Pele at the top

The legend from Brazil, in fact, could from his teenaged years do pretty well everything and anything; head goals, shoot goals, make them for other people, perform at times the most extraordinary acrobatics.

Pele still the best of all time? Well, comparisons are odious as we all know, but those remarkable five goals so splendidly scored by Lionel Messi for Barcelona at Nou Camp against Bayer Leverkusen, no mean adversary, have prompted many to claim the 24-year-old Argentine to be the finest of all footballers.

With all due respect to the greatly gifted Messi, each of whose five goals was a different delight, whether chipped in, lobbed in or scored after gliding effortlessly through the opposing defence, I'm not inclined to enthrone him as the greatest of all. This despite the way his supremely prolific exploits, his superabundance of goals, are tribute to sheer skill, technical aplomb, anticipation and pace. For physically, and this says so much of football as a physically democratic game, there is not very much of him. He is slim, he isn't tall. And I suppose we might say in parenthesis that for all his cornucopia of goals, very few of them come from outside rather than the inside of his head. To his immense credit he can never be intimidated, not even by the ferocious likes of Real Madrid's notorious Pepe. He simply, when fouled, picks himself up and gets on with the game. Never looking for revenge, other perhaps than in the shape of goals, unlike Pele, who was well known in the vernacular or being able to take care of himself. Kick him, and you would usually be kicked right back and harder. Nor was that other celebrated Argentine, Diego Maradona, an angel, though he suffered appallingly at the hands or boots of such players as Italy's ruthless Claudio Gentile in the 1982 World Cup, and the villain who smashed up his knee in Spain then had the effrontery to place the boot, which had inflicted such severe damage, enclosed in a glass case.

But speaking of Maradona, Argentina's inspiration and hero of the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, author there of two stupendous solo goals at the Azteca against England and Belgium, we came to the most recent World Cup, in South Africa where Maradona in his alas chaotic way managed the Argentine team in which Messi, after a fairly bright beginning, did little of major note.

After that World Cup, Messi insisted he was satisfied with his form and he gave no blame to Maradona. But there were those who felt that Diego hadn't made the best of him, had restrained him by using him too wide rather than giving him the roving commission he fulfils so well and might even, consciously or unconsciously, have felt envious of him.

There is no doubt that Argentina could never have won the 1986 World Cup without Maradona, and though playing virtually on one leg, he still helped them to the subsequent final in Rome in 1990.

We then have to ask ourselves, though, to what extent is the World Cup the ultimate criterion? In Pele's case of course it is an irrefutable proof of his glorious talents. I was privileged enough to see him in two World Cup finals won by Brazil. The first as an amazingly precocious 17-year-old, in Stockholm, against Sweden, having in the semifinal scored three goals against an admittedly 10-man French team.

The goals he scored in the final with such cool precocity live in the memory. The first a masterpiece of casual jugglery in the thick of the Swedish penalty area, the second a towering leap, all five foot eight of him, to head a Brazilian goal. A leap remembered when he soared aloft in Mexico City to head the first Brazilian goal of the 1970 World Cup final against Italy, a game he rounded off with two perfect diagonal passes to the right prompting two more Brazilian goals.

Pele, in fact, could from his teenaged years do pretty well everything and anything; head goals, shoot goals, make them for other people, perform at times the most extraordinary acrobatics. A phenomenon.

In second place in this role of honour I would unhesitatingly place yet another Argentine in Alfredo di Stefano, though he scarcely played for Argentina before, like many of his compatriots, slipping off to Colombia, at that time out of FIFA so their clubs such as Millonarios could lure players without salaries or the payment of a transfer fee.

When Colombia re-entered FIFA, di Stefano was off to Spain where both those historic rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid claimed him but Barcelona no doubt to their eternal regret allowed him to stay with Real. Where he became the inspiration, emblem and autocrat of a team which, thanks in huge measure to him, won all the first five European Cups.

To call di Stefano a mere centre forward wasn't telling the half of it. He was ubiquitous, perpetual motion, playing Total Football before anyone had thought of it, now popping up to clear from his own penalty area, now striking for goal at the other end. Late in his career at the 1962 World Cup in Chile when he was naturalised, Spain tried to use him but he plainly wouldn't play for another grand egotist and Argentinean in the manager, Helenio Herrera. But he hardly had to play in a World Cup to display his immense talents. All those runs, all those passes, all those goals.