Last Wednesday, I watched FC Barcelona play against Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League’s round of 16. Barcelona had already won the first leg 3-1 in Germany, so the second leg of the two-game series — at Barcelona — was pretty much a formality. However, since I did not have anything better to do at the time, I decided to watch the match anyway. Little did I know that I was about to witness one of the most impressive individual showings in the history of the game. Barcelona striker Lionel Messi became the first player in the history of the Champions League to score five goals in the same match. Five goals may seem insignificant to those who do not watch soccer, but let me just say that Messi’s performance is comparable to Kobe Bryant’s 81 points against the Raptors.
Soon after the game, people all over the world revisited a debate they have been forced to consider on numerous occasions: is Lionel Messi the greatest player of all time? “Messi is a joke. For me, the best ever,” tweeted Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney. To others, however, the Argentinean has a lot to prove before being considered the best to have played the game. Former Santos striker Pelé, considered by traditionalists as the best of all time, said that when Messi scores 1,283 goals and wins three World Cups — as the Brazilian did — “then we’ll talk [about it].” Personally, I do not like to participate in black-and-white debates such as finding the greatest player of all time. It is as useless as trying to debate about the purpose of life. I like to think there is a select group of players that have revolutionized the way the game is played, each one in their own particular way. And Messi, with only 24 years, is definitely on that group. However, this is something most people would agree with. I will like to spend the rest of this column discussing something more controversial. Obviously, I am no one to say that Messi is the greatest player of all time. But I am strongly convinced that some of the arguments people make to argue he is not, are unfair.
The “Pelé Argument,” for example, holds that Messi will never be considered the best of all time until he breaks Pelé’s records of career goals scored and World Cup trophies. In my opinion, this is absurd. In order to be considered the best player in history, you do not need to hold every single record. For example, there is a wide consensus among basketball experts and fans that Michael Jordan is the best to have played the game. Most people won’t say that Bill Russell is better than M.J. because he won 11 NBA titles — five more than Jordan. Similarly, the fact Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time top scorer, does not make him the best player of all time. This is the case because the criteria to determine who is the best of all time cannot be based solely on a few numbers. Indeed, Pelé’s records are impressive. Everyone knows that scoring 1,284 goals will not be achieved by any other player, ever. Pelé himself knows this, and he takes advantage of that fact. However, it would be ignorant to not consider the reality that football during Pelé’s time was very different from what it is today.
Just like economists adjust for inflation in order to compare income, sports analysts must take different variables into account. Although a subject for another column, common knowledge suggests that sports today are more physically demanding than in the past. With the commercialization and globalization of professional sports, the best athletes from all around the world are expected to invest their time in physical and technical preparation. In simpler words, athletes now are faster and stronger. Additionally, footballers today have to play many more matches than those from the past. For instance, in addition to international fixtures, Lionel Messi is participating in six different competitions with FC Barcelona this year — Pelé, on average, participated in two per year. Tougher competition, when combined with more playing time, substantially affects a player’s performance and career duration. It is also worthwhile mentioning that Pelé only played club soccer in Brazil and the United States. While his Santos squad dominated South America, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskas’ Real Madrid dominated Europe, which was much more competitive at the time. Messi, on the other hand, has proved himself at the most competitive level of football. Reasonable soccer fans will agree that the domestic league league in Spain is currently the best in the entire world. When combined with European football action against the likes of Manchester United, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich, there is no doubt that Messi is playing against the best the planet has to offer.
Just like with Pelé’s goal-scoring record, I also refuse to give a lot of weight to the World Cup segment of the “Pelé Argument.” Soccer fans argue that Messi cannot enter the discussion of the best player to have played the game until he wins a FIFA World Cup. This is probably the case because the FIFA World Cup is soccer’s most popular competition. However, I do not really understand why winning the World Cup has to be a necessary condition to be considered the greatest player of all time. The best player is the best performer at the highest level of competition. Popularity, however, does not imply competition. Sure, the supply and demand of free markets tend to make competitive leagues more popular, but this is not always the case. Although the World Cup is more popular than the UEFA Champions League, there is no doubt the Champions League is more competitive. As Real Madrid manager José Mourinho said once, “[the Champions League] is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players.” If Messi has already proved himself at the club level with Barcelona, should he prove himself in a popularity contest? Yes. But, does he really need to? I do not think so. As I said before, it is important to keep in mind that the best player is the best performer at the highest level of competition. Yes, Pelé has three World Cup trophies, and Messi has not won one, yet. But the Argentinean has won three European cups — so far — and Pelé never won one.
Even if Pelé’s goal-scoring was breakable given the playing circumstances of present times and just had not yet been broken, he still would not automatically earn the title of best player of all time. That would just make him the best goal scorer to have played the game. It is important to keep in mind that soccer is more than goals, just like baseball is more than home runs. Similarly, the fact Pelé won three world cups — also a record — does not guarantee he is the best player of all time. That just makes him the most successful player at the international level. But is this really that important — considering it is not the highest level of competition?
In conclusion, I would like to clear out that I am not taking any credit away from Pelé. He is definitely one of the finest footballers this world has seen, perhaps the best. But if he really wants to argue he is better than Lionel Messi, he should reconsider his arguments. Because if he does not do so, I will reply with Diego Maradona’s words: “Pelé took the wrong pill. Instead of taking the sleeping pill, he took the morning pill. Now he is confused and he does not know what he is talking about ... But we can’t blame the poor man. He hasn’t been doing anything for 20 years. ”