It’s getting really difficult to have a compelling conversation about whether Lionel Messi is the best player of all time.
Thanks to La Pulga’s accomplishments this season, those who disagree that he’s the G.O.A.T. – yes, Messi detractors still exist, especially in Argentina, of all places – sound more and more delusional every day.
Meanwhile, those of us making the case in favor of Messi are running out of new things to say. Has the debate now shifted to whether he’s human? Pope Francis, for one, addressed the topic recently, saying, “Of course it is a joy [to watch Messi play]. But he is not God.” So there you have it.
Messi is playing at another level this year
More amazingly, Messi is doing this in his age-31 season. Soccer players typically peak in their age 24-27 years. While Cristiano Ronaldo has also broken the age curve, he’s done so more by showing little, if any, drop-off in quality or form. Messi is actually getting better.
Messi’s play through January – when he was performing at arguably the highest level anyone’s ever seen – now looks like it was some sort of warmup routine. His form the past two months, especially since his hat trick on Feb. 23 at Sevilla, has been hard to describe. GIFs of some of his recent free kicks and footage of him being applauded by opposing fans at Real Betis (after another hat trick) on March 17 give a glimpse at the plane he’s on. No single stat or highlight, however, can do it justice. Which is not to say that watching highlights of his eight goals in the last four games of March is a bad idea.
The question is whether his fifth Champions League title – Champions League Quarterfinal odds currently have Barcelona favored to advance past Manchester United, but Manchester City remains the favorite of both futures markets and FiveThirtyEight to bring home the trophy – will convince his naysayers to change their minds. I don’t think it will.
Even if Messi manages to finish his career with twice as many UCL championships and Ballon d’Ors as he currently has (four and five, respectively), I suspect some will still believe Diego Maradona or Pelé is the best of all time. This debate has some similarities to the LeBron vs. Michael Jordan argument, which I’ll discuss for just a sentence (or maybe two). No matter where you stand on either of these, it’s helpful to remember that many people on both sides of that argument are never (!) going to change their mind. That doesn’t mean the conversation is ever going away, whether we like it or not.
The one knock against Messi…
Getting back to soccer, the argument against Messi is, I guess, that he hasn’t won enough with Argentina. That brings us into a whole different conversation about how much stock we should put in national team performances – alongside teammates players only occasionally train and compete with – versus what they do for their club teams, where they spend the vast majority of their time.
A quick question or two for those who can’t get past Messi’s lack of World Cup trophies: Were you going to change your mind if Gonzalo Higuaín had finished a golden opportunity in the 20th minute of the 2014 World Cup final and Argentina had gotten the victory? Would Argentina winning either, or both, of the ’15 and ’16 Copa Américas – two other tournaments where Messi and Co. lost in the finals in games that featured crucial gaffes by Higuaín – have swayed you?
The bottom line
While soccer still is working towards more widely accepted performance metrics like the NBA/MLB have developed, the “counting stats” like goals and assists aren’t a bad place to start.
Among his contemporaries – i.e. Ronaldo – Messi comes out on top in club goals and (especially) assists, (especially) on a per-game basis.
|(Club Only)||Games||Goals||Assists||Per-Game Average|
Granted, Messi could feasibly see his per-game tally drop as he ages. Ronaldo also arguably peaked during his age-31 season. However, there’s a fairly large gap between games and goals+assists as of today.
Resorting to counting players’ trophies, or rings, is fine when all the other numbers are relatively equal. But if championships are all that you’re going by, you’re doing it wrong.
If Messi performs in April and May the way he has all season, an argument that was virtually unassailable before the season will be that much stronger by this summer. By now, whether that silences the remaining skeptics is beside the point.