Written by DAVE MacBryde for Sports Kitchen Entertainment Group
On Saturday, a stunning Lionel Messi hat-trick led Barcelona to victory over Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium. Unbelievably, it was the 50th hat-trick of his career, with 44 having been scored for the Catalans and six in the famous colours of Argentina. It’s probably fair to say that most football fans regard this diminutive magician as the best player in the world, while many would even label him the best ever.
However, with the five-time Balon d’Or winner fast approaching his 32nd birthday, there are perhaps some who might question that notion — especially given Messi has only ever played in La Liga and is yet to try his hand in the English Premier League, which is often cited as being the most competitive in the world.
It might seem harsh to even remotely question the loyalty of such an icon to the club who paid for his growth hormone treatment (completed at age 14) and brought him through the famed Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, before propelling him to world stardom. Indeed, one-club players are increasingly hard to find in the modern era, where footballers are more transient than ever before. Certainly, that Messi has stayed at Barcelona throughout the duration of his glittering career is commendable.
Despite rumours that Manchester City attempted to sign Messi in 2017, the lure of the Premier League was never strong enough to prise him away from the Camp Nou. However, sceptics might
wonder why the boy from Rosario has yet to show any ambitions to play in England, whose club sides he has repeatedly tortured in European competition over the years. Having won all there is to win at Barcelona, would the club really stand in his way should he look to one last hurrah overseas?
It’s notable that the equally talented Ronaldo — also a five-time Balon d’Or winner — can lay claim to having won titles in both England and Spain, with another in Italy surely to follow in a few weeks’ time (Juventus currently sit top of Serie A, thirteen points clear of Napoli, with thirteen games to play). His five Champions League winners’ medals only narrowly trumps Messi’s four, although the Argentine’s nine La Liga triumphs comfortably outnumber Ronaldo’s five league titles to date, comprised in both England and Spain.
Indeed, the oft-discussed Messi/Ronaldo debate is rolled out as much as the best footballer of all time one. For me, it’s difficult to compare players from different eras, with matches at all levels now played on pitches that resemble carpets and not the quagmires of years gone by. Similarly, the sport of football is no longer one for hatchet-men, with bookings given for the slightest of contact, unlike the brutal treatment dished out by some of the game’s notorious hardmen in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Quite rightly, the Messis of this world can glide across surfaces without fear of being snapped in two (at least not without the miscreant facing sufficient punishment), though this was a luxury not afforded to the stars of previous generations. Take for example Pele — still considered by many to be the greatest ever; literally kicked out of the 1966 World Cup after some shocking treatment by the Portuguese (who themselves boasted one of the world’s best in Eusebio). Had that game taken place today, any number of those ‘assaults’ could have resulted in red cards.
Notably, Pele spent all of his career outside of Europe; 18 years in total at Santos, as well as a brief spell at New York Cosmos in the late 1970s. His three World Cup winners’ medals and host of club triumphs in his native Brazil made him a firm favourite of many during the era in which he played. That he was a great ambassador for the sport (and remains so today) only adds to his kudos.
Messi’s compatriot — the similarly brilliant Diego Maradona — would find his career in jeopardy after an appalling tackle by Andoni Goikoetxea (labelled ‘The butcher of Bilbao’) broke his ankle whilst playing for Barcelona against Atletico Bilbao in 1983. Thankfully, a three-month layoff was all he suffered. For a good number of football fans growing up in the 1980s though, Diego Maradona can still stake a claim to be the best player ever.
Given that his reputation was severely damaged following the famous ‘Hand of God’ goal in the 1986 World Cup — and the drug test he later failed at the 1994 tournament in the USA — this only shows the impact Maradona made in a relatively short period of time.
After a short spell at Barcelona, he joined unfashionable Napoli, a provincial club with not one Serie A title to their name. However, after almost single-handedly inspiring Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, Maradona then won two ‘Scudettos’ with the Neapolitans in 1987 and 1990, sandwiched by a UEFA Cup title in 1989, securing messiah-like status in Naples forever.
Suffice to say, when considering the best there’s ever been, it’s probably too simplistic to compile a shortlist and merely throw in the accompanying statistics. Some context needs to be applied; for example, Maradona joined an ailing South Italian club where he brought glory to a success starved fanbase, all the while being a marked man for his trickery and genius. It could also be argued that the Argentina team of 1986 would never have been World Champions without him to call upon.
Meanwhile, Messi came to an already well-oiled and successful Barcelona machine, though would help take them to another level entirely. His fitness, dedication and scarcely believable scoring record quite rightly puts him in the pantheon of all-time greats. Certainly, his professionalism and sportsmanship ensure his own legendary status will remain undiminished in Catalonia and beyond.
Ronaldo’s staggering career to date ensures he is a legend in both Manchester and Madrid, with Real having struggled this season since his departure last summer. His presence at the already dominant Juventus will surely put the ‘Old Lady’ even further ahead of the competition.
While some football purists will already have decided their own favourite player of all time, there are too many variables for me. The longevity of Messi and Ronaldo’s success is indeed alluring, though the stars of yesteryear — whether Pele, Best, Cruyff, Maradona, Dalglish, Zico or Platini (to name but a few) — have all made their mark during different eras, for club and national sides of differing abilities. The relativity of such a debate is therefore something which needs to be considered. However, to be able to say that any of us have seen these wonderfully gifted players in the flesh or on screen is truly a privilege to behold.