Throughout his career, Lionel Messi has made us reach for the history books more than once. In the 2nd leg of the game with Bayer Leverkusen, he made us do so again. He became the first player in the Champions’ League history to score 5 goals in a game, and only the eleventh player in the history of the European Cup to do. Inevitably, the conversation began once again about whether he is the best player ever to play football. The argument about Messi’s place in history is probably the defining football debate of this media driven age. Those who do not subscribe to crowning him as the best ever say it is because we watch him week in, week out and as a result his image is dominant in our minds, while those of other great players recede. This would have been a great point, except that it is destroyed by the sheer weight of his statistics. Messi will soon become the youngest player ever to reach 50 Champions’ League goals, a full 3 years before Raul. This brings to mind how many goals he is likely to score should be continue at anything quite like this rate. This season, he has already scored 50 goals in all competitions, just 3 behind his tally for last season. Note that we are in the second week of March. Also, he has played like this for the last 3 seasons, nearly non-stop. In a perverse way, he has set the standard so high, that his best has become…normal. We are used to seeing him score braces and hat-tricks with alarming regularity, to the point that we are almost desensitized. It has probably affected his standing among his detractors. He once used to be compared to Cristiano Ronaldo, for the title of the best player of his generation, and the fact that the debate is now more or less over says nothing of Ronaldo’s quality, but more of Messi’s other-worldly abilities.
Amazingly, he continues to rack up those figures playing in perfect harmony with the system. Normally with players like that, the form of a top player affects the rest of the team negatively, and decreases everyone else somehow. Not so here. His individuality is completely immersed in the system. His record at Barcelona reads: 230 goals and 93 assists. He gives to his team mates almost as much as he receives, rarely missing a beat along the way.
Those who still take issue with putting him at the pinnacle of football say he is yet to produce at a big tournament in the colours of Argentina. This is true, but there are so many reasons why this argument is less solid than it looks. First, the World Cup is no longer what it used to be. The aim of FIFA to expand the format and bring more countries in has diluted the quality available, to the point that the Champions’ League is now the top competition in the world. This is the same competition that Messi has won three times in the last four years. Another reason is that because there are a lot of smaller teams in international tournaments, they inevitably play defensively (or maybe ‘organised’ is more politically correct) to contain their more illustrious opponents. Fitter players and advanced tactics have made it easier to fashion a decent defence, than it is to put together a decent attack. At the last World Cup, only Spain and Chile were consistently proactive. Most other teams played on the counter-attack.
To succeed at international tournaments, a number of things have to go right. The right coach and team-mates is very necessary. Messi had neither in 2010. It is easy to forget that Zidane had the best defence in the 1998 World Cup behind him. Two members of that defence came up with crucial goals in the knock-out stages. Maradona won the World Cup in 1986 as part of a team that was largely poor by way of results before and after, getting it right only in that short space of time, made possible by Carlos Bilardo’s use of a 3-5-2. Pele had players like Garrincha, Zagallo, Nilton and Djalma Santos, Didi and Vava around him. He won the World Cup in 1962 despite playing only 2 games. In 1970, there was Jairzinho, Tostao, Carlos Alberto. What Messi has lacked at national level, he has been blessed with at team level, with Xavi, Iniesta and Alves around him, as well as a system created by Pep Guardiola where he can stand out and blend in perfectly at the same time.
At the end of the day, the best players ever thrived and won the trophies they won because everything came together on and off the pitch. The idea of one player carrying a team on his back is cute in theory, but really doesn’t happen in practice. Football is, and always be, a team sport. I am rooting for Argentina to win the World Cup in 2014, not to convince me that he’s the best player ever, but to convince everyone else.