The art of diplomacy, it is said, is to recognise the beliefs, opinions and feelings of other people and to balance them accordingly with those of their opponents – breeding it itself an air of open communication based on mutual respect and rational understanding.
Nothing lasts forever. If a footballer’s legacy to the game is to be summed up in their farewell game or testimonial, then they and the fans that try to imprint some lasting legacy on their beloved hero, will always fall short.
Time passes by so quickly in football. The name Gerardo Martino has largely vanished from mainstream media despite the fact he is manager of the Argentinian national team. It was at this stage twelve months ago that his FC Barcelona team had limped aimlessly out of the UEFA Champions League at the quarter final stage – the first time the Catalans had not reached the competition’s semi-finals in six seasons.
Lionel Messi, at 27 years old has won six La Liga titles, three UEFA Champions Leagues, four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards, has scored the most goals in a calender year with 91, and added to this has scored over four hundred goals for club and country combined.
–But is not the greatest player of all time.
After failing to add a World Cup medal to his illustrious collection of titles, Lionel Messi has been doomed never to be proclaimed as the greatest player ever to play the game of football. It seems now that all debate has been put to rest that the untouchable figures of Pele, and more predominantly Diego Maradona, have guaranteed their reign as football’s greatest, shall forever be. Over the past six years people have questioned whether or not Messi could be compared or even perhaps surpass such iconic heroes, but alas it seems that after failing to lead his beloved Argentina to the grandest of grandest prizes in world football, the World Cup, it seems that Messi will have to be content to simply being a ‘great’. However this view is not justified.
It seemed that when Diego Maradona dragged Argentina kicking and screaming to the World Cup title in 1986, that he had forever engrained his name in the history books as one of, if not the greatest player of all time, second only so to Pele. It was during that tournament, as with any World Cup, that the entire world was watching. The earth’s masses watched as this little man created art on the pitches of Mexico, stroke after stroke of eloquently poised dribbles, genius touches of a madman, maddening goals of a genius that concluded in him rasing the golden prize above his jet-black curly locks.
People that had no interest in the game gave in to their temptations and sat and watched with the rest of the world as this little man made history. For years to come, almost as a reflex response, people would respond to the timeless question of who the greatest player of all time was, with El Diego. If not Maradona it was surely Pele. Children of future generations were brought up with the unquestionable fact that Maradona and Pele were, are, and always will be the greatest. People who had never in their lives even seen footage of these ‘gods’, as they were, would know without thinking, without proof that they were untouchable. No one, absolutely no one, could and would ever eclipse them.
That all changed. That all changed on the night of June 24th 1987 when a boy was born in Rosario, Argentina, less than a year after El Diego had lifted the World Cup. This boy would grow up hailing and believing in the legend of Diego Maradona. This young man grew up idling Maradona. Maradona, the greatest there is, was, and ever will be. This boy, of course was Lionel Messi.
The comparison between Messi and Maradona is unending. The debate over whether Lionel Messi is the greatest player of all time is tedious and unanswerable. But they persist and arise again and again. Diego Maradona won the World Cup in 1986, when the world was watching. When the whole world was watching. This fact is crucial. Diego Maradona also won the World Cup in 1986, when he was at his peak. This is also vital to the debate. So, Diego Maradona, at 26 years of age, won the World Cup when the whole world was watching him, when he was at the peak of his career. Lionel Messi, at 27 years old has won six La Liga titles, three UEFA Champions Leagues, four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards, has scored the most goals in a calender year with 91, and added to this has scored over four hundred goals for club and country combined. But was the whole world watching?
This is the breaking point in the debate. Lionel Messi has proven to be the greatest club-level player that has ever existed. Season after season, at the highest level, he has proven to be on par, if not greater than any other player in history. But the fact of the matter is that the world does not watch Messi on a weekly basis. The whole world comes together every four years in the summer to watch the World Cup together, but do not watch club football regularly. What happens at a world cup is remembered forever, by everyone. The fact that a player scores 50 goals in a season, is not. At World Cup’s legends are made, legacies are forged and great players are made into gods.
And so, can it be termed as fair and just that the accomplishments of one player in one competition alone, can surpass the unparalleled achievements of that of a player such as Lionel Messi? Granted Maradona did go on to win two Serie A titles, again on his own, after winning the World Cup, however this comes nowhere, absolutely nowhere close to the hauls of records and titles attained by his predecessor in Lionel Messi.
So then the debate reaches an impasse: should a footballer be judged on his own abilities or on the titles that he collects throughout his career. It seems that the former can never reach a conclusion without interpreting one’s own opinion, but for the latter it is fact that Messi surpasses Maradona in all titles achieved. Except for one, the World Cup. And this is the one true setback. Lionel Messi has never won the World Cup. But this, this fact that he has never won the World Cup cannot be the reason, the sole reason, that Messi cannot be regarded the greatest of all time. It comes to the point where even if Messi does, in the future, win the World Cup, that he will still be held down below because he did not do it in the manner that Maradona did. This is utterly ludicrous.
Watcher’s of the Beautiful Game must see that what Maradona did was unique, never to be repeated. What Diego Maradona accomplished in Mexico in 1986 is his greatest achievement. On the flip side, Messi’s greatest achievements are colossal, not simply bound to a single triumph. Consistency is what makes a player truely great, not simply the performance of a seven-game tournament.
The debate over whether Lionel Messi is the greatest player of all time is tedious and unanswerable. But it persists and arises again and again. It is, in itself, a dilemma. The Messi Dilemma.
Modern footballer’s have the benefit of being watched every game, which the likes of Maradona and Pele did not have. However, this lack of footage can not justify jumping to conclusions that may not have existed. The fact that so little footage of Pele or Maradona exists does not take away from the abilities of modern players that are trying to emulate them. If this is the case, it means that no matter how good, no matter how skillful a player is, no matter how many trophies and titles a player has won, or the number of goals he has scored will ever be enough to surpass Pele or Maradona, which is not fair. It can be seen therefore, in many ways, that the greats of Pele and Maradona will never be outdone simply due to the legends that surround them. Legends and auras that have been esculated over the years to such an extent that the representations of the Pele’s and Maradona’s that we have may not even have existed at all.
Every generation has one player that defines it. That one player that surmises that year, that decade. That one player that summarises a period of change, a period of war, a period significant to the one before it. The 1960’s saw the magnificence of Pelé, his 1000 goals for
club and country topped off with three World Cup winners medals. The 70’s saw the best of Johan Cruyff, a man whos legacy and playing style still lives on in football today. He won three Ballon d’Ors in the space of four years as well as three European Cups in a row with Ajax. Next is the man that “won the World Cup on his own…” with Argentina in 1986. Diego Maradona captured the imagination in a way that had not been seen like he only could in a long long time. He dragged Argentina kicking and screaming through the World Cup and left us with some unforgettable memories, some good, some not so good. The 1990’s has a number of stand out players but however none that could reach the brilliance of previous decades. Players such as Marco van Basten, Figo and Zidane had a huge impact on the world of football but it is the Brazilian brilliance of Ronaldo in the latter half of the decade that stands out. He scored four goals in the 1998 World Cup and maintained high scoring rates with Inter Milan until a serious injury in a Serie A game against Lecce in 1999 left him struggling to reach the heights that had he had once maintained.
And then there’s a grey period.
Stints of Henry, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho filled the gap of the early to mid noughties, but something was lacking. Something that had been lacking for a long time, we just didn’t realise it until we saw it.
Cristiano Ronaldo has once been described as the man that has all the makings of the complete athlete: strong, fast, naturally gifted and a technique that can only be put down to years of hard work and believing that he could, one day, be the best. He was not wrong. This is also the man that has been described as arrogant, cocky, disrespectful and childish. But that’s what you get when you’re dealing with Cristiano Ronaldo, no great genius exists
without a touch of madness. What we are seeing now in the presiding months of 2013 are the rewards of years of practise, hard work, practise and more hard work. It goes unheard of the labour and slaving that Ronaldo put himself through to get where he is today. Continuous work on every element of his game has shaped him into being one of the two best players in world football today and a new sense of respect projected towards him as perhaps being one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
“He deserves ten out of ten for doing what he does. He is a sensation, but still he can improve. He must know when to move the ball on quickly and when to try the impossible mission. When he learns this, he won’t win a single Golden Ball, but an entire collection.” This prediction from former FC Barcelona player and manager Johan Cruyff about Lionel Messi in 2008
was not far off. Five years on he stands 26 years old with 325 goals in just over 380 appearances for FC Barcelona. Some argue the greatest of all time, others patiently wait to see the end of an all ready phenominal career to judge. From the streets of Rosario in Argentina, through La Masia, to the Camp Nou Messi has had an extraordinary journey to the pinocal of world football. Nearing the end of a tough and frustrating 2013 Messi now reflects on a year plagued by injuries that saw him reach highs that fall short of expectations set by his greatest critic, Lionel Messi. It only gets harder and harder for Messi to outdo himself year after year and injuries holding him back has saw him manage only 45 goals so far in 2013, a ghostly figure compared to the record-breaking 91 of 2012.
Two incredible footballers. Two. Not just one, but two. In this current state of football whereas skill, determination and a solid technique are the basis by which will guarantee you a place amongst the best, we have two footballers, equally good, playing to their respective strengths, competing vigorously to be crowned the best. I for one find this astounding. “Every generation has one player that defines it”, we have two. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are argueably two of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen – this of course will not be known for
certain until the next best thing comes along and we can reflect on the days when we watched them dance and prance through La Liga’s defenses, making fellow professional footballers look like mere schoolboys. Forget about the upcoming Ballon d’Or contest that divides people and is the cause of the classic yearly schoolyard debate, “Ronaldo or Messi?” Forget it and focus on the fact that we are witnessing two of the all time greats in their prime devastate teams by their sheer presence alone on the field. They are special players. Once in a lifetime players, that somehow are both playing at the same time, in the same league, both on either sides of the greatest rivalry in world football. We are privileged.