Why Lionel Messi is the G.O.A.T of football

BY Ryan Murray

13th Mar 2023 Sport

Why Lionel Messi is the G.O.A.T of football

Are we now in a position to declare Lionel Messi, the inspirational force behind Argentina’s third World Cup success, the greatest footballer ever?

For many, Lionel Messi’s triumphant World Cup campaign, which saw him deliver a series of scintillating performances in Qatar, put to rest two arguments which have plagued a generation of football fans.

Firstly, it illustrated Messi’s superiority over fellow superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who has shared the limelight with the diminutive Argentinian for well over a decade.

The pair have established a sort of duopolistic control over the contemporary game, locked in a unique rivalry that has so often influenced the narrative of major tournaments—both at international and club level.

Consequently, each player has pushed the other to unprecedented heights.

Secondly, Messi’s whirlwind month in the Middle East proved beyond doubt that he should be heralded as the "Greatest of All Time"—or, to use this phrase’s now frequently-deployed acronym, the "G.O.A.T."

The dynamics of the decision-making process

Cristiano Ronaldo, the other G.O.A.T in football contender, controls ball on pitchCredit: Jan SOLO, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. The G.O.A.T debate has been reduced to just Messi vs Ronaldo for some time

True, if Messi does assume the honour of being the best player to have ever graced the planet, then, by default, he would also be considered better than his age-old adversary Ronaldo.

Given the sheer scale of their dominance over the past decade or so, the "Greatest Of All Time" question is now positioned almost entirely around the Messi vs Ronaldo debate.

Indeed, as this epic struggle for immortality between two incredibly-gifted players reached its peak, the G.O.A.T candidate list was seemingly re-modelled to reflect the intensity of their fight.

"The 'Greatest Of All Time' question is now positioned almost entirely around the Messi vs Ronaldo debate"

As a result, many began to judge the "best ever" through a much narrower lens, with a new algorithm subsequently emerging—settle who is best between these two players, and you’ll automatically identify the G.O.A.T.

Of course, there are plenty who would champion the prowess of other legendary figures over both Messi and Ronaldo.

However, in recent times at least, declaring your preference for either of these modern-day icons has been tantamount to announcing who you believe is deserved of the "Greatest Of All Time" title—irrespective of whether this was your intention.

Such is the critical importance of the Messi vs. Ronaldo dynamic within the wider G.O.A.T context, it seems logical to address this element independently.

Major honours aren’t everything

But what is the barometer for measuring greatness, and by extension, how do you make an informed decision on who is "most great"?

A useful yardstick would be to review and compare players’ professional achievements. But is a cursory glance at the volume and prestige of trophies won enough to determine the calibre of an individual?

There are plenty of world-class footballers who have concluded their careers with very few major honours; it seems unfair to dismiss their credentials when considering who should earn the G.O.A.T moniker.

Nevertheless, this stance has been popularised by many of the game’s stakeholders, particularly those who operate in an ever-more-fickle media. Perhaps their endorsement of this sentiment is a product of society’s instant gratification culture—you must win in order to matter.

We should be cautious about labelling Messi’s victory in the Middle East a precursor for achieving G.O.A.T status.

In the same spirit, we mustn’t overly-romanticise the playing abilities of Pelé as a consequence of his World Cup-winning heroics; although, given the Brazilian’s brilliance, exaggerating his talent would be an extremely challenging endeavour.

The statistical viewpoint

Lionel Messi celebrating in goal post netCredit: Globovisión, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr. Messi has scored more than 700 goals over his career

Perhaps focusing on a player’s personal accolades is preferable for gauging the full extent of their capabilities.

The arrival of both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo pre-empted a re-writing of the history books, as goal-scoring records tumbled one after another.

Although the Portuguese attacker edges his esteemed opponent in this department, Messi’s own scoring exploits are nothing short of sensational.

Having found the net on over 700 occasions throughout his club career, and with just under a century of international goals to his name, the former Barcelona star has consistently pushed the boundaries of finishing excellence.

"Messi has found the net on over 700 occasions throughout his club career"

However, given the vast scope of technical disciplines associated with the beautiful game, it feels narrow-minded to evaluate capability on goals alone.

If we were to promote this methodology, Pelé would likely once again surface as an anomaly, given that many consider one of the most potent finishers the world has ever seen to also be one of its best-ever players.

Whether you support the legitimacy of official statistics, or prefer to ascribe to Pelé’s own assertions regarding his career goals return, will undoubtedly influence this conversation.

The Ballon d’Or

Arguably, the certified indicator of greatness is the coveted Ballon d’Or, an award Messi has attained more than any other player.

Argentina’s incumbent skipper is a seven-time recipient of this prestigious prize—Ronaldo has won five, and the next nearest competitor three.

Yet, even a symbol designed to recognise the planet’s most prodigious footballer does not necessarily afford us a genuine insight into who should be crowned "Greatest Of All Time". For a start, non-European players were only considered for the honour from 1995.

But there’s a far more fundamental reason why we should negate the Ballon d’Or as the decisive factor in proclaiming the G.O.A.T—or for that matter leveraging other individual and/or team achievements to help us make this judgement.

Talent and technical ability trumps all

Lionel Messi of Barcelona in action during the Joan Gamper Trophy match between Barcelona and Manchester City at the Camp Nou Stadium on August 19, 2009 in Barcelona, SpainCredit: Tsutomu Takasu, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Messi's grace and flair on the pitch is what makes him unquestionably the G.O.A.T

It may seem counterproductive to propose a measure shrouded in subjectivity, but the only way to truly calibrate who is most befitting of the title is to base our conclusions solely on raw footballing talent.

As we’ve seen, other approaches appear more vulnerable to misrepresentation.

In this respect, Messi is head and shoulders above his current peer group, and perhaps has a forehead on Messrs Maradona and Pelé.

Granted, this is not the most scientific of summaries, and is ultimately just one person’s view. However, when you consider Messi’s immense technical attributes, it’s difficult to disprove this assessment.

"For the best part of twenty years, the Rosario-born genius has put elite teams to the sword with consummate ease"

For the best part of twenty years, the Rosario-born genius has put elite teams to the sword with consummate ease, while exhilarating audiences with his inimitable playing style.

Whether he’s slaloming past defenders, rifling the ball home from all angles, or showcasing his unrivalled balance and close control, the majestic Leo is a joy to watch—particularly for the game’s purists.

Still only 35 years-old and continuing to ply his trade at the highest level, it’s likely we’ll have a few more years of Messi magic to come. We should saviour each and every moment—we’re currently watching the Greatest Of All Time.      

Banner credit: Xavier Rondón Medina, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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