Lionel Messi is one of the best footballers to ever grace this planet. If that wasn’t obvious before, it is now. Messi scored the 400th goal of his extraordinary career on Saturday against Granada, a total alone that is enough to consider the diminutive Argentine magician one of the true greats of the modern game.
The fact that Messi has managed to score so many in just over 500 games is mind-boggling. In an age where defences are tactically well organised, Messi has remarkably managed to average 0.8 goals a game over a career spanning less than ten years. This total would be considered incredible in any age; but in modern-day football, where goals are not as plentiful as they used to be, and defences far better organised, it is unheard of. Only Cristiano Ronaldo comes close in today’s game. A close second to Messi.
Greatness is not measured merely by goals scored, however. Few would dispute Diego Maradona’s or Zinedine Zidane’s legendary status, yet neither were prolific goalscorers. Maradona scored 312 goals in 588 games, Zidane 125 goals in 681 games. Their greatness comes from their contribution on the biggest stage of all. Maradona virtually single-handedly won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina, scoring memorable goals (both for the right and wrong reasons against England) and playing a very significant part in all three goals of Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany in the final. Zidane, meanwhile, scored twice in France’s 3-0 victory in the final of the 1998 World Cup, and spectacularly scored Real Madrid’s winning goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League Final.
Messi, too, has played decisive roles in Barcelona’s Champions League victories. While in 2006 Messi played a more limited role in Barcelona’s Champions League success, in 2009 and 2011 Messi was the undisputed star of Barcelona’s Champions League triumphs. In 2009, he scored 9 goals on the way to victory, most notably his stunning header in the final, creating an insurmountable 2 goal lead for the Catalans. And in 2011, Messi’s contribution was even more significant. He produced a man-of-match display in the final, scoring the decisive 2nd goal with a powerful drive in the 3-1 victory. This, after scoring 12 goals in the entire Champions League campaign, further underlines Messi’s brilliance.
One of the most frequent criticisms of Messi is that he has not won a World Cup. Pele, Maradona and Zidane all have, his critics cite: surely Messi cannot be considered truly great until he has? This is emphatically not the case. In modern-day football, it is the Champions League that is the pinnacle, not the World Cup. The financial power of the competition, and undisputed position as the premier club competition, ensures this is the case.
Even in the World Cup, Messi has at least come as close as possible to winning it. This World Cup he lifted an otherwise very average Argentina side to the final. Where Pele’s Brazil of 1970, Maradona’s Argentina of 1986 and Zidane’s Brazil of 1998 were all undoubtedly great teams, Argentina of 2014 pales in comparison. Other star names such as Gonzalo Higuain failed to perform, while Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero spent too much of the tournament injured to have any significant impact on the competition. Were it not for Messi, Argentina would not have even got out of the group stages. Without his goals, Argentina would have registered a paltry 2 points. That Messi got such an average team to the final of the World Cup is an astonishing achievement itself, never mind the fact they should have won the final in normal time but for Higuain’s profligacy in front of goal.
Messi’s greatness cannot be denied. He has won the Ballon d’Or a record 4 times. He has won every club competition he can, three times winning the most prestigious competition of them all. He has taken an average Argentina team and turned them into World-Cup finalists. Where he ranks is down ultimately to personal preference, but Messi is certainly up there with the likes of Zidane, Maradona and Pele as one of the all-time great players to have graced the game of football.