Jerome Boateng had barely got back on his feet after Lionel Messi’s sublime second goal before the instant-pundits of the social media world were declaring the ‘debate over’ regarding Lionel Messi.
There are of course two debates about Messi. Is he the greatest player of the modern era? In other words, the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate. Then there is the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate. Otherwise known as Messi vs. Pele/Maradona.
I’ll never tire of watching Messi play like he did in Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final but I am certainly weary of these endless debates which are without end simply because there really is no way to answer them.
There is no player that compares to Messi when it comes to tight control, his movement in tight spaces and his ability to exploit the slightest opening to score. But, then again, I’ve never seen a player attack on the break with such speed and yet still maintain total command of the ball like Cristiano Ronaldo. Both are great dribblers, but in very different ways. Both are a joy to watch when they are at their best – Messi wriggling out of tight-marking to make a goal out of nothing, Ronaldo when he is in full-flight, bursting forward, terrifying a back pedaling defense.
Spare me any discussion of these two that focuses on statistics. The numbers for both players are remarkable but reduce the two players to goal scorers when they are so much more. Which one would you rather have on your team? It rather depends on your team, doesn’t it? What league do they play in? In a slower-paced but more technical league, such as Spain or Italy, Messi would get the nod. In the higher-paced, more physical leagues, such as England and Germany, Cristiano might be more effective over the course of a season.
Messi carried Argentina at times during the World Cup, even though his performances were below his own high-standards. Ronaldo’s Portugal failed to get out of the group stage. But, for the sake of argument, how would you defend an Argentine strike force of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo?
But if it is hard to definitively, without any reasonable doubt, name Messi the undisputed best player of the modern era, it is even more difficult to place him as the Greatest Of All Time.
The reason is simple. It is impossible to compare players of different eras in a game that has changed so much over the years.
Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano played in an era when the game was played at a tempo unrecognizably slower than in the modern era. Does that make them any less great?
Whenever anyone offers a strident opinion on Pele vs. Maradona, I have one question for them. How many Santos games have you watched? Or for that matter how many Napoli games during the seasons when Maradona led them to glory? If most of us are honest, our memories or knowledge of those two players are gleaned from special moments in World Cup finals.
If someone says no-one else could have scored a goal like Messi’s second on Wednesday, I’d suggest they go and watch some YouTube clips of Roberto Baggio, who was a master of leaving defenders on their backsides with a subtle body swerve.
How many times, in the context of this debate, have you heard people say ‘Messi needs to win a World Cup?’ But what a player has won should not come into the debate over individual geniuses. Nor does the quality of their team-mates. The suggestion that Messi needs to be downgraded because for years he was served by the quality of Xavi and Iniesta can certainly be jettisoned after last night.
And does the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) have to be a forward? If not, then Franz Beckenbauer surely comes into the discussion. If you are looking for players close to perfection in their position, then you would have to be a severe critic to find fault with Paolo Maldini – not that a left-back is every going to be considered the all-time greatest in the game.
Do you spot a slight bias towards Italian players here? Well, yes, I watched plenty of Baggio and Maldini at their prime. Perhaps I mention Puskas because I lived in Hungary where there is virtually a cult around that player. Would a Dutchman throw Cruyff into the discussion? A Frenchman mention Platini or Fontaine in their list of the best? Very probably.
The candidates vary according to where you ask the question. The BBC on Thursday put together five possible players to vote for, which included George Best. As wonderful as Best was, he would be unlikely to get in the top-ten in many other countries.
We view the history of the game through our own national experiences. Or at least we did until the modern-era, where we can watch the Spanish league every weekend and where we all watched Messi on Wednesday. It is worth remembering that in the 1970’s and even into the 1980’s most of Europe just watched the European Cup and UEFA Cup games of their own nation’s teams.
So, here is a little suggestion. The next time Messi or Ronaldo produce a breathtaking goal and someone on Twitter suggests the ‘debate is over’, head over to YouTube and spend ten minutes watching goals from Maradona, Cruyff, Pele, Puskas, Baggio, Eusebio, Di Stefano and so on.
There have been plenty of geniuses in this game. There is a rich history of wonderful talent, from many countries and many eras. Messi is part of that rich history and we can enjoy his talent without the need for pointless comparisons.
Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.
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