Messi had the chance to grasp this mantle when it was confirmed he would be leaving Barcelona last week – the opportunity was there for him to move on and challenge himself elsewhere, to prove beyond doubt that he had the talent and character required to be classed as the greatest of all time, or the ‘GOAT’ to use modern day parlance.
However, what did he do? He took a turn off easy street onto even easier street and opted for the comfortable, destination of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The predictablility was tedious.
For a player that has banked millions over the years in wages and image rights sponsorship deals, money was not the motivation. He and his family are set for life and he knows it.
Messi claimed the desire to win another Champions League was the primary motive behind the move, which is fair enough. But moving to Paris also means he will be playing amongst a roster of incredibly gifted players once again, as he has his entire playing career.
To be taken seriously as the GOAT we needed to see him truly test himself and that meant stepping out of the comfort zone that he has always been so snuggled in. To show us that an individual talent as majestic as his could work its magic and inspire others to improve and achieve glory.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not proclaiming Messi as anything but an incredibly gifted and successful footballer – indeed amongst the greatest of all time. There is absolutely no doubting the natural talent of the guy and the incredible career he has had and will no doubt continue to have. Often gliding with the grace of an ice skater across the pitch, his technical abilities and balletic disposition have wowed fans since he made his debut for Barcelona as a 17-year-old in November 2004; an incredible player.
However, every team Messi has ever played in at professional level has been adorned with stars of the highest calibre, players operating at their optimal peak, often on an entirely different level to opponents. The forward line at Barcelona that young Leo was eased into 17 years ago included the likes of Brazilian wizard Ronaldinho, Cameroonian legend Samuel Eto’o and Swedish sensation Henrik Larsson. That’s not a bad list of teammates to help you find your feet.
The inimitable Carles Puyol was captain, playing along side Mexican stalwart Rafael Marquez and Brazillian trio Thiago Motta, Sylvinho and Juliano Belletti in defence.
The midfield saw the majestic brilliance of Xavi and Andres Iniesta pulling the strings, dominating the game as they would for club and country for many years to come. There haven’t been many like them before or since. Alongside them was the enterprising Ludovic Giuly of France, Brazil’s Edmilson, Giovanni van Bronckhorst of the Netherlands and Portuguese schemer Deco.
If ever there was a team to make ones debut in, to comfortably and confidently find ones feet then this would undoubtedly be among the popular picks.
It was clear Messi possessed a unique talent from those early forrays into the team and it was therefore no surprise that he soon cemented his spot.
However, the personnel around him contined to be of the highest order. Over the years the following are just a few examples of those that plied their trade alongside the diminutive Argentinian: Neymar, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Luis Suárez, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fàbregas, Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sánchez, Yaya Toure, David Villa, Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann, Lilian Thuram, Javier Saviola, Eric Abidal, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Ivan Rakitić – that’s some list and, yes, it does go on.
Messi has gone from being surrounded by a Rolls Royce production line of footballing talent to a similarly comfortable and secure environment at PSG where the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María, Mauro Icardi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos, Marco Verratti, Georginio Wijnaldum, Ander Herrera, and Julian Draxler, among others, will be his teammates this season.
Where is the challenge? Messi has swapped playing in a domestic league where only really three teams have been competitive for the title in 20 years for a league where there is very little if any competition at all. Yes, OK, Lille won the French League 1 last year but every league has its Leicester City fairytale at some point. As for the Champions League, of course PSG are going to challenge with a team like that!
I am not saying if you take a lower league clogger and put him amongst such unrivalled talent that he will perform to the levels of little Leo but being surrounded by such exquisite players for your entire career doesn’t hurt, does it? But neither does it make you the greatest.
To prove himself as the absolute best, Messi needed to take on a real challenge. He needed to take his super human skillset to a club that isn’t operating at the peak of their powers, packed with superstars. Maybe a less established or successful club in England’s Premier League or in Italy’s Serie A? There was talk of him returning to his boyhood team in Argentina, Newell’s Old Boys, who he joined when he was six and has supported his entire life. The romantic symmetry of such a move is like something out of a Hollywood movie.
Taking on a serious challenge is something countryman Diego Maradona did during his playing career which is why he is often, rightfully, considered as the GOAT. There are absolutely no doubts around El Diego.
Messi and Maradona have always, understandably, been compared. Both Argentinian, diminuitive in stature, both possessing a wand of a left foot, and an arsenal of skills that frequently transcend belief.
Both played for Barcelona. However, when Maradona left in 1984 he decided to join unfashionable Napoli in the Italy. Northern neighbours such as A.C. Milan, Juventus, Inter Milan, and Roma looked down upon the Neapoletans and no team outside of the northern stranglehold had ever won a Serie A title.
Maradona almost single-handely inspired Napoli to their first ever league title in 1986-87. Such was his power of influence, he had an impact on a team game constituting 22 other active players never witnessed before.
“The world was turned upside down. The Neapolitans held mock funerals for Juventus and Milan, burning their coffins, their death notices announcing ’May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated. A new empire is born,” wrote renowned sports commentator David Goldblatt at the time.
Napoli would finish runners-up in the league for the next two seasons then win it again in 1989-90. They also won the Coppa Italia in 1987, the Italian SuperCup in 1990 and the UEFA Cup in 1989.
It cannot be understated how significant Maradona’s direct influence was in achieving these feats, in taking a run-down, unfashionable club in Italy’s south and eclipsing the monopoly of the pompous, northern giants. It would be akin to Messi joining Burnley in the present day Premier League and taking them onto unrivalled success in the next few years to come. Simply incredible.
The Napoli team was not adorned with superstars or famed playing personnel. Brazilians Careca and Alemao were the stand out players but that was the extent of it.
Let’s not forget Maradona also won the World Cup almost single-handedly in 1986, no pun intended in reference to his infamous hand of God goal against England! Once again, he illustrated what it takes to truly be defined as the greatest as he inspired a team of mediocre talents to emerge as world champions.
Messi has consistently struggled internationally despite having teammates of the calibre of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Juan Sebastian Veron, Mascherano, Javier Zanetti, Juan Román Riquelme, Di Maria, amongst others, surrounding him during his 16-year career so far. Indeed, it was only this summer that he finally won a compettion of note when Argentina won the Copa America against Brazil.
Perhaps an unfair comparison but the era Maradona operated in was also a much different one in regards to protection from referees. It was a common sight back in the 80s and 90s to see artistic players like Maradona scythed down frequently in a game, often multiple times. Today’s players that fall so dramatically and embarrassingly would not have stood a chance. Yes, Messi is kicked often but nothing like the barbaric attacks opponents were allowed to unleash on Maradona and co back in the day.
It is worth highlighting the condition of the playing surface that Maradona performed on too. Often resembling ploughed agricultural fields, they were frequently awful and not befitting of first class sport. The pitches now are comparable to billiard tables, flat and smooth as silk. Messi has often complained of the condition of pitches when playing back in South America. If only he knew the half of it.
The modern day debate as to the greatest surrounds Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. One can argue that the latter can stake more of a valid claim due to the fact he has challenged himself in different leagues across Europe and triumphed on each occasion – to win everything there is to win in the game domestically with Manchester United in England, Real Madrid in Spain and Juventus in Italy, and across European competition consistently with all three, is highly impressive. He has constantly stepped out of his comfort zone and pushed himself, proving he is more than up to the challenge.
Messi has remained where the challenge is completely manageable and where he is comfortable for his entire career, something that will be sustained now he is at PSG. No doubting his talents but the greatest? No. He had the chance to lay a legitimate claim to that mantle but passed it up and took the easy route.
It is, of course, now just mere wishful folly but little Leo linking up with, say, Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United in the Premier League – now THAT would have been a challenge and an opportunity for Messi to truly throw his hat in the ring as genuinely the greatest of all time...