Sunday, October 30, 2011
How Lionel Messi Compares to the World's All-Time Greatest Footballers
Lionel “Leo” Messi is everywhere you look. He’s on television promoting the latest pair of soccer cleats, where a transcendent montage shows him sprinting around hapless defenders and jumping—or flying—through tacklers, arms outstretched, his body suspended in mid-air while the camera zooms in on the shoes.
He’s all over the internet, dominating message boards, fan pages, advertisements, and websites everywhere. Messi’s Facebook page has over 28 million fans, which is more than the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys, and LA Lakers combined.
Messi’s Youtube videos have millions of hits, and the endless footage of him striking wonder goals from all over the pitch provides innumerable highlights for teenage mashup artists, who will inevitably create a Messi/Eminem music montage for the billionth time.
Every sports pundit and commentator gushes over his unmatched skills, and whether the game being announced is German, French, or English, Messi is used as the golden standard. The remarks are endless: “He has Messi-like quickness”; “He’s been compared to a young Messi”; “His vision is similar to Messi’s”; “Even Messi would be jealous of that goal!” The proclamations go on and on. Messi this, Messi that, what will Messi eat for dinner?
If you think members of the sports media gush over Messi, just watch and listen to average soccer fans. Babies wear Messi onesies, children wear Messi soccer jerseys even though they have no idea of where (or what) “Argentina” is, and teenagers who wear the classic striped Barcelona scarlet and blue kits swear they’ve been following the team for years, but when asked to name as many players as possible, they can only name one: Lionel Messi.
Messi Fever is at record levels, but popularity and public perception doesn’t automatically equate to greatness (Sorry, David Beckham), so where does Messi actually stand among the world’s all-time best footballers?
First, we need to look at who really was the very best: Pelè. Yes, the Brazilian sensation who could soar over buildings, leap across oceans, and teleport himself (along with the ball) directly in front of the opposing team’s goalkeeper in the blink of an eye. But depending on who you ask, many claim to have seen players do that before.
The British will smartly roll their eyes, then scoffingly remark that George Best was better, the French will say Michel Platini was flashier, the Dutch will swear that Johan Cruyff was more influential, and the Argentinians will religiously worship the superiority of Maradona for eternity.
Legends are full of exaggeration and hype, but Pelè has some impressive stats that are hard to ignore. First, he scored over 1200 career goals, averaging nearly a goal per game. If that weren’t enough, he won the world cup with Brazil a record of three different times. There, enough said. It doesn’t matter who you saw during their prime, how hard their shot was or how fast they ran, if they can’t compare with those stats, then the case is closed.
What made Pelè the best was his ability to perform anywhere and at anytime. He wasn’t a one-dimensional player who just had a good club career, but he was also able to exceed on the biggest stage: during the World Cup Tournament. This is what makes a soccer player one of the best: the ability to win for both club and country.
After Pelè, the list of all-time greats has the usual suspects: Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane, Stefano, Beckenbauer, Platini, Best, and Charlton. Sure, these guys were great, but how does Messi compare?
Right now, Messi is decidedly one of the best current players, but time will tell if he’ll be considered one of the all-time greats. Unfortunately for Messi, he’s part of one of the world’s greatest football systems: Barcelona.
Here’s why playing for Barcelona is such a problem: It’s hard to imagine Messi without Barcelona, the two go hand in hand, but Barcelona was great before Messi. In many ways, Messi is a product of Barca. He’s the centerpiece of their design and strategy, but if you take him out of this design he probably wouldn’t be nearly as successful.
Imagine Messi playing for any other club. He just wouldn’t fit, and defenses would be much more prepared to stop him. At Barca, however, opposing players have to account for numerous attacking forwards besides Messi: Fabregas, Villa, Xavi, and Pedro.
This season, Messi already has 8 goals from 31 shots. The second closest shooter is Villa with 18 shots. This is the way Barca wants it, with Messi shooting as many shots as possible. But would Messi still be considered the world’s best player if he played for a club like Blackburn or Wigan Athletic? Great players shine no matter where they play, but with Messi, his success seems to be contingent to his connection with Barcelona.
Questioning Messi’s ability to function outside of the Barca system is not unwarranted. His international career with Argentina has been characterized as a disappointment, and he’s only scored 18 goals in 63 appearances. Contrarily, Pelè had 643 goals in 656 national team appearances for Brazil, again averaging nearly one goal per game.
Messi has yet to shine outside of Barcelona. What makes a soccer player immortal is his ability to win anywhere, no matter what the venue, situation, or time. But Messi has been a statistical flop for Argentina, and he’s yet to make a significant name for himself during international competitions, and even though Maradona didn’t have exceptional national team stats, he was at least able to score when it counted, and he delivered a World Cup. Winning a World Cup is the key element that will ensure Messi’s future greatness.
Right now Messi only has about 250 career goals, and if he were to play another 10 years, he would have to average about 100 goals per year to match the output that both Pelè and Maradona achieved during their careers. In the end, Messi may go down as one of Barcelona’s greatest players while being one of Argentina’s greatest disappointments.