Messi and the mortals
The male of the human species seems to have a fondness for lists. It's not quite certain why this is, but few men would deny it. Women seem to find it baffling, and prefer to put their energies into other, more life-saving pastimes, but guys like lists. Boys like to collect and store things, but they're not hoarding. They just like statistics, and the act of shaping them into lists. Sports such as football, cricket and baseball are particularly suited to this type of mentality, and while it may be true that the current younger generation is less inclined to buy and collect the match-day programme, he - okay, sometimes she - will now have access to information that the previous generation could only fantasise about. But it doesn't stop the obsession with lists, and particularly hierarchies. You'll know where this is going - I must have read at least a dozen articles this week debating the question of whether Leo Messi is the greatest player of all time.
It's been a decent week for little Leo, as you're no doubt aware. He followed up his five goals in the 7-1 annihilation of Bayer Leverskusen on Wednesday with a further brace on Sunday at Racing Santander to give Barcelona the points and leave them ten points behind Real Madrid - a deficit they still believe can be reduced with the merengues yet to visit the Camp Nou and the odd stumble still a possibility. But this has not been the main talking point of the week. Apart from Bilbao's majestic assault on Old Trafford (more of that later), Messi's performance on Wednesday night - making him the first player to score five in a Champions League match (the last guy to score five in the old European Cup was Ajax's Soren Lerby in 1979) - had the world scratching its head yet again in a sort of 'what next?' mode. It was his 17th hat-trick for Barcelona, and seventh of this season, and the two at Santander took him to 230 goals in his career, five short of Cesar Rodriguez' record haul for the club. It took Rodriguez 15 seasons to score his 235, but Messi is about to take the crown after eight. He's also scored 50 in all competitions this season, from 42 games.
The American writer and film producer Kelly Candaele said of Messi: "He seems to defy the limits imposed on us by physics." That's a neat phrase, because it encapsulates the uniqueness of Messi even among the pantheons of the greats. When I arrived at work on Thursday morning, one chap said to me: "Did you see Messi last night? They should ban him. It's not fair. He's not mortal." Although my colleague wasn't aware of it, his exasperation links nicely with the theologian John Crossan's idea that the invention of games was to remind us of our limitations. The rules are there to limit success. If it's too easy, the game won't catch on. You have to feel that you can always improve, always do it better, and that the structure of the game will permit this. The fascination with Messi, in the glare of the post-modern focus, is that his brilliance seems to almost challenge this idea. Is he the greatest player ever? Is he the first footballer in the long history of the game to break through the barrier and make us feel that the rules will need changing, because football's too easy for him? I don't mean that literally, of course. But I do think that there might be a case for considering him the greatest ever. And he's only 24.
Before Kevin Keegan was signed by Liverpool, I remember seeing him playing for Scunthorpe United at my local team, Grimsby. This was the big local derby when I was a kid, and all I remember about Keegan was that every time he got the ball, I felt an acute sense of fear. It seemed impossible to do anything about him. His speed, control, and utter belief in himself, even at that young age, made him different from the rest. You spent the entire game praying that he wouldn't get the ball, desperate as you were to avoid that feeling of helplessness, of torture. Bobby Charlton said the same of Alfredo di Stefano, whom he labelled "inhuman" after playing against him in the European Cup. He didn't mean that the Argentine was nasty - although he could be - but that, like Messi, he was not made of the normal mortal stuff.
Most of the 'greatest players ever' lists, to get back to the opening paragraph, tend to come in tens, 20s or 50s. The problem with such extensive lists is that they allow the author (or voters) to cop out, and to include most of the players that are generally accepted to belong to the all-time gang of greats. That isn't too difficult. But to bring it down to the all-time top five requires greater commitment, and the readiness to box your corner. In spite of this, the five who crop up the most in football literature and on the web are the following, in no particular order: Pele, Diego Maradona, Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff and George Best. Players like Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas, Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer et al usually hang around the margins. Depending on your age, and how Anglo-centric your vision (although he was from Belfast), George Best might not even figure, but most of the wisest lists will place him on the top-five podium.
Thereby hangs the problem, because the first barrier to compiling a list that will carry consensus is that of age. I'm old enough to remember Best, but not Di Stefano. I can only listen to those who would wish to make Di Stefano the best of all time - and there are plenty who think it - and try to engage with what they are saying. Which brings us to the second problem in deciding on this question - that of the media. There is so little substantial footage of a player like Di Stefano that is impossible to judge him retrospectively. The fact that he never played in a World Cup doesn't help either. Much of our appreciation of Pele, for example, comes from limited but classic World Cup coverage. Maradona and Cruyff belong to a more developed media age, although there were still literally hundreds of games in which they played that were untelevised. George Best, too. For all that he is considered the first superstar of the modern era, there is still a limited amount of footage of him, when you consider the gigabytes of evidence we have of Messi, from his debut to his last game on Sunday in Santander. There's almost too much of Messi, and too little of the rest. It skews our perceptions.
The other problem is context. 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.
Pep Guardiola said last week that there has never been anyone like Messi, and that there will never be a repeat model. Apart from those who dislike Barcelona FC, many people are coming round to that way of thinking. Messi's relative lack of success with Argentina is the stuff of a further article, and it may well be the case that, unless he improves that aspect, history will keep Pele on the top of the pile. But as Messi might have replied to the Brazilian: "Three World Cups? Impressive stuff, mate. But you never defied the laws of physics."
The laws of reputation, however, are rather more flimsy. Athletic de Bilbao's assault on fortress Manchester last Thursday in the Europa League was one of the great football nights in recent times. It was impossible not to be captivated, and although fellow Real Sociedad supporters may cringe, I celebrated every Athletic goal from my sofa - the first time in 20 years I have ever admitted to such an act. They came down to Earth with a bump at Osasuna on Sunday as they lost 2-1, but perhaps that was inevitable. Amusingly, the Osasuna fans sang "Este no es Old Trafford" ("This isn't Old Trafford") in amusing allusion to the pretentions of the big clubs, but it was only mild sarcasm towards Athletic - much as Osasuna dislike them for taking the best players from Navarre. With a team wholly based on its cantera (youth policy), and the squad a seething pack of togetherness, Athletic played United off the park, and in doing so they both vindicated the power of La Liga and the enduring ability of the Basque Country to produce competitive sides. Even if United (improbably) turn it around in San Mames on Thursday, last week's game will remain a very special one.