The organisers of the Ballon d’Or awards seem to think so, but are they right?
At the annual Ballon d’Or awards in November last year, Lionel Messi won the player of the year award for the seventh time, despite some arguing that the talented Robert Lewandowski should have taken this particular footballing prize. Earlier in 2021 Messi also lifted the Copa del Rey trophy and led Argentina to the Copa America in the summer, even if he had a less than inspiring start at the Paris St-Germain club.
Let’s face it, despite the Paris St-German hiccup, Lionel Messi is very, very good at football.
The diminutive Argentinian is probably the greatest player for a generation and has also been lucky enough to star in a team that plays in a style and formation that should suit his skills, under a manager who has been willing to let him flourish. Yet it is also because of these same reasons that Messi may never be more broadly recognised as the greatest player to grace a football field, despite his discernible talents and awards.
Messi was born in 1987. He has, to date, won five La Liga titles, three Champions League titles and been awarded the Ballon d'Or a record seven times. Former England legend Gary Lineker has said of him, "In terms of ability and his overall impact on the game and what he's achieved so far, he would be the best I've ever seen."
Many would find it impossible to disagree with England's second greatest goalscorer.
Of course, there have been sensational footballers throughout the sport’s history; George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Ronaldo and Ferenc Puskas, to name but a few. Though either because of their nationality, position, age or lack of press support these players have not been mentioned in the same breathe as two rather special Argentinian players.
Messi's efforts have seen him unprecedentedly lauded and, on his arrival on the professional pitch, comparisons were immediately made to his fellow countryman and fellow footballing legend, Diego Maradona, due to his small stature and playing style. At Messi's age, however, Maradona had only won a fraction of the prizes that Messi already has in his pocket, even though his impact was still far greater.
Diego Maradona is looked upon as a deity by the residents of Buenos Aires, Catamarca, La Pampa, and basically by every single person who possesses one dollop of Argentinian blood in their body. His was also the perfect rags to riches tale. Having grown up just outside of the Argentinian capital, Maradona then plied his trade for Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, before moving to Europe where his work would be genuflected at even more fervently.
It was on the international stage though that Maradona would be celebrated the loudest. He played in four world cups, which should have been five, and single handily lead the side to two finals and one trophy. The image of him grasping the cup above his head in 1986 remains one of the most iconic in football history. His story and ability to score sensational goals at crucial times are the reasons why his name is always touted alongside Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or simply, Pele, when the debate about the most celebrated footballer in history rages.
It is Pele though whose name has become the most synonymous with football. He is Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky and Mohammed Ali all rolled into one. He won the World Cup aged just 17, then added two more of those prizes to his collection and scored over 1,000 goals in his career, allegedly, with even his misses being memorable. It was the timing of his displays that are the main reason for his success though, with the Brazilian's brilliance coming about as television was becoming a global medium. Thus, Pele's skills on the pitch were broadcast around the world and appreciated by an unprecedented global audience.
It is these two behemoths that Lionel Messi will ultimately be compared against.
There are other reasons why Messi may not be able to reach the above duo’s height of footballing genius. For one, many people have lost faith in footballers as role models. They are now seen by many as overpaid sporting divas, too distant from the common man or woman, whilst previously Maradona and Pele played in an era when footballers were able to connect with the people who paid to watch them.
Messi has also failed to truly unleash his potential on the most important stage of all, the World Cup. There is still time for him to correct these failings and, despite some minor notes of failure, when his retirement does finally come around, he will still be regarded as a rather talented footballing boy.