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Does Lionel Messi's retirement mean that Pele is the greatest ever?

Lionel Messi or Pele - who is the greatest of all time?

Lionel Messi Pele
Lionel Messi or Pele – who is the greatest of all time?

Jaws are still being scooped off floors all across the globe as the fallout from Lionel Messi’s retirement from international football continues.

Petitions have been signed by his fans urging him to stay, football-lovers have gone into meltdown over his apparent exit from the Argentina set-up and even Diego Maradona has weighed in on the matter stating that he would love Leo to return.

In the build-up to the Copa America Centenario final against eventual victors Chile, yours truly wrote a piece stating how important an end to Messi’s jinx in the blue and white of La Albiceleste would be for his career. It would have seen him overcome recent adversity such as the tax evasion case he faced in recent months, Barcelona’s denial of a historic defence of their 2014/15 Champions League crown as well as allowing him to put the anguish of three final defeats behind him.

Now, he has to live with the failure of four showpiece matches with his country – that’s not going to be an easy pill to swallow.

It would be naive to assume that this won’t deal a hammering blow to his confidence. He might be a supernaturally gifted star, but he is still human (we think!) and will need time to heal before he gets back to his best. Regardless of where he goes from here or what happens next in this intriguing saga, many are continuing to question his right to the title as the greatest player of all time.

Some like to think that Maradona is the best, others think Cristiano Ronaldo, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldinho or Alfredo Di Stefano; the list goes on and on. However, arguably the most interesting debate currently raging is whether or not he is better than Brazilian legend Pele.

Pele never tested himself in Europe, Messi still does

Lionel Messi
Messi has conquered Europe time and again

If South America is the hotbed from which football's fire, passion and rhythmic flair spring up, then Europe is where those attractive tendencies discover a different sort of value.

Traditionally, the best clubs in the world are said to reside in the second smallest continent on the globe. It’s where the big stars go to play and exude their skittish exuberance on the hallowed pitches across its best and most testing of leagues. From today’s perspective, Messi might be one of the smallest participants on the playground that is European football, but he is very much the domineering force and has been for some time.

His five Ballon d’Or victories are unprecedented and is unlikely to be repeated for a very long time to come – if ever again. La Pulga has conquered the field with his incredible displays of skill, tenacity and mind-boggling skill ever since he burst onto the scene with Barcelona at 17 years of age. Not only has he been at the peak (or at least challenging regularly) so often, but he has been doing it before many professionals can normally even start for their club. His special powers are unquestionable.

The way he has changed the landscape of continental football has often been discussed in the context of his personal rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo, and while it’s fair to suggest that it has played a part in how it has motivated them both, what should be obvious to everyone is that Messi was destined to become a great regardless, and his constant push to light up the beautiful game has – as those who know him best would surely attest – likely been fueled more by his desire to help his team win, enjoy his football and do his best, not simply by a selfish desire to be seen as the standout best player around.

In contrast, Pele famously never played competitively in Europe. The fact that most of his supporters refuse to use that against him shows how widely revered he is, but it also tells its own story about just how much the perspective on football has changed in the intervening years between when Pele retired and the present day.

Pele touted as a master, but Messi’s international failings are not his fault

Pele
Pele scores in the final of the 1970 World Cup 

Pele became known as the Black Pearl in his time, and is often still fondly referred to by that moniker, and it’s little wonder people continue to see him as the rare gem that is so difficult to come across because he was probably the go-to choice for favourite player until Diego Maradona cropped up in the 1980s. His international career is arguably the greatest of all time and is certainly one of the most widely celebrated.

He won as astonishing three World Cups, recorded 91 appearances and scored 77 goals. It was a whirlwind reign of attacking brilliance which saw him build a legacy which has, for the most part, managed to stay strong to this very day. Of course, he is not without his critics and plenty have attempted to deconstruct the mysticism that surrounds him and his goal-scoring record.

After all, he retired from the international game at just 30 years of age, which is quite early. Indeed, one can be quite sure that those who lambasted Messi for quitting the international scene at 29 did not even know that the famous Brazil no.10 called time on his right to wear the famous golden shirt so early on. Yes, Pele achieved so much more for his country than Messi has done, but it’s a lot more complicated than some people like to make out.

In the same way, Messi’s detractors like to devalue his club brilliance by stating that it would be hard for him to fail surrounded by so many superstars, Pele certainly achieved much of his success due to the fact he was playing alongside such legends a lot of the time, too. That’s not to say that the former Santos star was not a phenomenal player because he will always be considered one of the most breathtaking to ever kick a ball.

It sort of teases the hypocrisy of football fans who praise Pele to high heavens for his trio of World Cup medals and yet continue to critique Leo for his lack of that very same piece of silverware. To have balance and fairness, it seems only right to give due praise to both for where they have managed to succeed. 

In short, whereas in Pele’s heyday the World Cup was the platform to judge players, nowadays it is unquestionably the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or.

Leo can change his future, Pele can’t adjust the past

Pele
Pele cannot change the past, but Messi still has the chance to change the future

So far, so even – right?

The curious thing about being the best of your generation is that there is always another one to come after you (well, bar a zombie apocalypse or something) which is why it’s always interesting to see the latest inflated ego toot his own horn as being the best in the business, or indeed the best there ever will be.

Pele has done it, Maradona has done it, Ronaldo too – lots of the big stars have fallen into the trap of dismissing everyone else. Some football fans love to hear that red-hot self-belief and hardcore confidence come to the fore in the form of`snazzy meme-framed quotes and easily digestible soundbites, but it’s also difficult to ignore the notion that these self-centred characters are setting themselves up for a fall.

Arguably Messi’s greatest trait is his modesty. Rack your brains and try and think of the last time he declared himself a football genius, an icon with the Midas touch who will never be eclipsed or emulate again. Drawing a blank? That’s because he doesn’t waste his time spewing out self-indulgent claims of brilliance. Instead, he’d rather be self-effacing, humble and happy in his own skin.

Don’t get us wrong, Messi isn’t unaware of his incredible skill and innate talent, but he doesn’t bang on about it all the time like so many others.

The truth is, when you’re really that good, you don’t need to shout it from the rooftops because everyone else is already too busy doing it for you.

The key to solving the puzzle as to who is the best footballer of all time is the future. Frankly, Messi has an excellent chance of going on to surpass much of what Pele achieved in his career. The former Newell’s Old Boys starlet is not too far off catching up with Pele’s 757 official goals because he already has netted a marvelous 508 strikes, and while 250 goals might seem like a lot of net-shaking to be getting on with, it’s worth remembering that he is only 29 years of age right now and still has at least five or six years left at the top of the game.

We look forward to seeing him do it, and even more so if he manages to renege on his retirement in the process.

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