When we talk about the greatest players the world has ever seen, the same old familiar names continually crop up…..Puskas, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Pele, Maradona, Beckanbauer. Then fans add their personal favourites….Hoddle, Charlton, Dalglish, Larsson, Eusebio, Best etc Invariably it comes down to the two number tens. Are you a Pele fan? Or a Maradona supporter? A Brazilian and an Argentine ……when it came to announcing the player of the century, even FIFA wimped out of making a decision and made them joint champions. Pele or Maradona? We have all got an opinion – the hard part is keeping Maradona’s off field antics out of the debate.
Now there is a player on the verge of making that duopoly, a triumvirate. In the space of five days last week we watched as two of Europes great clubs were reduced to a shambles by a player known as “the flea”. Lionel Messi tore Arsenal to shreds in their champions league quarterfinal. Four goals of the highest quality. Messi’s movement, his vision, his touch, his whole game, were out of this world. Arsenal simply didn’t have an answer. To his credit, Arsene Wenger said as much after the game, likening Messi to a playstation footballer – that’s where one player seems to score all the goals and makes all the great runs.
Following the Arsenal slaughter our attentions were drawn to El Classico – Real Madrid v Barcelona ….and the supposed mouth watering subplot of the two greatest players in the world today. What a mismatch. Messi was sublime again, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo was virtually anonymous. In his first decent run he weaved past a defender saw the line of the penalty area and sank to his knees looking for a penalty….. Messi meanwhile was running amuck up front. His quick thinking and a wonderful one-two with Xavi resulted in “the flea” jinking behind a defender and putting the ball beyond Casillas and giving Barca the lead, a lead they would never look like giving up. Like Arsenal, Real just couldn’t handle Messi’s off the ball runs, his timing, his movement. Its not the first time the two have faced each other – famously last seasons champions league final saw Messi – all 5’ 7” of him – score with a header as Barca won 2-0 against Ronaldo’s Manchester United. Ronaldo was missing in action that day too. Put simply there is no comparison between the two.
Messi is, of course, the current world player of the year, after being ranked second in each of the last two years and is streets ahead of whoever is considered second now. But is he good enough to join the other number 10s? Well, not yet. Though he has proven himself at club level and in the strongest league in the world (the Champions League), he has still to shine at a world cup. Not only shine at a world cup, but win it for his country. When we recall Pele, we remember the 17 year old scoring for fun in 1958 and the star man in what is arguably the greatest team ever, Brazil of 1970. When we think back to Maradona, we recall a man who won the 1986 world cup almost single handedly and somehow inspired a poor Argentine side to the Italia 90 final. Magnificent achievements! Both those players played in four world cups.
Messi is just 22. He played in Germany and could potentially play in a further four world cups. In 2006 he became the youngest player to represent Argentina at a world cup, and being the youngest scorer in the tournament, he was also the sixth youngest scorer of all time. He made three appearances at the tournament but was amazingly left on the bench as Argentina were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
It’s the great tournaments that define the truly great players. South Africa in June seems to be beckoning for Messi, but his country’s team are struggling under Maradona’s stewardship. We are looking at the most wide open world cup for a long time. Spain are as good as they have ever been, England (as always!) fancy themselves, and we can be certain that Germany and Brazil will be a threat as they always are. There’s also the suggestion that Ghana, Nigeria & Ivory Coast will have some say as to who wins the trophy. Argentina may have struggled through qualifying but they will no doubt be a threat. If Messi can transfer his Barcelona form to his national team……if Maradona can build his team around him……we might well see Messi really stamp his authority as one the truly great players of all time.
Its almost frightening to think that he is still five years from his peak.