Is Messi the greatest?

Pele, as a 17-year-old, mesmerised the world in the 1958 World Cup.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

It is far easier today for a gifted player to excel without being ill used by ruthless opponents. In the last analysis, I suppose, we must stress that old saying, comparisons are odious. Yet I still stand by Pele and Di Stefano. By Brian Glanville.

Here we go again. Who is the best footballer of all time? Now the case is being made strongly for Lionel Messi after an exhilarating display and two superb goals for Barcelona against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp. Somewhat ironic that hot on the heels of Jamie Redknapp, the former Liverpool and England player, son of Harry, saying “If he played 20 years ago I’m sure someone like Graeme Souness would have sorted him out,”

Souness himself, former tough Scotsman of Liverpool, observed, “Even in my prime, I could not have got close to stopping the little genius from Argentina,” calling Messi, “The best I’ve ever seen.”

Not that Redknapp was trying to disparage Messi’s enormous talents. “Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane were both unbelievable when I played them. But Lionel Messi is the greatest. You can’t teach the natural talent he has.”

The two goals Messi scored against Bayern were phenomenal. What other player could have left the highly experienced German international Boateng so perplexed that he fell to the ground while Messi strolled on to score? And the glorious cool precise chip with which he jinked the ball over the head of one of the game’s foremost goalkeepers in Manuel Neuer was a gem of finesse.

Before the match, Messi’s former manager at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, now in charge at Bayern, had publicly admitted that there was no way of stopping Messi which could hardly have encouraged his own ultimately bewildered defenders.

Yes, then, we are all agreed that Messi is indubitably a great player; but the best of all time? Not surely if the ultimate criterion is how a footballer plays in the World Cup. In Brazil last year, a dejected Messi sat beside the pitch after Argentina had lost so narrowly after extra-time to Germany in the World Cup final and showed no interest at all in the fact that he had just been awarded the Golden Boot as the best player of the tournament.

Alfredo Di Stefano had incredible success with Real Madrid.-GETTY IMAGES

All he could say was that Argentina had missed three excellent chances. Knowing that for all his brilliance in earlier rounds, he had wearily faded in the final stages. Perhaps at Camp Nou he may have taken social pleasure in twice beating Neuer so comprehensively, since there is scant doubt that early in the second half Neuer should surely have been sent off for a shocking foul on the Argentina attacker Gonzalo Higuain, crashing into his head in mid air.

Messi certainly had his inspired moments in that tournament. One senior journalist, Rob Draper, singled him out not even for any of the goals he so coolly and dramatically scored but for the “40-yard pass for Angel Di Maria against Belgium that found its way through a forest of players and cut inside Vincent Kompany. It wasn’t so much that no one else can do that; no one else would even think of doing that.”

Glorious solos brought Messi important goals against Iran, a desperately close run thing from a solo in the 90th minute, a couple against Nigeria in a desperately close run 3-2 win, but he was clearly a tired figure in the later stages.

Four years earlier he had had a disappointing World Cup for Argentina in South Africa, though this arguably had something to do with the way he was reluctantly deployed out on the left wing by Diego Maradona, a wonderful World Cup star in his playing days, but an anything but coherent and impressive manager. There were rumours that Maradona was reluctant to see his own formidable World Cup achievements challenged by Messi.

Asked to name his greatest player, Mauricio Pochettino, once a World Cup centre back for Argentina, now the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, insisted it be Maradona. “I love Messi,” he said, “but for me it’s always Maradona. I’m lucky I played with him. When I was a child, Maradona was like a God.”

I was fortunate enough to see Maradona’s two astonishing solo goals in the Azteca stadium in Mexico City in the 1986 World Cup, first against England — having notoriously punched his team’s first goal — then as if to prove it was no fluke on his second goal, doing the same thing against Belgium at the same end in the same goal with the same amazing dexterity.

Yet if the World Cup may be seen as the ultimate criterion, I would suggest that Pele remains the greatest player of all time; and I was lucky enough to watch him and his astonishing pace, flair and skills both in the World Cup finals of 1958 and 1970. In 1962 he dropped out injured, early, and in 1966, clearly not fully fit, he was brutally kicked playing against Portugal.

Who will ever equal his feat of two astonishing goals as a 17-year-old in a World Cup final, against Sweden in Stockholm in 1958? The first a small miracle of courage and finesse as he juggled the ball on his thigh and over his head in the middle of a penalty area packed with rugged Swedes, then smashed it into the net.

In 1970 in Guadalajara there was that extraordinary attempt to score from nearly half way which almost succeeded, and that daring attempt to score against Uruguay when he played the ball round one side of the goalkeeper and ran by on the other. In the final, against Italy, the majestic leap, which gave the Brazilians their first goal, and in the second half the marvellous passes to the right, which made goals for Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto. Incomparable!

Alfredo Di Stefano, yet another Argentine, never played in the World Cup finals. He could have done for his adopted country Spain in Chile, but there was little chance he would ever perform for the bombastic egotist Helenio Herrera (in charge of the Spanish team). Note that he, like Pele, was an excellent header of the ball which neither Messi nor Maradona has been. But Di Stefano as impresario and inspiration of the Real Madrid team, which won the first five European Cups, was perpetual motion incarnate, roaming the whole field, a miracle of stamina and perception. For me, he comes second only to Pele in the list of the greatest players of all time. Those who have voted so enthusiastically for Messi and even for Maradona probably never saw Pele and Di Stefano in their glorious prime.

And as Jamie Redknapp has been objective enough to emphasise, it is far easier today for a gifted player to excel without being ill used by ruthless opponents. In the last analysis, I suppose, we must stress that old saying, comparisons are odious. Yet I still stand by Pele and Di Stefano.