LIAM MACKEY: As crisp as you like — Lineker calls Messi the best yet

There can surely only be a few striking days to Christmessi now.

A hot favourite to win yet another Fifa Ballon d’Or crown and, having already claimed 82 goals in 2012, the world’s greatest player is now just three shy of the all-time record for goals scored in a single calendar year, a record which has been held for no less than 40 years by the great Gerd Muller – known as Der Bomber to the world but as the German Mick Leech to a few of us in South Dublin – who notched up a staggering 85 back in 1972.

It so happens that I had the pleasure of a chat with another of football’s ace marksmen this week, though with his slightly unfair reputation for finding the net mainly from a distance of a couple of yards, Gary Lineker’s is not a name you hear mentioned too often when it comes to assessing the all-time greats.

Still, he always delivered at the highest level for England and, having also done the business for Barcelona in his time and been on the receiving end of a certified blast of Argentinian genius at the World Cup in 1986, the now familiar face of BBC Sport seemed like an obvious person to ask for an informed verdict on the great debate: Messi or Maradona?

“Maradona was the best player from my era,” he began. “But, even though it’s difficult judging players from different eras — and the two are different as well, despite the obvious similarities: the stature, the left foot, the ability to beat people – in the end, I’d have to say Messi.

“I think he’s just unbelievable. He does it more consistently than Diego and I think he’ll do it over a greater period of time. He still has to do it at a World Cup and I guess he probably will. The only World Cup he’s had was at a similar age to Diego’s first and it didn’t happen for him [Maradona, in 1982] either.

“I think Argentina will have a great chance in Brazil [in 2014] and, yes, that’s the one thing about Messi that he still hasn’t done it consistently for Argentina – although he has begun to do it in the last year, scoring 12 in nine.

“But I just love watching him. Even when he has a bad game, he’s still the best player on the pitch. Like in the Celtic match, he was off his game – and remember his wife had just had a baby – but he was still the best player on the pitch. As a goalscorer, he’s breaking every record known to man. He’s scored way more goals than Diego and he’s equally creative. Plus, he doesn’t dive, he doesn’t go round hitting people, he’s thoroughly professional and he works hard. He’s an absolute blessing for the game.”

Speaking of the dark arts: did Mr Lineker – a famously fair player in his own day — ever dive?

“No, no. But, at the same time, there were times when I knew I was going to get fouled – like you would go to go around a goalkeeper on occasion and you’d think to yourself ‘If I could just get to the ball first he’ll have to foul me’. And then there’d be contact.

“But I never in my career dived without being hit. Without contact. I think that’s the difference. People get on their high-horse about this and say it’s wrong. Well, hang on a minute, the whole sport of basketball is based on walking into people and getting fouled. If defenders mistime their tackle and hit you – and I’m not talking here about a tiny brush and then you go flying through the air because I’m all against that – I’m talking about decent old contact, then I think that’s where the line is.”

Refreshingly, Lineker is the first high-profile football personality I’ve met who argues for a much wider application of video replay as a refereeing aid than the usual half-hearted support for goal-line technology beyond which any further tinkering, it’s frequently claimed, would negatively impinge on the spirit of the game. Well, hey, try talking about the much-vaunted spirit of the game to skilled players who successfully beat an offside trap and combine to create and score a brilliant goal only to then find that the linesman – for the very good reason that he is an infallibly human – has had his eyes deceived precisely by their supreme, hair-trigger timing.

“The only difficulty is offside, there is no other difficulty,” Lineker concedes, though he believes this can be overcome too, “and I think they should do it like other sports, where say the captain or the manager has three appeals in the game.

“I think that would make a huge difference. The only difficulty in working out how you do it is when offside is given and it’s wrong. If the linesman puts his flag up do you carry on playing until the ball goes out and then go back if there’s an appeal? That would need to be worked out. But everything else is fine: if it’s a penalty decision, look at it and, if the video evidence isn’t clear, go with what the ref saw. And goal-line technology is a no-brainer. That’s going to come in anyway.”

Just like Messi finding the net — simple, eh Michel?


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