What constitutes ‘The Greatest Ever’? Ryan Mackenzie attempts to answer an age-old question
Lionel Messi is in unstoppable form at the moment, quite literally. He is on course to eclipse seventy goals for the season as well as a rack of assists, with the potential of a second consecutive Champions League title to go with it. It is therefore not surprising that people and pundits are crying out and professing his brilliance, with the tag of “the greatest ever” following not far behind. It’s true that we have seldom, if ever, seen a player do what Messi does and with such consistency, but is that enough to call him the best to have ever played the beautiful game?
Of course, it’s tempting to make such a claim, as often the excitement his wonderful talent brings out in us can lead us to say so, but perhaps it is somewhat short-sighted. While the young Argentine has proven his worth on almost every stage, he has thus far failed to do it without his supporting cast of Barcelona stars. His Argentinian teammates did not manage to flourish alongside him at both World Cups and Copa Americas since he made his major tournament debut back in Germany six years ago. This may seem like an innocuous issue and possibly even a mere blemish on an otherwise flawless career, but it is unfortunate enough to excuse Messi from the ‘greatest ever’ title challenge, because in football, World Cup heroes, rather than those of the Champions’ League, are historically considered the best in the game.
The truth of the matter is that Argentina have faired no better with Messi than they did without him. In four major competitions the Argentinians have failed to impress, with their best performance coming in the 2007 Copa America, where they were runners-up to Brazil. In fact, last year they failed to progress past the quarter-final stage of the competition on home soil. Messi will have to wait until Brazil 2014 before he can prove himself on the biggest stage in world sport, and there will be no room for failure, given the strength of the Argentinian squad and the favourable environment of South America.
American team sports are, of course, different to football. There is less of an emphasis on international competition, if any. They measure sportsmen on their achievements at club level, a luxury Messi doesn’t have. In baseball, there was Babe Ruth, ‘The Great Bambino’. Ruth won seven World Series with the New York Yankees and is widely considered to be the finest baseball player to ever take to the plate. In basketball, we had Michael Jordan, while in ice hockey, it was all about Canada’s national icon Wayne Gretzky. It is with Jordan, however, that the most cogent comparisons to Messi can be made, some even coming from Barcelona’s manager Josep Guardiola.
Jordan was a phenomenon. As much as people like to compare him to the likes of Kobe Bryant or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when it boils down to it neither comes close to the Chicago Bulls legend. Jordan dominated in every facet of the game and remains the most prolific scorer of all time. All in all however, it was Jordan’s clutch play and ability in the big games that divorces him from the rest. The number 23 won two back-to-back three-peats in his career – achieving one is something that has eluded most of the greats of the game – which were separated only by a brief stint in baseball. To put Jordan’s accomplishments into perspective, for Messi to emulate it he would have to win La Liga six times in seven years, and even this does not quite equate to the comparable challenge in the NBA.
Of course, to hold these shortcomings against Messi is in many ways an equally unfair measurement of his ability. The fact of the matter is that all signs point towards the Argentine ticking all of them off the list at some stage, but sport has taught us not to count our chickens before they hatch – such has been the case with Tiger Woods and his now wayward pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record.
Ultimately, Messi has demonstrated a talent worthy of the title ‘best footballer ever’, but in sport it is never so simple as to crown a player on talent alone. If Messi is to stake his rightful claim to that title he is going to have to take Argentina all the way. In the meantime, however, while we are awaiting his coronation we should just enjoy the show.
by Ryan Mackenzie