(Disclaimer: this post uses bits of two stories I published before but I thought it was worth revisiting and updating as it's main thesis is stronger than ever)
Lionel Messi has won the fifth Ballon d’Or of his career. He’s the player that has won it more times in history. And he’s only 28 years old, so we can imagine this one won’t be his last. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent, albeit sometimes during his ascent to the top he has had to share the limelight with Cristiano Ronaldo, in one of the most exciting individual duels that football has ever seen.
A once-in-a-generation talent I said, just like Pelé and Maradona were during their time, but could it be more than that? Could Messi be the best player of all times, even more than his illustrious predecessors? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes, and there’s not even space for the doubt.
Two years ago, I was the co-presenter of the red carpet ceremony for FIFA.com. And, for a few seconds I could chat with Zinedine Zidane. The now coach of Real Madrid was in a hurry, and not too eager to talk, but before he fled down the hall I got a good quote from him. To the question “Which of the nominees do you think resembles most to you?” He replied, “None of them, all of them are different, football has changed a lot”.
He’s right. Zidane was -perhaps with Juan Román Riquelme, the last of the players of his kind. Those languid creative geniuses, sensitive playmakers which seemed to walk on the pitch but, suddenly, with two magical strokes they brushed aside their rivals and sent the striker away with one last touch. Football has changed, and made extinct those old artists. Never again will there be a player like Zizou.
I invite you to try an experiment. Go to YouTube and type in “Game of the Century Italy-Germany”. The second video on the list are the highlights of what is considered the best match in football history, the semi-finals of Mexico 70 between the Azzurri and the Mannschaft. You have probably heard your parents or grandparents rave about this legendary game, but the images say otherwise. The forwards are going in slow motion, the defence gives them acres of space, the midfielders have an eternity to pass the ball. Compared to current standards, the game looks like a dated B-movie.
Just hours before that red carpet, I had the opportunity to speak with Sir Alex Ferguson, who confirmed the perception. For the Manchester United’s manager, football is not the only sport that has got faster in the last few years, the enormous advances in nutrition, medicine and even pitches have made all the athletes in most disciplines much more powerful than in the past.
So, we live in the most competitive era of world football. And we have a player who has displayed a level of dominance never seen before. Let me give you some numbers, to make things clearer. With 76 goals Lionel Messi is the best goalscorer of the Champions League era. He broke the record of Raúl a few months ago. He has also scored the most goals on a year, with 91, on top of none other than Gerd Müller, who scored 86.
So, yeah, he’s a fantastic goalscorer. But that doesn’t make him, maybe, the best player of the generation. That is until you take into account his 111 assists, the best number in the history of the Spanish League, or the 26 titles that he has achieved with Barcelona. As he has played 502 matches in his career, it means that he lifts a trophy every 19.3 games he plays. His numbers are just unbelievable. (There are two very interesting pieces on fivethirtyeight.com that delve on the same subject, with even more interesting stats, you can read them here and here)
And yet, there are a lot of people who insist that Pele and Maradona are above Messi and far above all others. That sounds great in theory, in the end, both O Rei and El Diego dominated their times with their National Team, while Leo hasn’t won a World Cup.
But here comes into practice what I described at a few paragraphs ago. If we put Messi in a time machine, he would completely dominate any of the past eras. He runs faster, is more resistant, dribbles in less space. He’s, in short, a better player. “But if Pele or Maradona ate what players eat today, or had today’s technology at their disposal, they would be have been much better” some will surely argue. And yes, it might be, but the matter is that neither of them had that nutrition or that technology, so their best versions are representative of their time, not ours.
“Pele and Maradona were the best because they were more talented, not more athletic” others might say. Wrong. You only need to read the words that Terry Butcher, the English central defender, used to describe the famous goal from Diego in Mexico 86 to the magazine FourFourTwo. “It was so hot, we were all knackered, so when I saw him pass by after he ran forty meters, I thought I would catch him easily … and, suddenly, it was as if he changed gears. He accelerated so fast that, when I realized, I was ten meters behind him”. As for Pele, he admits in his autobiography that in an era where most of the best players had some extra pounds, he always had the great advantage of keeping his body in perfect condition.
And yet, when you see both playing, they are clearly slower and less efficient than most current players and much less than Messi. That does not mean, of course, that they weren’t geniuses in relation to their times, but in absolute terms, they wouldn’t be great on a twenty-first century match, while Leo would absolutely obliterate the opposition. And this takes into account changes on gear and rules. Yes, the balls and shoes were heavier, and the defenders more brutal. But being stronger and quicker means that the Barcelona star would have had it even easier.
The downside is that Messi won’t probably remain the best player in history for a long time; science and the human body haven’t yet seem to find their limits and a new breed of faster, more powerful and more technical players might replace him, even if they may not impress their contemporaries as La Pulga impress us week in week out.
But while that happens, let’s enjoy what Barcelona’s number 10 can do on a pitch. We’re fortunate to have seen a player win five Ballon d’Ors, we’re fortunate to have seen a player win all these titles. And we’re fortunate because it’s far from over. Maybe in 2018 he will settle the debate once and for all, but even if he doesn’t, we have been witnesses to the best player of all time… so far.