Mesmerising, Messi definitely is

In the last two seasons, Lionel Messi has scored 72 goals and made 28 assists in 91 games for Barcelona, and won the Ballon d'Or and the World Player of the Year awards. All this he has done in most eye-catching fashion, much like Maradona in his prime, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

What does it take for a footballer to become an all-time great? When is it safe to announce that so and so has reached the very top of the greatness ladder, and has risen from the rung occupied by Zico and Best to that bearing Pele and Maradona?

So many have fallen short for various reasons — careers too short-lived, a lack of trophies, inconsistency, bland consistency devoid of defining peaks, playing for teams too weak to maximise their talent, playing for teams too strong for their talent to stand out, playing for successful but unglamorous teams, being born in the wrong country...

What then gives Pele and Maradona, and indeed Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Ferenc Puskas their halos? Is there anyone currently playing football who can call himself an all-time great without sounding ridiculous? Is Lionel Messi, world's highest-earning footballer, the equal, already, of Diego Armando Maradona?

First, the facts. In the last two seasons, Messi has scored 72 goals and made 28 assists in 91 games for Barcelona, and won the Ballon d'Or and the World Player of the Year awards for his contribution to Barcelona's La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble last season. All this he has done in most eye-catching fashion, his 5ft.7in. frame dribbling past defenders like a scooter weaving through trucks and SUVs in rush-hour traffic — much like Maradona in his prime.

In the last couple of weeks, he has scored hat-tricks in consecutive La Liga games, against Valencia and Zaragoza. His second goal against Zaragoza saw him steal the ball near the centre circle, dribble past one defender around 35 yards from goal and beat a second, Matteo Contini, twice — once on the inside and then on the outside — before a sweeping left-footed finish into the far corner. He could have had four in that game, but chose instead to hand the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic after being brought down by Contini at the end of another joyride into the Zaragoza box.

But doesn't this relentless accumulation of goals and assists say less about Messi than about how lopsided La Liga has become? Between the Big Two — Barcelona and Real Madrid — and the rest exists a perturbing chasm, as shown by the 21-point gap between the teams placed second and third with nine rounds of fixtures remaining — easily the widest among the major European leagues.

Barcelona's and Messi's exploits in the Champions League, of course, show him to be the best player in the best club in Europe — which takes some doing. But how good would Messi be in a lesser team?

Before Diego Maradona's arrival for a then record 6.9 million pounds, Napoli had never won the Serie A title. In his time at the club, it won two Scudettos and the UEFA Cup. Considering the strength of Italian football at the time, with Arrigo Sacchi's fabled Milan side beginning to dominate Europe, Maradona's achievement was quite astounding.

And so it was through his career — while the likes of Daniel Passarella and Jorge Valdano cannot be dismissed lightly, the 1986 World Cup win wouldn't have been possible without Maradona's unearthly skill and will to win. Likewise, Argentina's progress to the final at Italia '90.

Messi's influence on games is limited to the exercise of his — considerable —gifts, but whether he shows the sort of inspirational leadership demonstrated by a Maradona or a Zidane or even a Roy Keane we are yet to find out. Paradoxically, his greatest test may be in guiding a disjointed Argentina side, coached by Maradona, at the 2010 World Cup.

At 22, he still has at least two further World Cups to contemplate.

The accusation levelled against Messi that he hasn't done his talent justice in national colours is a bit misguided anyway. At just 18, he made his World Cup debut with an assist and a goal in his first game in 2006 against Serbia and Montenegro, and thereafter played only a bit-part role in the tournament, with Jose Pekerman reluctant to take him off the bench. In 2007, Messi helped Argentina reach the final of the Copa America, scoring two goals, including one in the semifinal against Mexico. In 2008, he was an ever-present in the Argentina team that won the Olympic gold, setting up Angel Di Maria in the 1-0 win in the final against Nigeria.

Obviously, winning a World Cup, or even having a successful individual campaign in one, would be something else altogether. But the need for World Cup or European Championship trophies — or immortal performances in near-misses like those of Cruyff (the Netherlands) in 1974 and Puskas (Hungary) in 1954 — is quite limiting in our quest for greatness. Where do the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Kenny Dalglish, George Weah or George Best — who have played very few World Cup games or none at all or, in the case of Dalglish, for teams with little chance anyway — stand in comparison to those like Pele or Beckenbauer, whose skills were given their fullest stage? What if Rivaldo were Welsh, or Ryan Giggs Brazilian?

The debate on Messi's candidacy for all-time greatness also throws up another question — why is it that only creative, attacking players qualify for such honours? Even defenders who get the occasional mention, such as Beckenbauer or Bobby Moore or Franco Baresi, are usually silken visionaries who usually played as sweeper and could easily have — as Beckenbauer did on occasions — played in midfield. They were far removed from the stereotypical hulking centre-back who throws his knobbly head at every aerial challenge and spends the second half of every game with head wrapped in bandages.

And so, of all the players who have won the Ballon d'Or since its inception in 1956, only one, Lev Yashin, is a goalkeeper and three, Beckenbauer, Matthias Sammer and Fabio Cannavaro, are defenders. Part of the reason is football's statistical backwardness. It's astonishing to think that the only statistics we have from the careers of Gordon Banks or Paolo Maldini are ‘games played' and ‘goals scored'; we have no idea how many saves the former made or how many attacks the latter quelled at left-back. Perhaps with advances in data gathering — with the advent of Opta and ProZone — we might be able to give defensive players the credit they deserve.