Lionel Messi leading Argentina out in the final of his last World Cup, trying to win the only significant trophy that has eluded him over the course of football’s greatest ever career.
The arc feels too narratively perfect to trust. Elite sport is always more brutal than it is blissful. But then Messi is the player who has treated us to more moments of perfection than any other. Perhaps it was always building to this point?
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that reference to the “greatest ever.” But what about the final to end all finals, Messi’s date with destiny?
It would unquestionably be the most perfect — yeah, that word again — crescendo imaginable, equally satisfying to the completists and the romantics. But looking at Messi’s overall body of work, his place at the top of the pile feels like an open-and-shut case.
Of course, no one is truly objective in these debates and nor should they be. We all have biases related to what we’ve seen certain players do, how they made us feel, and what they have come to mean and represent in the game and beyond.
There are three men who rub shoulders with Messi in the sometimes interminable G.O.A.T. debate and his greatness, which has been displayed so artfully in Qatar, feels like something that should highlight rather than diminish the achievements of all of them.
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Is Lionel Messi better than Pele?
This is the hardest comparison of the three to make for a few reasons. If you think the debate between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is ridiculously polarised (more on that below), then all the very best trying to find a Brazilian who picks Messi, or an Argentine who plumps for Pele.
Beyond the tribalism of international football’s fiercest rivalry, the passage of time is the most considerable obstacle. Pele’s glorious farewell to the biggest stage came more than half a century ago, as Brazil’s dazzling canary yellow shirts were beamed around the world in over-saturated technicolour, burning indelible images of their seminal triumph at Mexico 1970 in the worldwide imagination.
That first World Cup shown in colour was the latest step forward in football’s fledgling televisual age and Pele was around for most of those big moments, from his breakthrough as an instant teenage superstar at the 1958 tournament, through injury heartache in victory and defeat in 1962, and 1966 respectfully, to the redemption of full realisation of Jogo Bonito at the Azteca Stadium in 1970.
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It’s hard to appreciate how fleeting the superstars of Pele’s generation were, like magical aliens beamed into television sets every four years before disappearing to the margins of newspaper and magazine column inches, where their lore grew through towering deeds and tall tales.
By contrast, Messi’s every move since emerging almost fully formed at Barcelona, where he took part in a first successful Champions League campaign in 2005/06, has been captured by dozens of cameras whenever he visits the field. Some analysis of his performances in Qatar has lurched into hagiography, but it’s remarkable how his showreel moments in every game still prompt such awe and wonderment. Shouldn’t we all just be used to his extraterrestrial carry-on by now?
One parallel between Messi at Qatar 2022 and Pele at Mexico 1970 is how their most enduring contributions were not their goals. For Pele’s audacious shot from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia, to his no-touch dummy to beat the goalkeeper against Uruguay, and the feather-duster pass for Carlos Alberto’s victory-sealing goal in the final, see Messi putting in his best performance of the group stage in the game where he failed to score and missed a penalty, or outshining all five of his goals by attaching an invisible dog lead to Josko Gvardiol and setting up Julian Alvarez in the semifinal.
All of those examples show it’s churlish to reduce Messi and Pele to mere numbers, however impressive they might be. Brazil fans will particularly enjoy the tally of 3-0 in terms of World Cups, but Messi is closer on most other metrics and better off on many. There are four Champions Leagues to two Copa Libertadores trophies, and 11 domestic league titles to Pele’s seven.
In December of 2021, Messi’s 758th career goal surpassed Pele’s 757 in official matches, although the latter famously reached a career haul of 1,000 while at Santos before retiring at New York Cosmos with 1,281 in all matches including friendlies and exhibitions.
🧔 35 años
⚽ 5 goles
⏱ 540 minutos jugados
Nuestra leyenda, más vigente que nunca 🙌 pic.twitter.com/MbD5OmMzgE
— Selección Argentina 🇦🇷 (@Argentina) December 14, 2022
For the modern, statistically obsessed game, the disparity in Pele’s two tallies attracts increasing mirth. But it is important to understand the context of those exhibitions. For every knockabout friendly, there were fiercely contested games against the best teams in the world.
Santos were keen to cash in on having the golden boy in their ranks as football went global. The Copa Libertadores and European Cup were still in their infancy, meaning there was huge intrigue when Santos ventured across the Atlantic to take on the likes of Real Madrid and Inter Milan. These games were anything but a vehicle for stat padding.
In many respects, they also pointed towards a future where the Champions League behemoth would allow the two best players in the world to define themselves as great irrespective of whether or not they hoisted a World Cup.
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Is Lionel Messi better than Cristiano Ronaldo?
Really? Do we have to? Honestly, some blowhards will dedicate a 12-part series to this nonsense.
Messi vs. Ronaldo. Leo vs. Cristiano. LM10 vs. CR7. Pessi vs. Penaldo. And so on, and so on.
As they reach the end of their careers — it is surely the final World Cup for both — both men seem more at peace with one another than they were on either side of El Clasico’s divide during their mutual zenith. A pre-World Cup photoshoot carried a level of poignancy that should be beyond any bid to flog a few designer suitcases.
Their contrasting styles saw them drive one another to increasingly absurd heights and persuaded armies of acolytes to dig their heels in. Those differences also resulted in something approaching equality of outcome. They basically won everything, over and over again.
Messi has seven Ballon d’Or trophies to Ronaldo’s five. Ronaldo has five Champions League titles to Messi’s four, and he is also the leading international goalscorer of all time. Ahead of the World Cup final, they have a scarcely credible 1,610 career goals between them.
Those statistics and numbers are collated, along with plenty of others, on the Messi vs Ronaldo website. A poll there gives an insight into where we’ve landed away from the loudest voices on social media. Messi is rated as the best of the two by 77 percent of respondents.
The reality of both their careers — with the possible exception of the middle of the previous decade when Ronaldo inspired Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions Leagues and won a major honour with Portugal before his rival had done likewise with Argentina — is that Messi has always felt one beat, an imperceptible shuffle of his dancing feet ahead. Sunday’s grand climax coming at the end of a tournament when Ronaldo became unemployed and was then dropped by his national team magnifies this to a harsh degree.
If you’ve made your mind up on the Messi and Ronaldo debate, this article or anything else probably won’t change your mind. Just accept that they have unquestionably been a gift to one another.
Is Lionel Messi better than Diego Maradona?
At once the easiest and most uncomfortable of these comparisons. Both Argentina’s No. 10, both their country’s captain, both the best player of their era, and both the carriers of their nation’s fevered hopes and dreams.
There was a time during Messi’s international career, tellingly not long after Maradona’s brief and ultimately unsuccessful period as Argentina head coach, when it felt like sacrilege to compare the two.
Maradona was El Pibe de Oro — the Golden Boy — who represented the realisation of Argentina’s footballing ideal and mythology. His was a story of struggle, tenacity, exquisite skill and cunning (for the latter, see the kinder readings of his ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the 1986 quarterfinal).
By comparison, Messi had led a feathered existence. Plucked from Rosario at 13 by Barcelona, he never played domestic football in Argentina. A limp display on home soil at the 2011 Copa America, where Carlos Tevez’s earthier talents were more to the crowd’s favour, marked a low point. Messi was the best player in the world and how exactly were Argentina benefitting?
When Maradona was at the top of the tree, he inspired the Albiceleste to glory at the 1986 World Cup. Winning a couple of league titles with Napoli was also much harder than racking them up at Barca.
So the unflattering argument went. When Messi reached a World Cup at the peak of his powers, he was also captain and number 10 and Argentina similarly played Germany in the final. But whereas Maradona’s team won 3-2 and he dazzled at the business end of the tournament, in 2014 Alejandro Sabella’s side lost 1-0 after extra time and an exhausted Messi did not score after the group stage.
But, amid the rubble of that heartbreak and the unfathomably cruel experience of back-to-back Copa America final defeats to Chile on penalties in 2015 and 2016, Messi found his struggle.
After a swiftly aborted international retirement in 2016, Messi returned to drag a shambolic Argentina to the 2018 World Cup thanks to an incredible hat-trick in Ecuador. Cheered on by Maradona from the stands, they were a shambles in Russia and bowed out after a last-16 defeat to France.
The conversation had significantly shifted towards what Argentina could do to help Messi rather than what Messi must do to heroically help a nation for which he had already sweated blood. Lionel Scaloni picked up the reins as head coach and has built a team that, while flawed, serves the purpose of elevating their talisman rather than dragging him down.
Copa America glory finally arrived in 2021, back at the Maracana seven years after that defeat to Germany. A weight was lifted and, as much as the shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia in Qatar threatened to re-apply some baggage, Argentina have marched on with an unshakeable sense of purpose.
At this World Cup, operating in the twilight of his career, Messi has compiled a body of work to compare with Maradona’s majestic tournament in 1986. There is a sadness that he is no longer around to witness it. Messi’s deeds packing the streets of Buenos Aires over recent weeks, echoing the scenes that followed Maradona’s death in 2020, carries a heavy poignancy.
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It’s pretty much impossible to be put above Maradona in the collective Argentine consciousness. Messi being placed next to him, in songs, on banners and in the popular imagination as a continuation of a great story as opposed to a pale imitation is one of his greatest triumphs.
The greatest might just come on Sunday, but if a formidable France side come out on top, it will not alter Messi’s lofty position in the game.
The prolific forward who dribbles better than most wingers, passes like the best trequartista, and reads the game like a master libero has them all covered. Messi can match Pele for artistry and inspiration, hang with Ronaldo in terms of numerical brutality, and is now an idol to his people like his hero Maradona. He’s the greatest with or without the one gold medal still missing from his collection.