Why it’s too soon to label Messi a great

OF all the countless tributes paid in recent years to the star player on a star-filled Barcelona team, we particularly liked the one The Guardian penned after he’d ripped the champions of England apart, so much so we’ll recite it here.

“He wears the number 10, that magic number graced by so many of the very greatest players. No one would say the style of Barcelona’s current genius directly resembles those of Puskas, Pele, Maradona or Zidane; only the end product is the same. Opponents are bewitched and bewildered, trying to predict which way he will spring. But even when they guess right, he can change his option in an instant. So far as one can tell, there has never been a player like him.”

There’s only one man, of course, Williams could possibly be talking about.

Ronaldinho.

Remember him? How he’d routinely light up our screens and the Camp Nou on Wednesday and Saturday nights and how we universally agreed he was the best player in our universe?

Ronaldinho has been nowhere to be found in the conversation over Lionel Messi’s greatness this past week. Neither has Kaka, Rivaldo, nor Ronaldoeither, as in ‘Fat’ Ronaldo as he was cruelly known near the end.

All at one point were considered the world’s best player, even better than Zinedine Zidane, the only other player of the post-Maradona era to routinely crop up alongside Messi in the all-time greats stakes in recent months. And it wasn’t like they were one-season wonders. Five times over an eight-year span Ronaldo finished in the top three for world footballer of the year.

Ronaldinho was among the top three for three consecutive years. Twice Rivaldo finished in the top three and that didn’t include 2002 when he helped Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka win their World Cup.

Our point is this. If that Brazilian quartet, especially Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, can’t even get a look in to the top 10 players of all time, then it’s premature to be hailing a 23-year-old as one of the top five.

We’re not being contrary here. You won’t find us claiming Messi has to star in a World Cup to equal Pele or Maradona. In their day the World Cup carried greater weighting in gauging a player’s greatness because there were fewer other gauges of such things. A European Cup could be won only having to overcome AEK Athens, Zurich Grasshoppers, Cologne and Malmo in your last four ties as Nottingham Forest did in 1979.

Now Messi routinely comes up against — and runs rings around — Arsenal, Madrid, Munich, Chelsea and United. Also, Messi could beinjured for the 2014 World Cup, or managed by another lunatic like he was in 2010.

And mention of Maradona and World Cups, it’s overlooked that he has disgraced the competition as much as he adorned it in 1986, between karate-kicking Brazil’s Joao Batista da Silva in ‘82, his hounding of referees at Italia ‘90 and his drug scandal of USA ‘94; lows Messi would never stoop to.

Messi is phenomenal. So is Cristiano Ronaldo by the way, with his 165 goals in 191 club games over the last four seasons, but it is a measure of Messi’s brilliance — and sportsmanship — that the Portuguese is a distant second-best to him. There probably has never been a better 23-year-old or a player to ever have had a better five-season spell than the one Messi’s coming off.

But the best ever? Or even one of the best-five ever?

Such talk is fun and inevitable but wildly premature too, just like all the LeBron James comparisons with Michael Jordan in the States right now. We’re not alone on this.

Pele has also observed how transient top talents now are — “Kaka and Ronaldinho are almost forgotten” — and how Messi has to approximate the longevity of Cruyff, Platini and Di Stefano to rank above them.

That will be the test of Messi’s true greatness — longevity. Will he still be an elite player at 28, 29, 30 like legions of brilliant — but hardly top-ten — players like Dalglish, Baggio, Charlton, Del Piero, Zico, Shearer, Henry, Keane, Maldini and Bergkamp — were? It’s not a given.

Ronaldo and Ronaldinho’s professionalism betrayed them too, which is why Pep Guardiola let him go from Barca.

Guardiola nearly culled Messi at one stage.

The Argentine used to follow Ronaldinho on the town until Guardiola warned him: either he could keep on partying and be out on his ear, or start eating and sleeping and drinking right and become the best player in the world.

In the likely scenario the humble little genius continues to live by the latter advice and “doesn’t get fed up” as his coach fears and like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho did, then he’s set to become the greatest ever too.


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