World Cup 2022 Final: Win or lose, Argentina star Lionel Messi has settled the GOAT debate forever
On Sunday evening, Lionel Messi and Argentina take the field against France. It will be Messi’s second World Cup final and his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward already confirming the final will be his last World Cup game.
Whether he wins or loses, the internet will be awash with one side of the boring GOAT debate chirping and crowing, and the other frantically defending their warrior.
For some time the debate of the greatest (men’s) player to ever play has centered around four players: Pele, Maradona, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Pele had goals and the WC. Maradona had an outrageous genius and one World Cup. Both Messi and Ronaldo are scoring at levels we have never seen before. Purists will bemoan the modern generation’s inability to include either Ferenc Puskas or Alfredo Di Stefano, but unfortunately that’s how the debate has gone.
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There is one main argument for each of these four players who have been deemed worthy by the general consciousness. But which side of the debate you come down on can depend on several factors. Some of this comes down to your personality and personal aesthetic preferences when it comes to football. Some come down to the age and era you fell in love with football, and some may come down to the club and/or country you support.
So what are the main arguments? For Pele, the argument is three World Cups, including being part of the second team to win back-to-back titles. That’s over 1,000 professional goals (no matter how dubious) and his incredible legacy in the game. For Maradona, the argument is unparalleled genius that put him so far ahead of his peers that it wasn’t even fair. More than the others, Maradona’s maverick legacy attracts a certain type of person (not a bad thing by any means). For Ronaldo, the argument is twofold. For one, he dominated three of Europe’s five best leagues, especially the Premier League, so-called “the biggest league in the world”. Second, his work rate propelled him to the top of a game where his talent might not warrant it. Conversely, the argument for Messi is that there has never been a player with so much natural talent in his boots. It’s not just the number of goals, but also the assists, the creativity that Ronaldo and Pele didn’t have.
The real truth of the GOAT debate is that it is an entirely personal decision. It really is as simple as that. Maybe you think Ronaldinho, George Best, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo Nazario, Eusebio or Johan Cruyff were the best players ever. Heck, you might think it’s Freddy Adu or Ravel Morrison. It does not matter. At all.
But if you want to look at it from an objective perspective, it’s hard to look past Messi. Yes Ronaldo has more goals. Yes, Pele has several World Cups. But what Messi has done in terms of assists and goals, as well as taking some frankly not-so-impressive Argentina sides to two World Cup finals, as well as a Copa America triumph, is mighty impressive.
But more than anything, it’s the consistency. One of the fascinating things about the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry has been how often we compare them side-by-side, when you don’t factor in the age difference. Messi is two and a half years younger than Ronaldo, and as such has two and a half years of games less in the bank. And yet when we compare Champions League goals or what have you, we always ignore that Ronaldo has played significantly more games than Messi.
Messi’s critics will argue that he has been relatively sheltered, playing in a Barcelona team that was built for him and in a league that would not have “tested him” like the Premier League. Messi’s record against English teams speaks for itself there, and if you saw La Liga and the Premier League side by side, you’d probably conclude that the former is better defensively, not the latter. Whether that’s because it’s actually better defending or just because La Liga’s head-to-head rule leads to more caution is up for debate. But anyway, that argument doesn’t quite hold up.
Additionally, at various points in his career, either through going straight to being a central striker or by the subordinate roles of players such as Karim Benzema, Ronaldo has spent a decent amount of time being the team’s primary goal threat, sometimes to the detriment of team as it becomes his only focus.
Do you know when the last time he reached double digits in assists was? The 2014-15 season for Real Madrid. For Messi? He already has 10 this season for PSG. Ignoring his debut in the 2004-05 season, Messi has only five seasons in his career and does not reach double digits in assists. Ignoring Ronaldo’s lone season at Sporting (and really, he played enough games for it to count) he has 16 seasons where he didn’t reach double figures in assists, and that doesn’t include this disastrous season.
So what about goals? Well, if we go from Messi’s debut season in 2005-06 (and really, it’s a bit tough since he only played 17 games) it’s dead even at 9-9 when it comes to looking at who outscored who each season. And for the record, in that 2005-06 season Ronaldo played in 33 Premier League games (24 starts compared to 11 for Messi). Based on what we’ve seen in recent months, you’d imagine Messi will win more of the remaining seasons of his career than Ronaldo will. If not all.
And look, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the rest of Messi’s career. In theory, he will stay at PSG until the summer and then either go back to Barcelona for another year, or go to Inter Miami in America. Or maybe even have another year in Paris. Then he can have an adventurous ending at Newell’s. At the time of writing, it is very difficult to see a club terminating his contract because he became too much to deal with. But still, he doesn’t show many signs of slowing down just yet. He should be able to reach Ronaldo’s last good years, maybe even longer.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi meet in the 8es de finale de la Ligue des Champions 2021 – 2022.
Image credit: Eurosport
And what about Maradona and Pele? For the former, you can certainly argue that his peak was as good as Messi’s peak, or even better. But the consistency isn’t even close, Maradona simply couldn’t do it at the same level for an extended period of time. For Pele, the goals at club level fall to pieces quite quickly when you consider that he never played outside of Brazil, apart from his brief stay in New York. Plus at a certain point you have to talk about the level of the game at the moment given the progress technically and physically. Yes, defenders aren’t allowed to hack you down like they did in Pele’s time or even Maradona’s, but there’s no denying how far the game has come.
And it seems like a good point to make a final point. This is not to say that no player will ever surpass Messi as the greatest of all time. There could be a little kid somewhere kicking a ball who’s going to have a career unlike anything we’ve ever seen. But they have to start at a stupidly young age, and keep at it for a long time. In Messi’s “19-year-old season”, he scored 14 league goals, and he has only failed to score 10 or more league goals once in his career since that point, his first year in Paris.
As mentioned earlier in the article, this ultimately does not matter. It is highly unlikely that many people (if any) will be swayed by the arguments laid out here. Messi has produced a fantastic level of football in his career, but so have many others throughout the history of the game. His work so far, regardless of what happens on Sunday, leaves him at the top of the podium in this writer’s eyes. Will that be the case for you? It is up to you to decide.
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