Pele vs. Lionel Messi: Who Is the Greatest?

Will Tidey@willtideySenior Manager, GlobalOctober 28, 2011

GRANADA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 25:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona heads off to take a corner kick during the La Liga match between Granada CF and FC Barcelona at estadio Estadio Nuevo De Los Carmines on October 25, 2011 in Granada, Spain. > on October 25, 2011 in Granada, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It seems Pele has been up to his old tricks again. No, not ghosting past defenders, scoring 1,280 goals and eating World Cups for breakfast—I'm talking about Pele worshipping Pele. A Pele love-in, starring Pele, hosted by Pele.

"I think another Pele is a little difficult because my mother and father closed the machine," Pele said. "There are always excellent players. Maybe one day there will be some player who will play more games than Pele did, or score more goals than Pele did. But I think that is a little difficult."

Now, while nobody would begrudge Pele his right to preach the gospel of Pele—watch this if you need reminding how he earned it—the footballing public really ought to be spared his views on the modern game. This is the man who once said Nicky Butt was the best player at the 2002 World Cup after all.

Here's his latest offering, best read by taking in Adam Hirshfield's piece earlier today for B/R.

"I would love to play with Lionel Messi," Pele said. "But Messi is an incomplete player because he can't use his head. Also I played football for 20 years, Messi has only played for several years."

It's not the first time either. Here's Pele on Messi 18 month ago...

"They are always trying to compare someone to Pele. But I always joke with my Argentine friends that they must first choose who is the best player from Argentina. Then, when one of them scores a thousand goals, then we can start talking."

Begrudgingly, we have to admit Pele's numerical arguments are factually sound. Messi is 24, Pele played until he was in his late 30s (albeit prancing around for the New York Cosmos). The goals count is also heavily in Pele's favor—albeit benefiting from a fair number scored against less-than-proficient opposition.

But can a player's greatness be measured purely on their longevity and the number of goals they scored? On that basis, Manchester United fans would rank Andy Cole (275 games, 121 goals) above Eric Cantona (185 games, 82 goals). And we know where they stand on that one.

The headers point I accept. Messi has scored a few with that flowing mane, not least this one in the 2009 Champions League final, but he's not in the class of Pele, or even Cristiano Ronaldo for that matter, when it comes to making an impact in the air.

But what Pele has failed to mention is the criteria in which Messi would have him beaten. I'm only going off old footage of the great man, but I'd argue Messi has tighter close control, and probably shades him on dribbling too. I don't think Pele ever scored a goal as good as this one either.

That said, if you're asking for a judgement call, Pele is still ahead. The Brazilian played a key role in winning the 1958 and 1970 World Cups for his country, and summoned his biggest performances on the biggest stage. 

People will argue that Messi's performances in Champions League finals should be taken into account, but I can't get past the one glaring omission on his resume: Messi needs to own the 2014 World Cup to truly stand on a pedestal with the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.

For all the talk of Premier League riches, El Clasicos and Champions League glory, the World Cup remains the biggest sporting event on the planet. It carries the greatest pressures for the players and coaches involved, and thus demands a player to reach places Messi has yet to reach.

It's to George Best's eternal misfortune that he never had a chance to prove himself on such a stage. With Argentina, Messi has the chance, and in 2014, on South American soil, he must seize the opportunity to finally put Pele in his place.

Until he does, expect Pele to keep telling us why he's the best there ever was.