In world football, the qualities needed to be the best differ from position to position. To be the best goalkeeper, you need the agility of Buffon, the cat-like reflexes of Casillas, the penalty-saving skills of Handanovic and the aerial prowess of Hart. To be the world’s most accomplished defender, you need the tackling of Dede, the composure of Thiago Silva, the strength and heading ability of Kompany and the tactical brain of Gerard Pique. It’s strange how two of those players are Brazilian – how can it be that Brazilian players can play defensive football? It’s hardly what you’d expect from the country of Pele, Zico and Ronaldinho.
If you want to be the creme de la creme of the midfield, you would perhaps consider the passing of Xavi, the tactical brain of Mesut Ozil, the defensive guile and steel of Schweinsteiger. and the lung-busting runs and goal-scoring threat of Gerrard, still one of the most naturally talented players in the Premier League.
The supreme forward would have the poaching instinct of Falcao, the aggressive style of Bale, the heading ability of Klose and the close finishing of Van Persie. The tricks of Ronaldinho or Ronaldo would not go amiss, even now.
The best footballer alive, then, is a subjective title. Each position requires different skill and technique. It’s like comparing Daniel Carter to Richie McCaw. It’s like comparing Andrew Luck to Calvin Johnson. The different positions demand different skills and gifts.
And comparing players from different eras is just as hard. Comparing Pele to Messi could be boiled down to achievements – 3 World Cups against enough silverware to set the Queen’s table for supper. But fitness levels, different rules and defending, and raised standards is the gulf between the Brazilian and Messi. For me, Pele is the greatest ever. Over 1,000 goals in a career takes some beating, an forwards were not protected as they are now, with broken legs commonplace. Cards were only seen in poker games on the team coach up to an away match. And all of the 1958 Brazilian World Cup squad came from the Brazilian league. That shows that there were some good players there, and that it was a good league. The argument that Pele played in a mediocre league that made him the equivalent of a YouTube player doesn’t ring true for me.
But if Argentina win the World Cup in 2014, his standing at the top of the table will be tested. The idea that Argentina could win the World Cup at the home of their greatest rivals, however, doesn’t bear thinking about for Brazilians.
Lionel Messi, even at just 25, seems to be unstoppable. He has all the skills, all the gifts, and is one of the fittest players on the planet. He hardly misses a game for Barcelona through injury or tiredness, either mental or physical.
90 goals in all competitions for Barcelona and Argentina in 2012 looks like a plateau that will never again be reached. The incredible players he has around him help, of course. Any team with Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas on the bench to call on has quality. The influence and quality of Xavi and Andres Iniesta transcends mere silverware. And then there’s Pique and Carlos Puyol at the back, in defence. Barcelona is the wet dream of a Fantasy Football addict, and Messi would be the greatest accumulator of points since Charlie Sheen got behind the wheel of a car.
There is no way that Lionel Messi can be second to Cristiano Ronaldo at present. He has completed more dribbles, scored more goals and assisted more goals than the Portugese man in 2012. His minutes-to-goals ratio is better, and he’s scored 13 in 10 as compared to Ronaldo’s 7 in 15 in international football. So this has been a better year all round for Messi. He’s not just winning more trophies than Ronaldo – he’s posting better statistics too.
Some of Ronaldo’s attributes weigh in his favour – he’s stronger, taller and faster than the Barcelona man. He’s two-footed and has a better shot from distance, as well as world-class heading ability. And as if you’d forgotten, he’s the world’s most expensive footballer. In the Olympics, Ronaldo would beat Messi to the gold in physical events, because he has the genetic gifts to triumph. But this doesn’t factor in Messi’s decision-making and footballing brain. Unlike Ronaldo, the Argentinean doesn’t need space to be effective. He can assist and create scoring opportunities in equal measure to goals. Ronaldo seems most at home up front or on the wing. Messi can play both positions as well as an attacking midfield role. 10, false 9, 11, 7, Messi can play them all. If the Barcelona midfield had a crisis and Messi was required to slot in, he’d probably do a good job there too.
With all the factors, Messi then comes out on top. He’s versatile, a more intelligent footballer and is more of a team player – around 80% of Barcelona’s team moves involve him, as opposed to 60% for Ronaldo. He’ll come out on top next year, too.