by Luke Irelan-Hill

Lionel Messi is the best ever? It has been debated and argued since his remarkable goals against Bayern Leverkusen in the Champion’s League this season. Messi quite delightfully and effortlessly strolled through their defence as if it was not there. He scored his goals with a magnificent variety of shots, chips and lobs. Two came with his left foot and one with his right. In the process he once again opened the debate of who is football’s greatest ever player, and at the same time put forward another strong case in his favour. He emphasized in the process that the playing field is not level in physical terms, but that does not stop him.

For Messi is small, yet his boyish build is of a big benefit to him. It has no impact on him at all. In fact it helps. He is still too quick, too skilled and just too good for even the most powerful defenders.

Messi became the first player to score 5 goals in a Champion’s League game. He also has one quadruple (v Arsenal), one hat-trick (v Viktoria Plzen) and nine braces in the competition. With 49 goals in 64 games, Messi is the fourth top scorer in the history of the Champion’s League (since 1992-93), behind Raul (71), Ruud Van Nistelrooy (56) and Thierry Henry (50). Messi has scored 12 goals this season which equals the best total in a Champion’s League campaign (since 1992-93). The others to reach that tally were Van Nistellrooy (2002-03) and Messi himself (2010-11). He has scored twice as many goals as any other player in the competition this season and since his goal in the 2009 final, Messi has scored 33 goals in 30 starts.

The little magician continues to make an excellent case for himself, and he is only 24 years of age.

But the best-ever? Arguably not for the criteria that is often put forward. However comparisons are subjective. Times have changed, football has changed. Different eras, different styles of football. Players get too much protection from referees. Ultimately, the game is easier. It is also however more nuanced and sophisticated than it has ever been before.

Winning a World Cup, why should this have to be on the list? Messi played for Argentina in South Africa and was admittedly disappointing. He was lively enough in the early games, but was not able to save Argentina from a thrashing at the hands of Germany.
Messi insisted he was satisfied with his form and refused to blame Diego Maradona, a star in the Argentina side that were triumphant at the Mexican World Cup of 1986. Maradona was a star, but is an erratic and explosive team manager who was blamed in some quarters for keeping Messi out on the wing rather than spear-heading the attack as he does so profitably for Barcelona. There was an element of envy in such tactics, there is no doubt about it. Surely though a player should be judged on his appearances he gives week in and week out. Not how he performs over a handful of games every four years. George Best was the best of his generation, but he never played at a World Cup.

He was playing ‘Total Football’ long before anyone else had ever dreamt of it.

Should the World Cup be the ultimate criterion just at the Olympics are said to be in Athletics? If so, then what becomes of the other great Argentinian, Alfredo Di Stefano, who never appeared in one? He played his club football with Real Madrid, whom he inspired to the first five ever European Cups. He was playing ‘Total Football’ long before anyone else had ever dreamt of it. He was a tireless and influential box to box player who single-handedly carried Madrid for many years. However he never kicked a football in a World Cup Game.

Inevitably we must then come to Pele. Pele did play in the World Cup and without doubt played better on the world stage then anyone before or after him. He was just 17 years of age when he took the world by storm in Sweden at the 1958 World Cup and was the same 12 years later in Mexico 1970. On both occasions he led Brazil to World Cup Glory. He scored twice against Sweden in the 58 Final in Stockholm to win the trophy. Unrivalled skill, power, invention, genius. technique and flair.

Who could match him?

Not even Maradona. Even with that amazing solo burst against England and then against Belgium in Mexico City in the 1986 World Cup. He was jointly awarded the honour of Fifa’s Player of the Century with Pele and earned 91 caps for his country, finding the net on 34 occasions. The World Cup winning captain finished his career with 292 goals in 583 club and country appearances.

Let’s not forget Johan Cruyff. The Dutch winger won the Ballon d’Or three times, in 1971, 1973 and 1974 – a record jointly held with Michel Platini, Marco van Basten and Lionel Messi. The Netherlands never lost a match in the 33 games in which he scored. In total he scored 324 goals in 568 games for both club and country, but he never lifted a World Cup.

In terms of current players, we must also include into the reckoning Cristiano Ronaldo. He is the most expensive player in football history after moving from Manchester United to Real Madrid for 80 million pounds in 2009. At 27, he has won the Champion’s League and already has 88 caps and 32 goals for Portugal. At club level he has 183 goals in 309 club appearances. Other awards include the European Golden Shoe and Premier League Golden Boot. His 53 strikes in one season for Real Madrid is also a club record.

And the already mentioned George Best. He won the 1968 European Cup with Manchester United along with winning the European Footballer of the Year in the same season. Best also grabbed two English league titles (1965, 1967). He won 37 caps for Northern Ireland and scored 214 goals in 616 appearances before retiring in 1983.

Other candidates include Eusebio (Portugal), Franz Beckenbauer (Germany), Michel Platini (France), and floating genius of Zinedine Zidane (France).

So, let us be happy with saying that Messi is, at this moment, the finest footballer on the planet. As for in the history of the game, the debate will rage for years.