has at least another two tournaments in him to put that right.
Whether he ever gets to lift international football's ultimate prize or not should not do anything to affect what will surely be his extraordinary legacy.
Goals, goals, goals. That seems to be the best way to sum up the career of the greatest striker ever to have played the game.
Edison Arantes do Nascimento's record of hitting the back of the net during his 21-year career is simply staggering. During his 18 years at Santos, he scored virtually a goal a game, registering 589 strikes in 605 games between 1956 and 1974. Those goals for the Peixe to 10 Brazilian league titles and two Copa Libertadores.
But it was on the international stage where he will always be remembered outside of Brazil. Pele is the only player to have lifted the World Cup on three separate occasions—in 1958, 1962 and 1970—a feat that is unlikely ever to be matched.
During that time he scored an incredible 77 goals for the Selecao in 92 appearances, and they were all different kinds of goals, from long-range rockets to agile headers to scrappy, instinctive finishes.
A true great of the games. An undeniable titan. But not as good as...
1. Diego Maradona
Come on: Everybody loves a flawed genius, right?
Pele may have been a model pro but Maradona is a far more interesting character, both on and off the field. Pele kept his nose clean, El Pibe did anything but. In spite of his various misdemeanours, drug problems and health issues, it should never be forgotten what an exceptional talent he was on the field.
Perhaps the most naturally gifted player of all time, Maradona was just as adept at juggling a golf ball as he was a football. After spending five years at first club Argentinos Juniors, he helped Boca Juniors to the league title in his only season at La Bombonera.
His performances at the 1982 World Cup in Spain prompted a world record move to Barcelona, but his two years at the Camp Nou were largely curtailed by injury, although he still managed to score 22 times in 36 appearances as Barca won a domestic cup treble in 1983.
Another world record fee was paid by Italian side Napoli in 1984, and Maradona is forever a hero in Napoli for leading them to two Serie A titles virtually single-handedly.
However, it was his performance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico that will forever define him as a player. As captain of Argentina, Maradona led the Albiceleste to their second world title in eight years, scoring both the most infamous goal (his 'Hand of God') and the most glorious (an exhilarating solo run from the halfway line) in the same quarterfinal against England.
While Pele was able to score goals with astonishing consistency, Maradona was able to conjure up the spectacular, make the impossible a reality on an alarmingly regular basis. That is why there is a church named after him and not one after Pele, and that is why he is the greatest of all time.