In the aftermath of Argentina’s historic third World Cup triumph, yours truly is losing count of the number of times ignoramuses have crowned Lionel Messi the game’s Greatest Of All Time – GOAT in football parlance. Can’t finger whether this sweeping accolade is a heat of the moment issue borne out of excitement at Messi’s sublime displays, or based on pure ignorance of the game’s historical facts. For the record, Edson Arantes dos Nascimento or Pele remains the Greatest Of All Time. If you have doubts, one hour of watching his YouTube highlights will put this argument to bed.
In case you are too lazy to do so, analyse the facts. Unlike Messi, Pele is a three-time World Cup winner, having lifted the game’s ultimate prize in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Unlike Messi who lifted the World Cup at the fifth attempt, Pele won the tournament at his first attempt aged 17. Unlike Messi whose 12 World Cup goals include 5 or 6 spot kicks, Pele scored an equal number from open play. To quote the man himself: “A penalty is a cowardly way to score.”
Pele scored a hat trick in the 1958 World Cup semifinal win over France, and bagged a brace in the final victory over Sweden at 17. Messi has never scored a World Cup hat trick. If the argument is about only World Cup football, Pele wins the contest hands down. A colleague on a WhatsApp group alleged Pele played with the best players of the day. As a riposte, had to remind him that Messi fell short at South Africa 2010, Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 with Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Paulo Dybala in the side.
Extend the argument to which player was a more complete package and Pele wins the contest hands down. Hard pressed to recall even 20 headed goals Messi has scored, yet Pele netted over 100, and once scored four headers in a single match. Equally hard pressed to outline even 20 goals Messi scored with his weaker right foot, yet Pele plundered nearly 200 goals with his weaker left foot, including a stunning 30-yard curling free kick.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who until the Qatar 2022 World Cup was considered Messi’s biggest rival in the twenty first century is more magnanimous. “Pele is the greatest player in football history, and there will only be one Pele,” CR7 was once quoted. There is absolutely no chance he was saying this to belittle Messi. Pele was the original product: the prototype and benchmark on which current players are judged. His 1,283 goals in a career spanning 22 years renders him a goal machine that can never be equalled by Messi, Ronaldo or Kylian Mbappe.
Lionel Messi is perhaps the more aesthetically gifted footballer. If the argument is about who is the better playmaker, the Argentine would edge it. But you must remember Pele played on football pitches that resembled potato fields and there was next to no protection for gifted talent from referees.
Pele was the more direct footballer because he was more athletically gifted. He could beat a man for raw power or pace. Pele was the first player to transcend boundaries and races. He empowered a people when colonialism, racism and apartheid were rife. No wonder he was declared a national treasure in his native Brazil; a KING.