Equal Time: Messi’s 6th Ballon d’Or doesn’t warrant GOAT status
Background image: J Ketelaars
People say stats don’t lie. Lionel Messi recently surpassed Cristiano Ronaldo as the all-time scorer at a top European club. At the writing, he has 614 goals for Barcelona to the Portuguese’s 608 for his four clubs, Sporting CP, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus. The 32-year-old collected his in 118 fewer matches and 9,905 fewer minutes. At 34, Ronaldo isn't likely to permanently regain the advantage. This week, Messi surpassed his rival again by deservedly winning a sixth Ballon d’Or. For Messi fanboys and many neutrals, that says it all.
Except it doesn’t. There are other stats, factors and legends to consider before you label anyone the greatest of all time. I’m sorry but when everything is taken into account, Messi doesn’t warrant the GOAT horns.
Once you’ve stopped shouting, making Phil Jones faces and tweeting ‘Can you believe this clown?’ to all your followers, understand the argument isn’t whether Messi belongs in the conversation. He does but the question is whether he's greater, not better than every other footballer to have graced a pitch. And he isn’t.
Perhaps greater and better sound like the same thing to you. They aren't. There's an important distinction. In every walk of life, people exist who are or were demonstrably more knowledgeable, skilled or otherwise better equipped to excel but didn’t achieve the greatness that less qualified rivals managed. Are you going to tell me that David Cameron and Theresa May, both Oxford graduates, will go down in history as greater Prime Ministers than Churchill and Disraeli, who went to schools of lesser status? Was West Point graduate William Westmoreland, who lost the Vietnam War, a greater general than George Washington, who won the American Revolution without the benefit of formal education?
Messi casts his lot with Cameron, May and Westmoreland rather than Churchill, Disraeli and Washington. Despite their comparative shortcomings, each of the latter three changed the world in a significant way. Washington birthed a nation. Disraeli built a global empire. Churchill prevented Adolf Hitler from building another. None of the former had anything near the impact despite their advantages.
We all know what Lionel Messi has achieved. To date, he has the aforementioned stats and awards, as well as six Copas del Rey, ten La Liga titles and four Champions League crowns. On the other hand, he hasn’t changed the world. Not if we're being honest. Barcelona were already great without him. Argentina are yet to win a World Cup or Copa America with him.
For that matter, he was less influential in Barcelona’s four Champions League titles than certain teammates. A youngster still on the rise when Pep Guardiola won his three as manager, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were the more influential players. Admittedly, Leo had come into his own when Luis Enrique managed the Blaugrana’s fourth European Cup in the Messi era. He struck 58 times in that campaign. Yet, while Puyol had retired, Xavi and Iniesta remained in place as captain and vice-captain. They led. Messi followed.
Shortly after the triumph in 2014/15, the two Spaniards left Barcelona in Messi's hands and went their separate ways. Japan and Qatar being the far reaches of the footballing world, the weight of mes que un club fell on the Argentine's shoulders. The armband found a new home around his bicep. Unfortunately, the responsibility is proving too much to bear. Leo hasn't answered time's call by displaying the command to warrant all-time greatness.
It’s easy to blame others for Barcelona's failings, to say that Ernesto Valverde, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho or even Luis Suarez failed to do their part. Messi’s skill is unparalleled but he can’t do it alone. On the other hand, the time to step up is when it's all on the line. Twice in successive seasons, Barcelona’s surrendered a three-goal lead in Champions League ties. Leo put up numbers in the first leg then acted as if he’d done enough in the second.
Diego Maradona never felt anything was enough. Even if it meant cheating, he found a way to push his Argentina side through to World Cup glory. He made a difference. That, not amassing statistics, is greatness.
When has Messi made the difference? At La Remontada? No. When the shoe was on the other foot and Barcelona stormed back against Paris Saint-Germain, it was Neymar and Luis Suarez who, as the clock ran down, scored the goals and convinced the match official to award a critical penalty. Again, Messi’s contribution came earlier and wasn't sufficient to push Barcelona through. To be the greatest in history, you must be the one who delivers in the critical moments.
Worse, when has the greatest of all time ever surrendered? Quit? Taken his ball and gone home? Messi did after failing to score a goal over 240 minutes in consecutive Copa America finals against Chile and watching La Albiceleste fall each time on penalties. Argentina's caretaker, Edgardo Bauza had to chase Leo halfway around the world, to his football-shaped mansion in Barcelona, and cajole him into returning to the national setup. Not that it has done the South Americans any good. Another World Cup and Copa went wanting after he returned. When a player gives up then fails to redeem himself by taking either club or country to the pinnacle in the aftermath, how far have we lowered our standards to anoint him as the greatest ever?
Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't give up. He carried his squad to the Euro 16 final where he injured a knee in the first half and was unable to continue. After the break, he was back on the pitch, standing in the Stade de France technical area, knee wrapped, shouting, urging on his teammates, lending them his prodigious will for the 75 minutes it took to ruin the host nation’s party. Even when he couldn’t go on, CR7 refused to desert his mates. Strength of will allows you to make a difference and, repeat it with me, making a difference, not amassing statistics, determines greatness, much less the greatest of all time. Messi clearly lacks the fortitude to wear that title.
Before you call me a clown again, do I think Ronaldo’s strength of will makes him a better player than Messi? No, I don't. Greater? Oh, yes.
That said, Ronaldo isn't the GOAT, either. While he showed greatness in Paris to go along with the statistics he continues to hoard, there are other legends who did more for the game. Despite their 11 Ballons d'Or and 1,308 goals for club and country combined, neither Messi nor Ronaldo significantly changed the football world. They were just that much better than the rest of their generation.
A 17-year-old Pele effected change in Sweden, setting Brazil on course to be recognized as the greatest footballing nation on the planet eight years after they embarrassingly lost the final to Uruguay on home soil. He continued changing the world by winning two more World Cups in the next three cycles, scoring 650 league goals in Brazil, nearly 1,300 all told [just shy of Ronaldo and Messi combined] before finally coming to the United States to introduce soccer into the American mainstream consciousness. Since he signed for the New York Cosmos, no country has travelled to World Cups in greater numbers than the United States. One man redefined the sport for two nations.
Johan Cruijff changed the football world again just as Pele's career began to wind down. The Dutchman won three Ballons d’Or for Ajax and Barcelona from 1971-74. He led the Cules to their first title in 15 seasons in his debut campaign. While it has no bearing on this debate other than to confirm Cruijff's greatness transcended his play on the pitch, he then rebuilt Barca as the manager more than a decade later. He personified Total Football for the Dutch and laid the foundation for tiki-taka in Spain. Again, one man redefining football for two countries.
It bears repeating; Messi and Ronaldo are simply the best of their era, no more. Commercialism provides them with more matches to pile on the numbers in comparison to past generations. Advances in sports science and nutritional awareness make athletes in all sports bigger, stronger and faster than their predecessors. Leo and Cris can do more with their bodies. Regardless, there remains only one World Cup to win every four years, one European Championship and, depending on CONMEBOL’s fickle mood, one or two Copas America. By that common standard, this generation's twin goliaths can be measured fairly against past greats.
Throughout the game's history, fans, players, managers and pundits all recognised those three tournaments as the elite competitions, the highest level of achievement. Both Pele and Maradona won World Cups. Cruijff is relegated to honourable mention among all-time greats because he only ever made the one final and lost. Messi has reached one World Cup final and three Copas America without hoisting a trophy over his head. He hasn't answered when greatness called.
To lift Messi above Pele and Maradona, even Cruijff, is to lower the status of the World Cup, the Euros and the Copa America, to say they are no longer the test of one’s true mettle. To put it plainly, it’s disrespecting history because your hero can’t live up to it.
I won’t argue that Lionel Messi isn’t the most gifted footballer the world has seen by some distance. Yet how can anyone call him the greatest of all time when others with much lesser gifts accomplished far loftier glories?