Let’s get real about soccer superlatives.
I’d like to pose a hypothetical, and if you’ll bear with me, it will indeed become germane. What if Leo Messi were a movie? No, I don’t mean in a movie. Eric Cantona and Vinnie Jones have serviced that industry enough. I mean: imagine you distilled Messi’s essence and through some alchemical process or magic or however you want to envision it, that essence transmuted into ninety minutes of pigmented celluloid and stereo sound. How good of a film would that be? Let’s get the easy observations out of the way. Siskel and Ebert (or whichever iteration that show is currently on) would give it two thumbs way, way up. Peter Travers would shower as much praise as is necessary to get his Rolling Stone quote on the DVD cover six months down the road. And A.O. Scott would pen an enigmatic review that strikes you at first as a marked denunciation of the film’s premise as a whole, but later as a veiled pronouncement of its brilliance.
But here’s the barn burner, and the only question that makes this hypothetical relevant: where would this movie rank all time?
Think about this first. What is the greatest film ever? Not your personal favorite, but the objective best. You may be tempted to say Citizen Kane, because even if you haven’t seen it, you always hear it mentioned as Orson Welles’ masterpiece. Or, you may pull Casablanca out of your hat, for all of its romance, comedy, and intrigue. The Godfather is standard fare for this question, given its mix of Mafioso entertainment and cinematographic quality, as is The Wizard of Oz for its innovation. An eccentric might answer with Rashomon or The Bicycle Thief, citing the superiority of foreign language films, or Dr. Strangelove, for Kubrick’s cult appeal.
The important thing about this mélange of answers is that each achieves validity in spite of the limiting factor of time. That the technical capabilities of Elia Kazan were rudimentary compared to those afforded to James Cameron has no bearing on how we judge each of these directors’ work. On the contrary, when a critic considers On the Waterfront or Titanic, the era of the film is a factor in assessing its quality. If this weren’t the case, then “The Best Films of All Time” would change every ten or so years with advances in technology and we’d all be weeping and gnashing our teeth as Avatar played on AMC every night at 7. But critics apply a sort of temporal handicap, allowing certain considerations to be ignored so that films seventy years apart in age can be judged side by side.
Which brings me back to the original question. What if Messi were a movie? How would he compare to other “great films” like Pele and Maradona?
Here’s the thing. Now that Messi has three Ballons d’Or, the “World’s Greatest Ever” debate has reached a contentious zenith. More fans by the day are bestowing the title on the cule magician, while a preponderance of traditionalists remains skeptical of this third contender joining a two-horse race that’s already twenty-five years in the making. The discussion is, of course, inundated with an array of indicators, ranging from statistical queries (goals, chiefly) to accomplishments (World Cup victories) to personality factors (cocaine consumption versus growth hormone consumption). But as in our discussion of great cinema, we must also address the issue of time.
To aptly compare Messi, Pele, and Maradona requires acknowledging that they played three brands of football in three different generations. The mechanics of the game in 1960s Brazil, 1980s Italy, and 2000s Spain are different enough that in order to dignify any comparison, the time variable must either be eliminated or leveled out.
Proponents of all three figures have attempted to do the latter in order to validate their positions. Pele fans, for instance, have noted that he scored a thousand goals and won three World Cups despite playing in a golden age of football when legions of goons were sent to displace him from the ball by any means necessary. Messi supporters, in turn, might retort that, in fact, it was precisely because Pele played during that time, when soccer was less physically taxing on the whole, that he was able to dominate so comprehensively. Meanwhile, Maradona enthusiasts could allege that somehow, given a chance to develop his abilities in the athletic modern game, El Pibe would be even more adept than he already was.
So where does the discussion move from here? Let’s assume Messi plays at his current level for four or so more years until his little legs start to wear out and he retires somewhere in the 30s. By then he’ll probably have a couple more La Liga crowns, a fourth Champions League trophy, and, unless the voters grow despondent, a record number of Ballons d’Or. By all measures, he’ll be the greatest player of our generation and belong in that “World’s Greatest Ever” debate with Maradona and Pele. Okay, what then? How do our criteria change? And what do we use to settle the debate once and for all?
It seems that in spite of everything, there will always be rationales for placing each of these players ahead of one another. Pele for his international supremacy. Maradona for the single-handed value he brought to club and country. And Messi for being, well, Messi. In other words, there can never be an objective winner. But here’s what I’d like to propose: there doesn’t need to be.
Comparing the legends makes for entertaining fodder at the pub but it wreaks havoc on our comprehension of greatness. It means delimiting the qualifications that are required of the world’s best and thus belittles the accomplishments these players achieved in their own right. We often speak of Maradona’s drug addiction, of Messi’s international shortcomings, of Pele’s reliance on teammates like Garrincha and Jairzinho. (Even now the elder two are bickering about their superlatives). But in doing so we lose sight of the ways in which they shaped soccer for the better. And that doesn’t seem right at all.
Wouldn’t it be more constructive to set aside comparisons and speak of each player in his own context? Pele can be the greatest of his era; Maradona and Messi can, too. As in cinema, some variables – especially those limits of historical import – obstruct an objective evaluation of quality. It’s worth keeping that in mind.
So here’s to the greatest players on earth.