In 2013, during a visit with Pope Francis, legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon touched Lionel Messi’s face and stated “I wanted to make sure he was human like us.
For me, Lionel Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans.”
High praise from one of football’s greatest goalkeepers. And yes, Lionel Messi is human but in Qatar this year he has joined a very elite duo in the history of the sport to become immortal.
For as long as there will be soccer, all players will be measured against Pele to assess their greatness. He lifted his first World Cup trophy at the age of 17 and then went on to lift it twice more in his international career.
At club level, Pele spent 19 seasons with Santos where he won 6 Brasileiro championships; the Copa Libertadores twice; two Intercontinental Cups; and 10 Campeonato Paulista titles – a championship where he was top scorer 11 times.
His subsequent move to the United States to play with the New York Cosmos added yet another dimension to the legend that was Pele.
There were certainly other great players that wowed the public during the 50’s & 60’s. There was Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa, Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, Gianni Rivera and many others.
But as great as these individuals were, Pele was special. Something better than “great”. A level of skill that we would not see for another 20 or so years. Until a young Argentine came unto the scene.
Diego Armando Maradona was not born yet when Pele lifted his first World Cup trophy. He was 10 years old by the time Pele lifted his third.
At the tender age of 16, Maradona made his senior debut for his local Argentinos Juniors in 1976 before a short stint at Argentine giants Boca Juniors where he also finished his career.
A career that took him from Argentina to Europe with stints at Barcelona, Napoli & Sevilla. Maradona made his World Cup debut in 1982 in Spain where Argentina were eliminated in the second round.
But in the following World Cup in1986 in Mexico was were the comparisons to Pele were justified for Maradona. In the following World Cup in 1990, Argentina made it all the way to the Final before being beaten by West Germany.
Maradona, unlike Pele, had the fortune of playing on the world scene during the same time as TV coverage became global. Literally billions across the world were fortunate enough to see the magic Maradona created on the field.
Like Pele, he was certainly compared to many others that graced the soccer fields across the world and could be considered “greats” of their time. Names like Michel Platini, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten & Lother Matheus come to mind.
But yet again like Pele, there was “something” that lifted Maradona above all the others. A level of skill that made all that it was compared to look “ordinary”. It would take another 20 years before we were graced with another “fenomeno”.
It’s 2022 and we finally have a “holy trinity”. Just like Maradona was not born yet when his predecessor lifted his first World Cup trophy, Leo Messi was not born yet when Maradona lifted his World Cup trophy.
We are all well aware of Messi’s club level achievements. For Barcelona, where he debuted at the senior level at the age of 16 (like Maradona), he had 520 appearances in which he scored 474 goals.
He lifted 10 La Liga trophies; 4 UEFA Champions League titles; 3 UEFA Super Cup as well as 3 Club World Cup titles. Incredible numbers but in the cruel world that could be soccer, none of it would matter without the World Cup trophy.
It is a crowning achievement for any player but to be even considered with the likes of Pele and Maradona, it was necessary for Messi to go all the way in Qatar.
Much later in his playing career compared to Pele or Maradona, Messi has finally put aside any doubts the public may have had of his greatness. Messi’s name deserves to be spoken about in the same breathe with Pele and Maradona.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that it tends to repeat itself. History tells us that in the next few months/years, a child will be born that will be talked about in the same breathe as Pele, Maradona & Messi.
History tells us that the child will likely be born in South America. But that, of course, is not a certainty. It could be born in Africa, Asia, Europe and even North America.
That child may already have been born and even already be kicking a soccer ball somewhere on the globe. I hope so. It’s hard to wait 20 or so years to be so blessed as to witness greatness on a soccer field.
In the meantime, there are certainly plenty of players that will entertain us as well as open debates on do they deserve to join the holy trinity.
Most importantly, knowing how rare such “alien” talent, as Gianluca Buffon puts it, is bestowed upon us, let’s appreciate the moment and be grateful that we were here to witness something beyond “great”.
Something that makes those who are great seem like mere mortals.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Bildbyran
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