I’ve been following Argentina and Netherlands since 2010 and it is quite painful to watch both the teams that I love fail on the biggest stage especially since the latter even failed to qualify. I’ve been a Barcelona fan since 2008 and have been watching Messi for the last 10 years and this is the only time I’ve seen him devastated even before the match began. However, the coffin was already five feet under before the World Cup began when he had to drag the team into the tournament (Messi scored seven goals, including three in a must-win against Ecuador. Six of Argentina’s seven wins in qualifiers came with Messi on the pitch. They collected 19 points in 10 games with him and only seven in eight games without him). More so, without him on the pitch, they lost to Spain 6-1.
The team fails to work together with him and without him on the pitch as well. The team lacks heart and passion and can’t make a single decent pass in the other half of the pitch. The team has great attackers and great players all over the pitch but how do you end up with Meza? Acuña? Caballero for God’s sake? Why not Gerónimo Rulli instead? Why not bring Icardi to Russia? Where was Lo Celso, Marcos Rojo, Éver Banega? Sampaoli’s tactics make absolutely no sense considering the talent he has at his disposal. Don’t get me wrong, I blame Messi for a large part of Argentina’s results (the penalty against Iceland), of course I do but to put the complete blame for everything that is wrong with Argentina is absolutely unfair, immature and irrational especially when your goalkeeper “pulls a Karius,” your team fails to mark the best midfielder in the world who can curl a shot from anywhere (Luka Modrić) and your most capped player (Javier Mascherano) and your prime central defender (Nicolás Otamendi) can be seen walking towards the goal while the opposition is playing El Rondo with the goalkeeper for the last goal. If Argentina still qualifies for the Round of 16, I’d actually be disappointed because it would distract from the institutional crises of football in the country. However, the last match does not make Messi, a man who dragged Argentina to four finals, any less “clutch” and impacts the GOAT debate like your 12-year-old neighbor would like to tell you.
Great team-game players transcend and revolutionize the generation they play with. They have great players around them that present them with the support they need to succeed and truly shine. Pelé played with the greatest Brazilian generation and arguably the greatest World Cup team in history (Garrincha, Djalma Santos, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gérson, Carlos Alberto Torres, Tostão, Gilmar, Zito, Bellini and Zagallo and Clodoaldo). The team was so good that he basically sat out the 1962 World Cup and Garrincha still took over and won them the World Cup single-handedly. Pelé is called the greatest of all time but what people fail to mention is that he was out-performed at every single World Cup. In 1958, Pelé scored six goals while Just Fontaine scored 13. In 1962, six players scored three goals more than him but since he basically sat out the World Cup; we’ll give him that one. In 1966, Eusébio scored nine more goals than him where he only scored one goal and in the next, Gerd Müller scored 10 when he scored four. Why is it then that we call Pelé the GOAT? It’s not because of the World Cups (like I pointed out above), it’s not because of his total goals (easy club competition in Brazil/USA and statistical errors) but because of what he means to the game. He was the perennial “nice-guy” who was gifted with a golden touch.
Diego Maradona, who scored lesser goals than him, was an absolute disaster off the pitch with his drugs history and his bizarre “Hand of God” goal, is also included in the debate. What people often fail to mention, due to carefully manipulated information, is that Maradona’s team included Burruchaga, Valdano, Ricardo Giusti, Sergio Batista, Héctor Enrique, Nery Pumpido, Oscar Ruggeri, José Luis Cuciuffo and one of the greatest coaching masterminds in the game, Carlos Bilardo. You can call it Maradona’s World Cup all you want; it doesn’t make it any less of a blatant lie.
These are the two untouchables in football. All the other great players: Zidane, Cruyff, Platini, Müller, Eusébio, Di Stephano, Buffon, Beckenbauer, Puskás, Best, Garrincha, Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldo De Lima, Bobby Charlton are at the base of the mountain but the summit remains divided between two. Coming back to the topic at hand however, the only man who can sit with them is as you would have guessed: Lionel Messi. He revolutionized an entire generation by being the main man of an entire school of thought: Tiki Taka of Barcelona which ironically won Spain two Euros and a World Cup without him. He was what Pelé was to Samba, Cruyff to Total Football, and Zidane to the number 10s and Maradona to the Bad Boys’ era that even extended to Basketball (Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons). Messi created an entire new way of playing and because he’s done it better than everyone else is why he’s the only one that can peak the mountain and winning the World Cup is the last plate of Gold that his armor is missing.
Now saving the “best” for last, as I have settled above, goals are not what make someone the best of all time or even their own generation, raw talent/ability and what you mean to the game, does. Just like Gary Lineker is not better than Maradona even though he scored more goals in the 1986 World Cup and just like Gerd Müller is not better than Pelé for scoring six more goals than him in 1970, Ronaldo is not better than Messi for scoring more goals, served on a platter to him by an actual TEAM. A TEAM. Not five defenders and five attackers who have nothing to do with each other but an actual TEAM. A man who calls himself the GOAT just to get people to even consider him in the debate is not the Greatest Of All Time. A man who lost to a team in the Champions League and knows that he can’t defeat them decides to join their rivals just to have a chance is not the Greatest Of All Time. A man who has been chasing another player’s shadow for his entire career is not the Greatest Of All Time. A man whose ego is so vulnerable that he has to grow a goatee and pat his chin, like an over-grown child, just to imitate another player is not the Greatest Of All Time. Like those that came before him: Ronaldo de Lima, Puskás, Müller and Di Stéfano: All great goal scorers are not the greatest players and hence, to settle the modern “debate” once and for all, you can try to imitate, dive or do whatever you have been doing for most of your career but you’re chasing a shadow who’s kissing the finish line while you’re only half-way there.