Paul Fennessy questions Lionel Messi’s degree of greatness and examines the prospects of Leinster’s future stars
Over the course of the past twelve months, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has been described variously as the greatest footballer of all time and as an overrated, poor man’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Both these claims constitute ill-conceived exaggerations.
Messi’s spectacular hat-trick in Barcelona’s 4-2 victory over Real Zaragoza last week provoked the latest avalanche of tributes to the skilful Argentinian – but while his talent is indisputable, one would be forgiven for mistaking the latest plaudits attributed to Messi as descriptions befitting people who have just witnessed Christ’s second coming.
“If we had scored four, he would have scored twelve,” gushed the Real Zaragoza manager José Aurelio Gay, undoubtedly attempting to deflect attention from the inordinately generous defending that contributed to Messi’s achievement. Meanwhile, Stuttgart’s incumbent coach, Christian Gross – hardly a bastion of football knowledge if his spell in charge of Tottenham Hotspur is anything to go by – compared him favourably with Diego Maradona.
Nevertheless, the most galling exclamation was espoused by Barcelona’s president, Joan Laporta. Laporta – himself no stranger to eliciting grandiose, PR friendly statements – opined that Messi was the greatest ever player to wear a Barcelona jersey. Hence Laporta went one better than Gross by adjudging him to be a superior player to Maradona – whose brief, unsuccessful two-year spell with Barcelona was marred by a broken leg, in addition to a series of disputes with the club’s directors.
Let’s rectify this undue comparison. Maradona appeared in four World Cups, spearheading Argentina’s 1986 triumph and playing a vital part in helping his side reach the final in 1990 – while injured. Messi, by contrast, only has a peripheral role in the 2006 tournament to his name thus far.
Secondly, though Messi has already garnered numerous accolades with Barcelona, he has been surrounded by several of the world’s best players during his tenure. Maradona, after his career failed to ignite in Spain, exceeded expectations when he moved to Napoli. The unfashionable Italian club comprised largely of journeymen – unlike the current Barcelona team – yet Maradona still managed to guide them to their first ever Serie A title in 1987, repeating this accomplishment three years later.
Moreover, Maradona managed to score what is generally regarded as the greatest goal of all time in the 1986 World Cup against England. Admittedly, Messi’s famous goal against Getafe was comparable in its execution. Nonetheless, the latter effort occurred in a Spanish Cup match when Barcelona were already 2-0 up and cruising to victory. On the other hand, Maradona’s goal took place amid a crucial, tightly-fought World Cup quarter final with the world watching.
The aforementioned facts do not mean Messi is incapable of eventually outdoing Maradona’s success: they merely highlight the ludicrousness of describing him as better than Maradona, when his career is still (fate permitting) only in its infancy. Countless players have showed excellence or potential sporadically – Michael Ricketts was once regarded as a top class striker and Wes Brown (“a footballing genius” – Sir Alex Ferguson) was touted as the “future England captain” by no less than Alan Hansen.
A more apt comparison for Messi would be with Ronaldihno during his prime. At his peak when playing for Barcelona, the Brazilian attacker remains the most naturally gifted footballer this writer has ever witnessed, but he cannot be deemed the best player ever on account of his erratic level of performance. Ronaldihno clearly began believing his own hype, as his form declined steeply and he is now only showing glimpses of his past brilliance in a poor AC Milan side – his team’s ineptitude was, of course, blatantly exposed during their pathetic capitulation to Manchester United in the Champions League last-16 stage this year.
Therefore, in order for Messi to be deemed truly great, he must maintain such exceptional standards for the duration of his career. A player’s ability – in the context of the greats – should always only be measured following his retirement. John Giles, not unreasonably, considers Bobby Charlton to be the best footballer ever – not purely because of his considerable talent, but also due to the extraordinary consistency and professionalism that enabled him to make more appearances and score more goals than any other Manchester United player in history (at least, until Ryan Giggs exceeded the former record).
And ultimately, as Messi himself cogently put it last week: “To be a legend, one needs to win the Word Cup.”
Recent injuries to Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy have left the duo doubtful for Leinster’s upcoming Heineken Cup clash with Clermont Auvergne. Yet irrespective of whether they manage to regain their fitness in time for this encounter, the injuries have invoked a vivid reminder – if any were necessary – that these players’ outstanding prowess does not render them immortal. Their bodies will defeat them eventually and so, it is paramount that this inevitable void is swiftly filled.
Accordingly, players such as Fergus McFadden and the precocious Andrew Conroy must outline their credentials in upcoming fixtures. As long as these players can deliver on the promise they have demonstrated in spades, and assuming more established youngsters such as Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald continue their development, then the security of a stable future will surely be guaranteed.