herald

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Messi's best is yet to come

WITH Leo Messi, there's only one real superlative left: the greatest.

Because, essentially, it's the only word you can still have any argument with.

Sublime; relentless; exquisite; record-breaking: all have been said so many times that they've lost meaning when it comes to the Argentine.

But whether he is now the greatest of all time brooks a bit more debate. And that debate usually comes in the form of four names: Alfredo Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff and -- to a greater degree -- Pelé and Diego Maradona.

The main point firing that argument is that, unlike the latter two in particular, Messi has yet to truly dominate a World Cup.

Dominated

But, given the current context of football -- where the mega-rich club game has undeniably surpassed the more compromised international level as the absolute peak of the sport -- it's worth inverting that point: Maradona never dominated a European Cup either.

Pelé, of course, did win South America's equivalent -- the Copa Libertadores -- twice. He also scored 17 goals in 15 games in his three years in the competition in the more goal-laden days of the early '60s.

But, as barely needs stating, that only just equates to a full Champions League season. By contrast, since the summer of 2008 when Barca's medical team finally solved Messi's recurrent injury problems, he has scored 41 goals in 43 European matches.

And that is the real important point with Messi: the sustained excellence. Those stats alone mean he has now utterly defined four successive Champions League seasons -- not to mention decided two of them with goals in the finals. No players in the history of the game other than Cruyff or Di Stefano have matched that in a club competition of similar quality.

And there comes a point when you have to ask whether such consistent, transcendent quality trumps six or seven international games over a summer -- no matter how magnificent.

Of course, many will argue that Messi benefits from one of the best club teams of all time. But the fact is that no player performs in a vacuum. There's a constant push and pull. The great teams make the great players, but the great players also make the great teams.

That was the case with Pelé in 1970; he had Tostão, Roberto Rivelino, Jairzinho and the heat of Mexico sapping opposition teams. And it was the case with Maradona in 1986; Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo essentially invented wing-backs in order to give his playmaker maximum positional freedom.

Patchy

Nor should it be forgotten that, at 25, that was only the third major trophy of Maradona's career; a career that had previously been relatively patchy when placed in the context of his outstanding talent.

Messi is now only 24. He's played in two World Cups but one was too early for him and the last too shambolic; as has been said elsewhere, Maradona the player never had to play under Maradona the manager. And yet, despite the chaos of Argentina's camp in South Africa, Messi was still supreme in their games against Nigeria, Korea and Mexico.

What's more, at just 24, he's already achieved more than all those players except Pele had by the same age.

If he's already being considered the greatest now, what will the arguments be like when he actually reaches his prime? It calls for another word: frightening.

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