On Sunday evening, Lionel Messi and Argentina will take to the field against France. It will be Messi’s second World Cup final and his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward already having confirmed that the final will be his last World Cup game.
Whether he wins or loses, the internet will be awash with one side of the tedious GOAT debate chirping and crowing, and the other frantically defending their warrior.
For some time now the debate between the greatest (men’s) player to ever play has been centred around four players: Pele, Maradona, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Pele had goals and World Cups.
Maradona had outrageous genius and one World Cup. Both Messi and Ronaldo have goals at levels that we have never seen before. Purists will lament the failure of the modern generation to include either Ferenc Puskas or Alfredo Di Stefano, but alas this is the way the debate has gone.
There is one primary argument made for each of these four players who have been deemed worthy by the general consciousness. But what side of the debate you come down can depend on multiple factors. Some of this comes down to your personality and personal aesthetic preferences when it comes to football. Some comes down to age and the era you fell in love with football, and some can come down to the club and/or country you support.So what are the primary arguments made? For Pele the argument is three World Cups, including being part of the second team to win back-to-back titles. It’s over 1000 professional goals (no matter how dubious that is) and his incredible legacy within the game. For Maradona the argument is an unrivalled genius that put him so far ahead of his peers that it wasn’t even fair. More so than the others, Maradona’s maverick legacy attracts a certain type of person (that is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination). For Ronaldo the argument is two-fold. One, he dominated across three of Europe’s top five leagues, most notably the Premier League, so called “greatest league in the world”. Two, his work-rate propelled him to the top of a game where his talent perhaps did not warrant it. Conversely the argument for Messi is that there has never been a player with as much natural talent in his boots. It’s not just the amount of goals but the assists as well, the creativity that Ronaldo and Pele did not possess.
The real truth of the GOAT debate is that it is an entirely personal decison. It really is as simple as that. Perhaps you think Ronaldinho, George Best, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo Nazario, Eusebio or Johan Cruyff were the best players ever. Heck, maybe you think it’s Freddy Adu or Ravel Morrison. It doesn’t matter. At all.
But if you want to look at it from an objective perspective it’s hard to look past Messi. Yes Ronaldo has more goals. Yes Pele has more World Cups. But what Messi has done in terms of registering assists as well as scoring, as well as dragging some frankly not that impressive Argentina teams to two World Cup finals, as well as a Copa America triumph, is mighty impressive.
But more so than anything it is the consistency. One of the fascinating things about the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry has been how often we compare them next to each other, when not factoring in the age difference. Messi is two and a half years younger than Ronaldo and, as such, has two and a half years worth of games less in the bank. And yet whenever we compare Champions League goals or what have you, we always ignore that Ronaldo has played considerably more matches than Messi.
Messi’s detractors will argue that he has been relatively shielded, playing in a Barcelona team that was built for him and in a league that wouldn’t have “tested him” like the Premier League. Messi’s record against English teams probably speaks for itself there and if you watched La Liga and the Premier League side by side you would probably conclude that the former is better defensively, not the latter. Whether that’s because there is actually better defending or just because La Liga’s head to head rule causes more cautiousness is up for debate. But regardless, that argument doesn’t really stand up.
Plus at various points of his career, whether through moving directly to being a central striker or by the subservient roles of players like Karim Benzema, Ronaldo has spent a decent amount of time being the primary goal threat of the team, sometimes to the detriment of the team as that becomes his sole focus.
Do you know when the last time he reached double-digit in assists was? The 2014-15 season for Real Madrid. For Messi? He’s already got 10 this season for PSG. Ignoring his debut 2004-05 season, Messi has just five seasons across his career not hitting double digits in assists. Ignoring Ronaldo’s lone season at Sporting (and really he played enough games for it to count) he has 16 seasons where he didn’t reach double-digit assists, and that’s not including this disastrous season.
So what about goals? Well if we go from Messi’s debut season in 2005-06 (and really that’s a bit harsh as he only played 17 games) it is dead even at 9-9 in terms of looking at who outscored who each season. And for the record, in that 2005-06 season Ronaldo played in 33 Premier League games (24 starts compared to 11 for Messi). Based on what we have seen in the past few months you would imagine Messi will win more of the remaining seasons of their careers than Ronaldo will. If not them all.
And look, we don’t know what is going to happen with the rest of Messi’s career. In theory he will stay at PSG until the summer and then either go back to Barcelona for one more year, or go to Inter Miami in America. Or maybe even have one more year in Paris. Then he may have a fairytale finish back home with Newell’s. At the time of writing it’s very hard to see a club terminating his contract because he became too much to deal with. But still, he isn’t showing many signs of slowing down yet. He should be able to get to Ronaldo’s final good years, maybe even longer.
And what of Maradona and Pele? Well for the former you can certainly make an argument that his peak was as good as Messi’s peak, or even better. But the consistency is not even close, Maradona simply could not do it at the same level for a sustained period of time. For Pele the goals at club level argument quite quickly falls to pieces when you consider he never played outside of Brazil except for his brief New York stint. Plus at a certain point you have to talk about the level of the game at the moment given advances technically and physically. Yes, defenders aren’t allowed to hack you down in quite the same way as Pele’s time or even Maradona’s, but there’s no denying how far the game has come.
And that seems like a good point to make one final point. This is not to say that no player will ever pass Messi as the greatest of all time. There might be a small child somewhere kicking a ball that is going to have a career unlike anything we have ever seen. But they will have to start at a stupidly young age, and keep going for a hell of a long time. In Messi’s ‘age 19 season’ he scored 14 league goals, and he has only failed to score 10 or more league goals once in his career since that point, his first year in Paris.
As mentioned earlier in the article, this ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s highly unlikely that many people (if any) will be swayed by the arguments laid out here. Messi has produced a stunning level of football in his career, but so too have many others across the game’s history. His work thus far, regardless of what happens on Sunday, leaves him atop of the podium in this author’s eyes. Will it be the case for you? That’s for you to decide.