Lionel Messi has many devotees. The 23-year-old Barcelona forward is undoubtedly the most talented player on the planet, but how does he rank against the greats of the game?
As far as trophies are concerned, Messi has won everything the club game has to offer, playing a major part in Barcelona’s historic 2009 six-trophy haul.
That year, Messi was named European Footballer of the Year, Spanish Footballer of the Year, and World Footballer of the Year. In short, Messi is fantastic.
In a world that lacks the same level of talent football has had in previous eras, Messi stands out as a player of supreme ability, a genius if you will.
The 5'6" maestro is simply mesmeric to watch.
Rarely is the ball allowed to leave his incredible sphere of influence. When he is in control of the ball it might as well be glued to his foot.
Like many of the greatest players before him, Lionel Messi is a player who excites fans and causes alarm in defenders at the same rate, to such an extent that whole teams and managers go out of their way to neutralise the prodigy. This, in effect, releases space for his teammates to exploit.
The last player to cause such terror in defences was his old international manager, Diego Armando Maradona.
While Cristiano Ronaldo may be the closest players on the planet to even come near reaching the greatness Messi has to offer, even he falls into shadow when comparing the talents the two players have to offer.
One of the areas that critics of the Portuguese have always been able to point to is his weak character. Far too often does Ronaldo allow the occasion get to him.
Think back to the UEFA Champions League Final in 2009 between Barcelona and Manchester United, Portugal’s recent defeat to Spain, or any of the Clasico's from the 2010/11 season, The manner of his performances are uncannily similar in almost every match.
The boy from Madeira’s performance's are self-centered and self-indulgent on almost every occasion and are built upon his own egotistical desires when his team needed their biggest player to pull something out of the fire.
In 2009, La Blaugrana ripped the Red Devils to pieces with a performance of clinical beauty. Messi put in a fantastic team display and was not Barca’s best player on the night, but the contrast shows the difference between the two players. Messi is a team player whereas Ronaldo wants his teams to play for him, and if the team benefits from his good performance then so be it.
Johann Cruyff summed the difference up perfectly when he said, “It is impossible to put a price on his greatness, not only for the way he takes responsibility on behalf of the team, but also because of his generosity of spirit [on the pitch].”The moral courage that Messi shows is something that all great players have, and the little Argentinean has it in spades.
He always shows for his players and supports from angles that that are easy to take advantage of. He is also unafraid to take the ball in tight positions, this particular skill and fearlessness means that an out ball to Messi is always on option for a player under pressure.
When he does eventually get on the ball, he is almost unstoppable. His train of thought is swift, his dribbling ability rapier like, and his capacity to change direction and confound defenders is like something from a video game.
Messi has everything in terms of individual skill and in terms of the team game, so it is little wonder that people are beginning to compare him to the greats of the game.
Ex-Barcelona President Joan Laporta even went as far as to say, “He is the greatest player in the world and in the history of football.”Laporta may not be the most objective of judges, he basically owned Messi and all, but what he says is worth listening to.
Players of Messi’s stature come along once every generation. Alfredo Di Stefano in the ‘40s, Pele in the ‘50s, George Best and Johann Cruyff in the ‘60s, and Diego Maradona in the ‘70s.
It says much on the state of the game and the evolution of defensive coaching that a player of the calibre of the ones mentioned has not appeared in the world game since the mid-‘70s.
Messi is the first player in almost 40 years to even come close to matching the records set before him.
When Alfredo Di Stefano joined River Plate in 1943, few would have thought that the youth on show would go down as one of the game's greatest ever exponents of centre forward play.
Famed for his part in Real Madrid’s domination of the European Cup in the ‘50s, the Argentinean’s future career was defined by his first five years in the game.
Between 1945 and 1950 Di Stefano played for San Lorenzo, River Plate, and Millionarios, scoring 97 goals in 134 games.
The next great player to enter the game was Pele. Edson Errantes De Nasciamento made his debut for Santos in 1957. Over the next five years he scored an incredible 202 goals in 257 matches.
Johann Cruyff was part of the famous Ajax side that won the European Cup three times a row in the early ‘70s and inspired Rinus Michels's “Total Football” through his phenomenal technical ability and speed of thought. He made his first appearance for Ajax in 1964, between then and 1969 he scored 164 goals in 202 matches.
The last player on the list, and the greatest according to many, is Diego Maradona. The scorer of the greatest World Cup goal of all time scored 144 goals in 206 games between 1976 and 1981.
How does Messi compare?
The Flea made his debut for Barcelona in the 2004/05 season against Espanyol. Since then he has scored 179 goals in 264 games.
His record is highly favourable, especially when you consider that Messi plays in an era where players are fitter than ever before and where tactics have reached new levels.
Of course. it is worth pointing out too that Messi never had to, or will ever have to, endure the levels of physical abuse his predecessors were forced to.
One amazing stat that jumps right out is that, of the players mentioned, three of the five played, or play for, Barcelona, and Alfredo Di Stefano was a Barcelona player until FIFA stepped in.
Will Messi ever reach the same kind of status afforded to the likes of Pele and Maradona? Only time will tell.
His current manager, Pep Guardiola, has an opinion on the player that is also worth listening to…
“Messi is the greatest footballer I have ever seen…or expect to ever see.”
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