Lionel Messi is certainly an all time great. His goal scoring record is unfathomably impressive, his eye for a through-ball is superb and his consummate dribbling skills almost look out of place on a professional football pitch. At times he makes football look like an unrealistic computer game. As a result of this talent and his awe-inspiring appearances for Barcelona many have touted him as the greatest player of all time. Numerous professional football players, pundits and experts have jumped on the band-wagon to hail Messi as the greatest.
Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith, who won the league twice and scored the winning goal in the 1993/94 UEFA Cup Winners Cup final, told The Telegraph, "If we are talking about individual skill, about the ability to win a match on his own, I’d have to rate Messi above even the great Pele."
Former Real Madrid and Barcelona superstar Luis Figo went further, "To watch Messi is like having an orgasm; an incredible pleasure." His Swedish model wife, Helen Swedin, might not be amused at that comment, but we understand what you're getting at Luis!
Many prospects have been billed as "the new Maradona", tipped as the men to take the Argentinean throne, but they have all fallen massively short. The Napoli legend identifies Messi as his heir though, "I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinean football, and his name is Lionel Messi". At merely 24 years of age, has Lionel Messi already established himself as the greatest, as many ex professionals and journalists would have us believe? The answer is quite simply no, not even close! Let the controversy begin, because I'll venture to suggest that Messi is great, but it is ridiculous to consider him to be the greatest, he is many miles off of that tag. It is arguable that he's not even the best player in the world today, let alone the best ever! He is merely a benefactor of circumstances.
Everything Lionel Messi does is recorded from a variety of angles, reported on by thousands of media outlets globally and praised in countries that are relatively new to the world of football: The United States, India, Australia, etc. These relatively new footballing markets have opened and expanded meaning that more people are exposed to the exploits of today's footballers than the legends of the past. Globalisation has been responsible for shrinking the world and expanding the global public sphere that football accesses. Lionel Messi's goals will be easily accessible in 50 years from now, whereas how many people can honestly say they have a real knowledge of the likes of The Galloping Major, Ferenc Puskas? The Hungarian legend who scored 509 goals in 523 matches, excluding 84 in 85 at international level. Before Puskas visited England with his national team in 1953 he was plying his trade behind the Iron Curtain and was relatively unknown in the West. He was simply recognized for the fact that Hungary had won the Olympics and that he was their star man. England, on the other hand, were considered to be the best team in the world in many quarters. When they were due to welcome Hungary in 1953 England were still undefeated on home soil for more than five decades. The press billed it as the "match of the century", the best from the West versus the best from the East. Nevertheless among the English players Puskas was considered to be no more than a "little fat chap" while his teammates were simply communist-backed-amateurs. The "little fat chap" put in a master-class as Hungary won 3-6 at Wembley . A few months later they played again, this time in Hungary. The hosts won 7-1 with Puskas bagging a brace. To put this into context, it would be the equivalent of a team like Nigeria (who were runners-up in the last Olympics) beating Spain 3-6 in Madrid and 7-1 in Lagos, with one star player running the show. The following year, in 1954, Hungary went on to lose the World Cup final against West Germany in very controversial circumstances, denying The Galloping Major, a World Cup winners medal. Puskas then moved to Real Madrid where he had a glittering career. He displayed sheer dominance wherever he went, yet he is barely ever mentioned as being "the greatest", why? If he had achieved such feats in today's globalised world would he be over looked in such disrespectful fashion? Messi does not need to be concerned about being overlooked, his every goal is seen globally giving him a major advantage when he is compared to the greats of the past.
Many world class goalkeepers have complained about modern day footballs because they are so light. Needless to say this has benefited the attacking players because now a goalkeeper has yet another factor to deal with when facing any shot on goal: the absence of a consistent flight pattern of the football. The balls are so light that they swerve and curl in random, unintended and unpredictable fashions. One only needs to look to Freddy Guarin's goal for Porto against Maritimo last season . Guarin struck the ball from almost 40 yards, the ball travelled at 84 km/h and curled in 4 different directions before hitting the back of the net. Guarin had no real control over the ball, he simply struck it with power and the poor quality of the ball did the rest. How can one possibly compare that strike to Bobby Charlton's famous 25 yard strike against Mexico in the 1966 World Cup? Today, Charlton's effort might not even have won the goal of the month award because it is not quite "stunning" enough and not quite far out enough (when compared to strikes like Guarin's). The reality though is that those leather footballs might as well have been made of iron when compared to today's EVA and TPU plastic balls. Generating power in a strike of those old leather balls was more difficult than it is now, furthermore the goalkeeper's job was easier in some respects because he could track the flight of the ball more effectively. The modern day striker has the benefit of scoring a goal that would not have resulted in glory all those years ago. It is little wonder therefore that Iker Casillas described the last World Cup ball as being like a "beach ball". Messi, like all of today's forwards, has the benefit of striking a ball that in it's nature is harder for goalkeepers to deal with.
Lionel Messi's best attribute is his dribbling, there's little doubt of that. Is he the greatest dribbler ever? Perhaps. Although let us also remember that Messi dribbles on pristine turf, he does not have to deal with a random, unexpected bobble because the pitch is reminiscent of my aunt's neglected garden! One of the factors that is often over-looked when people speak of Maradona's wonder goal against England, is that the ball was constantly bobbling on the poor surface. Maintaining that level of control while running at full speed is truly mind-boggling, and much harder to achieve than running with the ball on the perfect turf at today's Camp Nou and the other Champions League level stadiums.
Praising a player can almost become a "fashion", as people "buy into the hype". It creates headlines to have a focal point of a great team, a figure-head of success; after all sensationalism sells papers. If Lionel Messi has a quiet game, but scores the winning goal it is more likely that a journalist will proclaim the little Argentinean's greatness and attribute the team's success to him. This was evident when Real Madrid fell 0-2 at home to Barcelona in April, 2010. Xavi was the star man, pulling the strings like a puppeteer, and giving two glorious assists, one to Messi and one to Pedro. Messi took his goal very well, as you would expect a world class forward to do, but apart from that he was fairly anonymous. Yet many media outlets did not have Xavi as the "headliner", Messi was the man that was praised by those reputable sources that usually have some impressive footballing coverage. The Guardian stated: "Lional Messi punishes Real Madrid to give Barcelona Title Lift". Sky Sports opened their report on the game with the paragraph:
"Lionel Messi grabbed his 40th goal of the season as Barcelona moved top of the Primera Division with a comfortable 2-0 win over bitter rivals Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu."
The Telegraph reviewed the match from a "Messi vs Ronaldo" stance. Messi's name was referred to 7 times in the article, compared to Xavi - the man of the match - being mentioned just 4 times. The headlining photo was not of the man of the match, or of the man who had scored the other goal (Pedro), it was of course of Lionel Messi. This sort of coverage acts as "advertising" and further reinforces and perpetuates the "hype".By doing this, sports journalists are essentially acting as Messi's PR representation. The benefits of this to Messi's reputation and career were most evident in 2009/10. During that year Bayern Munich met Inter Milan in the final of the Champions League. Both had won their domestic leagues and domestic cups, and both were inspired by superb individual performances throughout the season. Arjen Robben was the star for Bayern, polling 72.1% of the vote as he was elected German Player of the Year (a record high). He scored the decisive goal to get Bayern to the quarters, before a stunning volley against Man Utd got them to the semis. He also scored in the first leg of their semi-final against Lyon as Bayern earned a spot in the final. Their opponents had Wesley Sneijder (who went on to win Champions League Midfielder of the Year) and was the architect of Inter's season. Inter beat Bayern to ensure that Sneijder had won every club competition he had been in that season. Furthermore, these two Dutchmen were also part of the Dutch national team which made the final of the World Cup that same year (narrowly losing out to Spain in the final). Between them they had the world at their footballing feet that year, yet in the vote to see who would be awarded the FIFA Ballon D'or (the World Player of the Year award) Sneijder got 14.48% of the vote, while Robben got a mere 7.61% of the vote. Lionel Messi won the award with 22.65%. It is worth mentioning that the FIFA Ballon D'or is voted on by a selected source of journalists, national team captains and national team coaches. This is clearly problematic, the bias among journalists has been discussed, while national team captains are professional players that frequently play at the same time as the likes of Lionel Messi. This makes it impossible to see him play that frequently. Instead they probably get their "updates" from those same journalists that sensationalize the achievements of Messi. With all due respect to the national team captains of lesser nations, how can we trust the judgement of some who are part time footballers from countries that do not have a tradition in football. The captain of Comoros reportedly voted for Messi. Never heard of a country called Comoros or their captain? Neither have FIFA by the looks of it because when he received his poll card it was, allegedly, addressed to "the captain of Comoros" rather than his name. It is essentially one big vicious cycle, leaving Messi's counterparts such as Robben and Sneijder, out of contention.
This Barcelona team is arguably the best club side of all time. Many teams move the ball beautifully, playing attractive fluid football and carving teams open for fun. The current Real Madrid side, Cruyff's Ajax, Pele's Santos, and many more, are examples of teams that played lovely football on the deck and carved the opposition open at will. The difference, many pundits say, between Guardiola's team and the rest is that when this Barcelona team loses the ball they press and win the ball back more effectively than any other top team. Xavi, Busquets, Puyol, Iniesta, Alves, etc, work as a unit - a wolf-pack if you will - hunting the opposition down and seizing the ball back almost immediately after it is lost. Just as well, because Goal.com recently reported that statistics supplied by SuperDeporte showed that Lionel Messi has lost possession more than any other play in La Liga this season! An astonishing fact! Of course Messi is bound to take risks, and the more risks you take the more likely you are to lose the ball. However other great players take risks too, yet Messi seems to give the ball away like it's infected with the plague (279 times since the start of the season)! Messi has also had more shots on goal than any other player in La Liga. Let us face the uneasy truth here, life is a lot easier when you have the Barcelona midfield and full backs winning back the ball every time you lose it; and Xavi, Iniesta, Sanchez, Pedro, Villa, etc, to supply you with enough ammo to have more shots on goal than any other player in the league. Perhaps this explains why Messi simply cannot "cut the mustard" as effectively for his national team. He still has world class attacking players to support him: Aguero, Tevez, Di Maria, etc, but the defensive solidity and balance is not quite there and Messi's game suffers tremendously as a result. Surely if he was the best player ever he would be able to adapt without his Barcelona teammates? Take Maradona as an example; the season before he went to Napoli in 1984, they finished 1 point above the relegation zone. By 1986/87 Napoli won the league and repeated this 3 seasons later (in between those two seasons Napoli finished 2nd). They also won the domestic cup and the UEFA Cup, capping the most successful period in their history. He achieved this while abusing his body with destructive illegal drugs. To put this into context, it would be the equivalent of Messi moving to Lecce, Bologna or Cesena and achieving similar success.
Messi's talent is breathtaking, he might very well go on to achieve unparalleled feats, but for now calling him the greatest ever is ridiculous. In terms of his standing among the greatest, he is a potential heir to the throne. Top 10 ever? Yes, probably. But the undisputed best? No way. Through no fault of his own Messi has become an overrated, "over-hyped", beneficiary of the modern globalised media's quest for sensationalism. His dribbling capabilities have a lot to do with his "marketability", because it is his eye-catching dribbling that makes people take notice. Casual football fans or those with a limited understanding of tactics will notice and rate a player that skips past opponents, rather than a player that is a creator through cultured passing. Dribbling is quite simply the most exciting attribute a player can possess. Adel Taarabt, for instance, is an example of a player that makes people tune in to watch him. Judging by their performances in the Premiership it would be fair to say that his QPR teammate Joey Barton is probably a more effective player, yet Taarabt is more likely to catch the eye with a moment of magic. A similar analogy can be drawn with boxing. Casual fans are more likely to appreciate the eye-catching work of a knock-out specialist (such as Mike Tyson), whereas a purist might instead point to the technical superiority of Lennox Lewis or Wladimir Klitschko. Purists are rarer though, hence the reason Tyson has such a huge international following.
Messi has the equivalent ability that a knock-out specialist has, and that attracts an infinite amount of fans. However as long as he lacks success at international level he will always lack the dramatic myth/fairy-tale to shape his legacy. Antithetically, players like Zinedine Zidane have done it all with a variety of clubs, at every level and on the biggest stage of all! Zidane has won a UEFA Cup with Bordeaux, Serie A titles with Juventus, a La Ligatitle and the Champions League with Real Madrid (scoring a stunning goal in the final) . He has also won numerous domestic trophies, a European Championship with France as well as a World Cup, where he was also player of the tournament and scored two in the final . As if this was not enough, even the way Zidane's career ended was legendary, it was not a fizzling out but a global supernova for all to see. That infamous head-butt on Materazzi and the red card that followed may have been the deciding factor in that final as Italy defeated France on penalties. This was the great Zizzou's last ever game, and it came in a World Cup Final. Perfectly written, perfectly enacted, this was reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. It was: The Rise and Fall of Zinedine Zidane. A legendary end to a legendary career. Rising above all of those achievements is what Messi must do, and he has yet to come close. There has of course been a notable omission in this whole discussion, and this has been purposely done because who better to have the final word in this debate then the great Pele? When Lionel Messi recently confessed to never having seen Pele play football, the Brazilian legend sarcastically replied: "If he really did not see me, I'll do what I once did with Maradona. I'll send him the video 'Pele Eterno' and then he will." Messi has kept the fuel burning with the response: "I would love to see Pele in action, but he still hasn't sent me the DVD of his goals". The verbal-venom on display is a reminiscent of a build up to a world heavyweight title fight, but only time will tell whether Messi can prove himself as the greatest. To do so he will have to over-come the "huge right-hand"that Pele landed in their "fight":
"When Messi has scored 1,283 goals like me, when he's won three World Cups, we'll talk about it... People always ask me: 'When is the new Pele going to be born?' Never. My father and mother have closed the factory."