March 25, 2012
Messi great, but not unique
By James Lawton, Special to QMI Agency
It seems that the last barrier to Lionel Messi’s ascent to the unchallenged status as the greatest soccer player of all time is being stripped away.
For so long the ultimate litmus test for such a claimant was his success in the game’s most prestigious competition, the World Cup.
Pele, the eternal Pele, made his challenge in the tournaments of 1958 and 1970, first as a teenager of astonishing precocity, then as the competitive heart of the masterful Brazilians who triumphed 12 years later.
For many, though, Diego Maradona became the nonpareil by carrying Argentina to victory in Mexico 1986 and getting closer than anyone before or since to achieving the feat single-handedly.
Now the widely received wisdom is that there is a new decisive testing ground and that it is the club football of Europe and the pinnacle of its competition, the Champions’ League in which Messi seems to become a little more dominant each week.
Certainly the argument was strengthened by the World Cup of South Africa two years ago, when two major football nations, France and England, mustered what seemed to be nothing more than massive indifference and Holland, the old team of men like Johan Cruyff and Rudi Krol and Dennis Bergkamp attempted to kick Spain to defeat in a final memorable only for its thuggery.
Such a nadir of the game would now be hard to imagine at the formative stage of the Champions’ League, in which twice in the last three years Messi has produced such luminous football that even a critic as hard-headed as the superb European Cup-winning midfielder Graeme Souness has been persuaded that he is the finest player he has seen and that Barcelona are the best team.
A torrent of statistics gush around the argument. Only the legendary Gerd Muller of Bayern Munich and Gunnar Nordahl of Milan have superior strike rates, 0.88 and 0.82 compared to Messi’s 0.75 created by 234 goals in 314 games. Against Grenada last week, he scored his eighth hat-trick of the season, brought his total to 17 goals in just seven matches. There has never been such fecundity — or sleight of foot or imagination which is apparently never still.
So why don’t we all shrug and admit that he is the one, the anointed of the football gods?
Because it would be sloppy history, facile analysis. It would make an altar of today and a rubble of the past.
Nor would it be justice for those other men who still get fleeting mention in the slipstream of Messi’s irresistible progress towards one soccer landmark or another.
It would ignore the fact that Messi has grown up in a football team which has been progressively tailored to his needs, one which was already in the front rank of the game. It would ignore, too, some of the softer pickings available against teams like Grenada and Bayer Leverkusen. It would be to forget the effects of his progressive deification — and the huge bonus of referee protection that comes in its wake.
It would marginalize the fact that Maradona spent his entire career in need of powerful painkillers, such was the brutal treatment he received, most conspicuously when he went into the tank traps of Italian football and led Napoli to their first scudetto with a piece of team-building which is still spoken of with awe and admiration.
Nor should we forget the treatment Pele received in the 1966 World Cup, out of which he hobbled the victim of quite shocking physical assaults. It is against this background that we should consider his magisterial performance in Mexico four years later, where at the end of a group game he exchanged his shirt with Bobby Moore and the England captain later reflected that he had never stood so close to greatness.
Against Messi’s soaring deeds for Barca there is, too, the fact that he has been unable to light any similar fires on behalf of Argentina. But then we are told this doesn’t matter so much, that the World Cup has become a quadrennial diversion from the super-highway of the Champions’ League, and one citation, no doubt, is the time Zinedine Zidane arrived at the World Cup after scoring one of the great goals in a European Cup final. It was in 2002 and France, the reigning champions, didn’t make it beyond the group stage. Zidane, the star of 1998, was all played out.
Many claim that so too is the argument over the primacy of Messi. It is of course a formidable one, re-inforced, it seems, pretty much every time he goes out to play. Whatever he does, however, there are some images which still shine quite as brightly.
They include those of his compatriot Maradona riding a thousand tackles and Pele always doing what was best for his team.
They say that the greatness of Messi is many things but not yet, and perhaps never, unique.
James Lawton writes for The Independent newspaper in the U.K.