Lionel Messi: Club bully or the greatest ever?
By Karyl Walker
For most modern day football fans, Lionel Messi is King. The greatest player the world has ever seen.
For his fans who see him twirl, twist and swivel through a host of defenders on his unstoppable marches towards opponents’ goals week after week, no player before him can compare.
But for all his exploits, Lionel Messi has not yet scored the ultimate goal. That of lifting football’s most coveted prize, the World Cup. Not that lifting the cup will take anything away from the fact that Lionel Messi is the best footballer of his generation but he, more than anyone, knows that to truly cement his place as the greatest of all time, he must lift the World Cup aloft at the conclusion of the Greatest Show on Earth in Russia this summer..
At the senior level, Lionel Messi has never led his country to victory in any tournament. His only tournament wins for the ‘Albiceleste’ – the Blue and Whites as the Argentinian national team is known, were in 2005 at the Youth World Cup (where he scored two penalties in a 2-1 final win over Nigeria in Holland) and three years later at the Beijing Olympics when his team carved out victory over the same opponents.
Messi and his team have failed twice after reaching the finals of the Copa De Liberatores, the last when the player was booed off the pitch after messing in a hometown final against the lesser fancied Chile.
Two weeks ago, the Independent released the results of a poll that stated that despite the claims of Messi's throng of young fans, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to the world as Pele, is still considered the best player ever. Purists of the game has long contended that for Messi to even stake a claim to be the Greatest of All Time he must at least perform at the highest level for country - a feat which Pele has the distinction of being the only player to be a part of a national team that has not only won the World Cup thrice, but retired the Jules Rimes trophy.
To be fair to Messi, he is currently rated second on that list, ahead of Christiano Ronaldo, George Best and Diego Maradona in that order. However in order to give his fans the opportunity to finally erase any doubts about him being better than Pele, he must win that coveted prize, any less would be considered a blotch of the so far impeccable record of the little magician.
Purists of the beautiful game have long contended that for a real comparison to be done between players of different eras, a lot more must be taken into consideration.
In the late 1950’s, the rules of the game and other factors may have made it more difficult for players to operate freely. For one a tackle from behind was not considered a foul in stark contrast to the protection offered to players by officiating personnel in the modern era. It must also be considered that the balls of the day were mostly made of leather with laces, making it difficult for players to head with power and produce the devastating swerve which is seen so often nowadays with the advancement of technology which has allowed players to produce the banana kick with less technical difficulty. Football boots and pitches are also vastly improved from the days of old.
Players, coaches and team strategists also have the luxury these days of studying an opponent’s style of play to plot strategies on how to nullify strengths and exploit weaknesses through technology and training methods and nutrition have also improved beyond the wildest imaginations of players and sports administrators of old.
Fans nowadays also have the luxury of seeing the modern game in live and living colour in their living rooms week after week, a luxury not afforded in the halcyon days even during the World Cup.
That however is not Messi’s fault as he has used the resources available to him and every other player in this era and has still managed to fill the turnstiles whenever he appears.
It can also be argued that defenders in the golden era were not as technically gifted as the defenders today and that makes it more difficult for a player with silky skills such as Messi to shine through.
Whether or not the history books will be kind to Messi may just hinge on the performance of his team at the World Cup in Russia. The modern maestro turns 31 during the tournament and this may be his last chance to win the cup for his country. That will be no easy task as Argentina will first have to emerge from a tough group D which includes perennial rivals Nigeria, a dangerous Croatia and Iceland. If they do emerge and get past the quarter final stage where they may battle either Peru or Belgium, their work will just begin as they may have to topple defending champions Germany to get to the final.
He has already proven that the best defenders in the world quake in his diminutive but imposing shadow at the club level, but will Lionel Messi be finally able to shake the World Cup monkey off his back and be awarded the title of the world’s best player ever? Or will he be forever remembered as a club bully?
Karyl Walker is a multi-award-winning journalist who has worked for Loop Jamaica, the Jamaica Observer, the RJR Communications Group and Nationwide Radio among other media entities. He now resides in South Florida.