With Argentina facing the ignominy of World Cup elimination on Tuesday night – and trailing Ecuador 0-1 after just 30 seconds – Lionel Messi pulled out a hat-trick of left footed finishes to turn the tide and send the Albiceleste to Russia. When push came to shove, little Leo pulled on his cape – yet again – and took care of business.
It wasn’t just that he scored the goals that mattered, the manner in which he took the goals was just further proof of his brilliance . For the first, he played a one-two with Angel di Maria before deftly poking home from eight yards with the outside of his left foot; then, relentless pressing won him possession for the second, which he calmly slammed into the top corner. But the third was the pick of the lot. He seemed to have nowhere to go, with three Ecuador defenders collapsing in on him, yet with the slightest hesitation sowing doubt, he picked the right moment to dart into space and – despite being shoved off balance – lift a perfect finish over the ‘keeper and into the net.
Let’s face it: Argentina were far from brilliant and this was not vintage Messi – no mazy dribbling and incisive passing – but it was finishing of the highest quality, in the most tense of games, just what Argentina needed on the day, and his ability to deliver just that, once again highlighted why Messi is the best player to ever kick a football.
Now, before you go darting for your keyboards and invoking Brazilian and Argentinian names of yore – or more likely a certain Portuguese resident in Madrid – you will note that I haven’t conferred that contentious “greatest of all time” tag on Messi.
This isn’t about who is the greatest. For one thing, I think it is wise to wait till careers are done and dusted before any “greatest” conclusions can be reached. For another thing, “greatness”, as we have come to define it, connotes other things – achievements, trophies won, games played, where played, goals, assists, you name it.
It has become about things we can count – quantity has become the measure for quality. I’ll admit this has some importance when the talk is about “greatness” (or goalscoring). I would concede that trophies won, for instance, come into play when conferring “greatness”, yet – given that teammates and countries of origin have a large influence on this – I would argue that it should not carry as much weight with individual comparisons – that is, deciding “best player”.
Being “best player” is rather more intangible. Think back for a moment, back to when you were a kid playing the beautiful game just for the fun of it. Think back, to the playgrounds of your youth, when no one kept stats and games weren’t about trophies or financial gain. Now try and remember who the best player was amongst all the kids you played with. Exactly. You didn’t have to count what trophies they won, how many goals and assists they had, who their teammates were. You just remember what they could do with the ball, how they influenced games and how they excited people. I certainly remember the best kid I played with – he would go on to play for Nigeria at Under-17, Under-20 and Senior level.
Think about George Best. He won plenty in his career – European Cup, European Player of the Year – but he also played at a time when England were World champions and Bobby Charlton – World Cup winner, European Cup winner, European Player of the year – was in his brilliant pomp. Best, of course, played for Northern Ireland and never played in a major international final. Yet, for the pure magic and fantasy he produced on the field, is there any doubt that he was the best ever footballer to come out of the British Isles? He may not be the greatest, mind, but I’d say Best was best.
Another comparison: Samuel Eto’o and George Weah, two of the best players to come out of Africa. Eto’o won two Nations Cups with Cameroon, and three Champions League titles with Barcelona and Inter. Weah, on the other hand, had no chance of Nations Cup success with Liberia, and never won the Champions League, yet was voted World Player of the Year while at Milan. Conventional wisdom – quantity as measure for quality – suggests Eto’o was the “greater” of the two. Yet, if the question is about who was “best”, it’s not quite as clear cut.
Messi already boasts trophies, goals, records, and awards. You can argue whether he has quite enough to stake his claim for “greatest of all time”, or if the lack of a World Cup – or any major international title – makes him inferior to his more accomplished forebears.
For sheer ability on the field, that’s a tougher argument to make. For that combination of ridiculous ball control, amazing dribbling runs, precise, creative passing and decisive, game-defining, stone-cold finishing – the type we witnessed in Quito on Tuesday night – it’s hard to make the case that Messi is inferior to anyone that has ever played the game.
For that sheer magic and pure fantasy – that “wow!” factor that can’t be measured in stats – he is, without question, the best player I have ever seen.