I’ve decided to write today on another of my passions, soccer. I figure that if a serious writer like George Will can dedicate one or two columns a year to a boring sport like baseball, I can post an essay on the world’s most beautiful game. If you’re not a soccer fan, read no further. If you are a student of the game, then I’m sure that you’ll agree with me that the campaign currently underway to crown Barcelona’s Lionel Messi as the best soccer player ever is both premature and lacking in historical perspective.
There’s no question that Messi is scoring goals right and left for Barcelona, the world’s best club team (and quite possibly the best team of any category on the planet). In every game he’s fed passes by world-class players like Xavi, Iniesta, and Fàbregas, and he performs brilliantly. I have no objection to his designation as the world’s best player right now. But better than Pelé, Maradona, and Cruyff? If he is, it’s way too early to tell.
Pelé’s athleticism was certainly superior to Messi’s: he ran faster, jumped higher, and netted more goals (1281) in his career than Messi could ever dream of scoring. Indeed, Messi advocate Kevin Baxter of the LA Times recently pointed out that even if Messi has an equally long career (21 years) and continues to score goals at his current pace, he’ll score just over half of Pele’s total.
That said, the Pelé/Messi comparison is a difficult one to make. Brazil declared Pelé a national treasure and didn’t allow him to play club soccer outside the country, depriving Pelé of the chance to play in the world’s best professional leagues against the best club teams. Had he done so, it’s highly unlikely that he would have scored nearly as many goals in Italy or Spain as he did in the Brazilian league. In addition, Pelé’s contribution to Brazil’s three World Cup wins in twelve years is questionable. In 1958, he was unquestionably the revelation of the tournament. In 1962, he was injured in the second game and sat out the rest of the World Cup. However, Brazil won without him. In 1966, he was injured in the first round and Brazil was knocked out of the Cup. In 1970, a healthy Pelé played on what is probably the best team to ever win a World Cup. The Argentine national team, with Messi, has never won any kind of tournament.
Johan Cruyff, my nominee for most brilliant soccer mind, was voted European Player of the Century in 1999. He performed wonders for Ajax, one of the world’s best teams in the 60s and 70s, and led Holland to a second-place finish in 1974 behind a talented German team playing at home. Cruyff was the personification of the total football philosophy, which he successfully implemented as the coach of Barcelona. Indeed, without Cruyff there would be no super Barcelona team to prop up Messi. The reason why Cruyff does not rank at the top of soccer’s pantheon is that although he did not participate in the 1978 World Cup, Holland finished second anyway. I firmly believe that Holland would have beaten Argentina if Cruyff had played in that game, but we will never know. At any rate, it’s hard to make the case that Cruyff was indispensable to the Dutch team if they achieved the same World Cup result with or without him.
It is when we compare Messi to his compatriot Diego Maradona, whom I once took around Disney World, that we see just how much more Messi has to accomplish before his name can legitimately be mentioned in the same sentence with the all-time greats. Maradona is lauded for two major accomplishments at the club and international levels. First of all, he took Napoli, a club that was in 12th place in the world’s toughest league, the Italian Serie A, and led it to two national championships (the only ones it has ever had) and two second-place finishes. He also led Argentina to a World Cup victory in 1986 with what is arguably the weakest team to win the Cup in modern times, then led another mediocre Argentina team four years later to the World Cup final against Germany. In short, Maradona was the ultimate franchise player that you’d want to build a team around. If you want to hire someone to score goals, choose Messi or Pelé. However, if you’re looking for someone who can not only score goals but take your team from the bottom of the table to a league championship, I can’t think of any player in history more capable of doing that than Maradona in his prime.
In order to compare Messi to Maradona, the question to ask is not what he is currently doing for Barcelona, a team of superstars, but what he could do for 12th-place Rayo Vallecano if given the chance. Would he be able to lead them to two championships? Based on Messi’s performance on teams that are not filled with stars, the answer is “not a chance.” Until Messi leads Argentina to a World Cup victory and/or demonstrates the ability to play brilliantly while surrounded by teammates not named Xavi or Iniesta, soccer writers have no business mentioning him in the same breath as Diego Maradona, the greatest player to ever play the game.