A few months ago, I revelled in Pelé’s answer to the incessant questions from reporters concerning Lionel Messi, who this week, at the tender age of 24, became Barcelona’s all time leading goalscorer. Is he a better player than you? He might have wondered why we have journalists, who ought to play the roles of chroniclers and of critics at the same time, if they have to ask him questions like that. Shouldn’t it be up to them the football writers to make the comparisons?
Some might argue that the standard and athleticism of La Liga and Champions League football is vastly more challenging than it would have been in Brazil in the 50s, 60s and 70s, making this a non-debate. But, by and large, you can only really judge a player by his own time.
It also seems to have become implicit part of the footballing consciousness that while Pele was a goalscorer, the likes of Maradona and Messi are entertainers. I don’t know about that. From my early youth watching nostalgia laden highlights videos from World Cups past, Pelé seemed to be a marvel to watch. A different kind of player certainly, more physical, incredible in the air, but also incredibly skillful. There was a quote from a former player that I liked (think it might have been Bobby Moore but not sure and google is failing me), “We jumped together, but when I landed Pelé was still floating”. It’s not often that footballers verge on the poetic, but this romantic characterization comes close.
The Argentina fans allegedly still call Messi the Catalan, indicating that his successes and magical performances belong to his adopted Spanish region, and not his homeland. He has certainly yet to set a World Cup on fire and that’s something Pelé certainly did, winning three and only failing to do so in England in 1966 after being kicked half to death by both Bulgaria and Portugal.
The Brazilian legend himself coolly batted away the comparisons with Argentina’s star, saying there’s only one measure for an attacking player: the number of times they hit the back of the net. There are varying tallies for Pelé, depending on which games count, but some “back of the cigarette packet” arithmetic has me estimating 784 goals in competitive games over a 21 year career for Brazil, Santos and the NY Cosmos.
Messi might be lucky to play until he is 37 (unless he buys Giggsy’s yoga DVD) and will certainly struggle to keep up the ferocious goalscoring pace when he surpasses 30, but at 24, he’s already racked up 260 goals for Barca and Argentina, after roughly a third of Pelé’s career. It is possible that he might outstrip the great Brazilian, or at least get pretty close. I don’t think anybody would have thought this feasible in 2003 when he made his first team debut, and it still feels dizzying that it can be considered a possibility. If he were to close in on Pelé’s awesome stats, I’m pretty sure that would settle the argument of who was the greatest player of all time.