Who's the greatest...Pele? Maradona? Messi?
FIFA couldn’t decide who was the greatest between Pele and Maradona as they shared the greatest player of the 20th Century award. Then again, FIFA aren’t the best judges of character are they? The Ronaldo (CR7) v Messi debate about who's the best in the world has now moved on to if Messi's the best ever. And rightly so.
In recent years, Messi has justifiably elevated himself to make it a triumvirate of greats with Pele and Maradona. However, at present, he's still behind these two legends (for once, the term ‘legend’ is literally* not being overused). But if he wins a World Cup or wins the Champions League a few more times, I think he could justifiably surpass them. I never had the privilege of watching Maradona or Pele play but obviously they were both geniuses. I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Messi at the Camp Nou. Watching the little maestro live was special. And that’s coming from a Wigan Athletic fan who watches Franco Di Santo week in week out.
Firstly, is Messi even the best player to come from his country? Single-handedly turning Napoli into champions was phenomenal and illustrated how great Maradona was. To a similar extent, but with better players, he led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986. On the pitch, Maradona was inspirational and propelled average teams to unprecedented success. For this reason, Maradona is unrivalled.
Then there's a certain Edison Arantes do Nascimentobe. Apart from three World Cups, 1,281 goals in 1,363 appearances says it all about Pele. But how good was South American football? And there was a lot more to those Brazil teams than just Pele. Nevertheless, three World Cups and more goals than controversial Joey Barton tweets is unrivalled.
Admittedly, it is difficult to judge across eras. Pele and Maradona would've surely scored more goals playing on pristine modern day pitches. Then again, football has moved on so much in the last 20 years: it's much faster and less open than in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s. Conversely, Messi receives a lot more protection in the modern game. Pele and Maradona were constantly kicked out of matches; the Portuguese battered Pele in '66 and 'The Butcher of Bilbao' basically curtailed Maradona’s Barca career.
Should greatness be defined by performances/success at World Cups? Alex Ferguson hailed the Champions League as the “greatest football tournament in the world”. Despite Taggart’s assertion that World Cups are similar to trips to the dentist (Winning the Jules Rimet** is certainly better than receiving a sticker) being hyperbolic, I don’t think anyone can argue that the standard of the last few World Cups has been superior to the last few Champions Leagues. The best players in the world play in this competition, and in modern football this is now where greatness is judged. Nevertheless, winning the World Cup for your country still has to rate as the pinnacle of any footballer's career.
Hypothetically, if Messi wins the Champions League five (or more) times in his career and/or a World Cup, I think he can rightfully be classed as the greatest. He probably has two more World Cup campaigns in his pomp, so he still has a chance to add international success to his domestic dominance. Pele winning three World Cups with great Brazil sides and Maradona winning two league titles with an average side (and a World Cup) have equal merit, in my opinion. All three players deserve their place on the pantheon of greatness. But, for me, the way Messi plays is truly unrivalled. His technique, balance, pace, and finishing are mesmerising. He has the dribbling ability of Maradona and the goalscoring prowess of Pele. If you include his attitude and humility, he's the best. Not yet, but soon.
*Jamie Redknapp joke
**FIFA World Cup Trophy since 1974