Is it easier or more difficult to shine nowadays? That's a tough question to answer and maybe one that needs more words than I'm allowed in this column. Nevertheless, if I was really forced to decide, I'd say it's tougher now. Defenders are faster and fitter, players are constantly under the spotlight, top sides play more fixtures, and the general weekly pressure is relentless. In the past, it's true that the relative lack of media scrutiny meant that the Butchers from Bilbao and the Norman Hunters could get away with more of their darker arts, but the sheer demands made on the modern professional footballer far exceed those of the past, even considering the argument that the current ones are relatively pampered.
The fact that Messi has emerged in this era, and the further fact that he has even engendered this debate, is proof of his greatness. In the end, it will come down to subjective considerations, because your idea of brilliance might not quite gel with mine, but both of us are right. I find Messi's sudden, darting movements and stop-start changes of direction fascinating, but I preferred to watch George Best's anarchic elegance. It's just an aesthetic thing. But any objective judgment of these two players will always find Best wanting - his lack of self-discipline, the fact that he left the top-flight at 27 and the amount of medals that Messi already possesses would seem to clinch the argument. Pele has hinted at the same, saying recently that when Messi has scored 1,283 goals and won three World Cups, "then we'll talk". Such a view of greatness - longevity plus goals and titles - seems a little brutal, but you can understand why Pele said it.
It's still tough to consider anyone to be greater than the Brazilian, but perhaps to do so we have to shift the goalposts (if you'll excuse the metaphor) and apply the new criteria that Messi forces us to consider. Why? Because if he were to be struck down by lightning tomorrow, we might still be prepared to consider him the greatest ever. Has any player ever seemed so supernatural in his gifts, or been so consistently brilliant in such a demanding league? Pele remained throughout his career in the relative comfort of the Brazilian league. Also, Messi is unlikely to be struck by lightning, and seems to be confounding those who thought that he would never last the pace, physically speaking. He rarely seems to be injured these days, and will surely last until his mid-30s.
Monday, March 12, 2012
How to Define the Greatest of the Great
Phil Ball had a characteristically interesting meditation on greatness and Messi in this week's column: