Is Messi The Greatest Of All Time?

Lionel Messi’s return to form has reignited the ‘Greatest Player of All Time’ debate that had been left cooling in the shade of his previous two subdued seasons; subdued by his standard, anyway. Pep Guardiola is the most recent high profile figure to suggest that the little Argentine has claim to such a singular accolade, though similar propositions have been put forth by various luminaries of the professional game since about 2009.

From a certain perspective, such an assertion is straightway leveled by the damning absence of a World Cup winner’s medal. Some might regard this perspective as an oversimplified assessment and alternatively place considerably more weight on the player’s individual and club level accomplishments.

For me, both are an oversimplification and, I would suggest, beside the point. The greatest player of all time can never be crowned. Such a question cannot yield a definitive answer. Really, it will forever be an argument rather than a question at all.

All that ever is done, all that ever can be done, is to eliminate players from the field of potential candidates. Simply speaking, while it can never be said with absolute certainty who is the GOAT, it can be said with far more certainty who is not. This whittling away of the prospective field utilizes a diversity of considerations with players falling short of acceptance at different stages of the selection process.

Clearly, players who have never played the game professionally are the first to be discarded, without even having to bother seeing them play. No one could genuinely make the assertion that Jimmy from North Dallas, who banged in 1,000 goals over the course of 15 years in the local adult league, is anything but a senior accountant who likes to kick a ball about on the weekend.

Moreover, most of the professional ranks are immediately eliminated as well, without need for observation, due to not having achieved recognition at the highest level of that professional game. Those who have never won a World Player of the Year award, or whatever it may have been called in whatever era, must necessarily be excluded. I will put to the side, for the time being, the potentially legitimate concern that such awards may not always be the most accurate measurement.

This leaves a small pool of candidates in need of further refinement. These players are then weighed against what they have accomplished at the absolute level of professional football. Their haul of top flight individual and team honors are assessed and measured. This comparison of objective accomplishments (League titles in top leagues, European titles, Player of the Year awards, scoring titles, International titles, etc.) leaves but a handful of players still in the debate, sundering out the rest.

Then to the final phase of the process, and this is the phase where Lionel Messi is found wanting; the ultimate reckoning of the most illustrious players of the game’s history. That is, what they have done during the most vital moments of the most important matches in world football. The jaw-droppingly brilliant goal(s) they engineered in some mid-season domestic fixture is irrelevant at this stage of the evaluation.

So too, I would contend, are the record books. These are often a misleading or, at the very least, an incomplete account of a player’s accomplishments during the foremost moments of their career and of the game itself. Those moments where, it might be said, something of a ‘capital T’ Truth in football emerges. Cristiano Ronaldo may end up joint top scorer in the Champion’s League this season, but he could not find a brace when it most mattered, and that is of far more importance than the overall tally in this assessment.

So, for a player as accomplished as Lionel Messi, his elimination from GOAT contention becomes amply more nuanced than the average player and even the average World Player of the Year winner.

There has been one supreme moment, it may be said, during the course of his thus-far wonderful career. Some may suspect to what moment I am referring. When his lavishly praised and widely revered playing days eventually come to their inevitable conclusion, it perhaps will be the remembrance of this moment that might sometimes send him pacing the smooth-marbled floors of his mansions into the cool hours of the pre-dawn, wondering by what necessity he should meet the day well rested.

This moment, of course, presented itself during the championship match of last summer’s World Cup. It arose midway through the second half, with the contest still scoreless (and it would remain scoreless throughout regulation), when Messi found himself alone on goal with but the German goalkeeper between him and footballing kleos aphthiton.

Though the angle was not the best, this GOAT candidate proceeded to drag his shot wide of the far post. Germany would eventually win the game in extra time through Mario Goetz’s finish from a still more difficult angle.

Now, as I have contended, the greatest player of all time cannot be known. But, I do know this: whoever he is, he would have buried that chance.

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