The magisterial, as Ray Hudson would put it, play of Lionel Messi has dazzled soccer fans for nearly two decades. Debates still persist, but he is undoubtedly the greatest player of his generation. Messi has the numbers to back it up. But how do Messi’s stats compare to the legends of the past?
The title of “greatest of all time” (GOAT) is always a little subjective, sure. And it’s tough to directly compare players of different eras. But two names from the past that always come up in the conversation are Pelé and Diego Maradona. These two are so important to the fabric of the game that in 2000, FIFA named them joint winners of the Player of the Century award.
Pelé’s legendary status was won via his absurd number of goals and three World Cup titles with Brazil. At the end of his career, Pelé arrived in the United States to much fanfare with the New York Cosmos, launching a new era for the sport in the country.
Maradona was the iconic Argentine figure that Messi was always in the shadow of. His stellar playmaking ability and memorable goals are the stuff of legend. And Maradona had something Messi did not – a World Cup title, won in 1986.
That is, until this past winter when Messi and Argentina triumphed over France in the 2022 World Cup Final.
So how do the raw numbers stack up?
Pelé, Maradona, and Messi’s Stats
|Club games in domestic league play||616||647||491|
|Domestic League Titles||10||7||3|
|International Club Titles||7||4||1|
|Senior International Games||178||92||91|
|Senior International Goals||106||77||34|
|World Cup Titles||1||3||1|
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In terms of club appearances, all three players enjoyed long senior team careers of around two decades (and counting in Messi’s case). However injuries, illness, and controversy, and the resulting more nomadic career, resulted in Maradona having over 100 fewer total club appearances.
Diego had stops at seven different clubs, the longest stints being at Argentinos Juniors and most famously at Napoli. Meanwhile, Pelé played at just two – Santos and the Cosmos. Likewise, Messi spent the majority of his career at one club, Barcelona, with the past two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain. He is now set to move on to his third, Inter Miami of MLS.
When it comes to finding the back of the net, things are pretty clear cut. Adding together club and national team appearances, Pelé astonishingly averaged nearly a goal per game (0.92) for his entire 21 year career. Messi comes in at a still very impressive 0.77 goals per game, while Maradona registered, in comparison, a relatively paltry 0.50 goals per outing.
In the silverware department, Messi leads the way in both league titles and international club trophies. Pelé isn’t far behind, with Maradona having far less club success in terms of major wins.
On the international circuit, it’s not as full of a trophy case for these three as one might expect. Maradona got only one major international title with Argentina, but it was a big one, the 1986 World Cup. Pelé never won the South American Championship (now Copa América), but captured three World Cups with Brazil. Messi is the only one of the group to have won both, with a single Copa America and World Cup coming late in his career. His Argentina side are reigning champions in both competitions.
Who’s the best? The debate goes on
Messi’s stats, of course, continue to grow. He’s still got at least a few more seasons on both the club and international stage to propel his numbers.
But which player is the greatest ever? That will still depend on who you ask. Old timers sing the praises of Pelé or Maradona. And kids who’ve grown up with highlights of Messi’s magic side with Leo.
And still others might campaign for someone else all together. The likes of Cruyff, Best, the two Ronaldos, Müller, and others often find their way into the discussion.
What there is no debate about, though, is that MLS has scored a major coup by luring one of the greatest stars in the history of the sport to their league.
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