Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Steven Beacom: Messi’s a genius . . . but is he the best footballer ever?

Lionel Messi is the best in the world now and could be the best ever

It’s the balance. Gets me every time. If Lionel Messi hadn’t been a footballer, he could have made a living as a ballet dancer, with those twinkling toes of his.

Watching Messi can be hypnotic. When he takes control of the ball, he puts you under a spell.

Like the defenders confronting him, you are left wondering what is going to happen next.

Usually something magical. The 23-year-old’s a wizard.

On Wednesday night the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona was largely an ugly affair.

You can blame the not-so Special One, Jose Mourinho, for that with his pre-match mind games, lack of respect for Barca boss, Pep Guardiola, and his ‘we’ll do anything to stop them’ tactics.

Thankfully, Messi provided beauty amongst the beasts of the Bernabeu. His first goal in his side’s 2-0 win was a sublime close range finish — his second was just sensational.

Collecting the ball inside Real’s half, the Argentine maestro whizzed and waltzed past Madrid’s bemused back line before slotting home with his right foot.

It was genius, sparking memories of his hero and countryman Diego Maradona.

Invariably that question has been brought up again. You know the one — Is Messi the best player of all time?

First, let’s confirm he is the best right now.

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are the candidates. It’s clear though that Barcelona’s boy is streets ahead. Compare how they performed in the biggest game either have played so far this season.

Ronaldo was anonymous — Messi awesome. There’s no argument.

There’s plenty of debate, though, about who is the greatest ever. Pele, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane and our own George Best, along with Messi, are surely the only players who can lay claim to the title.

Everyone has their own opinion and depending on your age, you’ll have your own particular favourite. Me? I’ve always regarded Maradona (pictured) as the finest of them all.

Reasons? How long have you got?

The goals, the assists, the close control, the dribbling, the attitude, the everything.

This was a guy who won a World Cup for Argentina on his own in 1986 and also inspired Napoli to a Serie A title in Italy — a bit like Southampton winning the Premier League. I never thought I would witness a better player than Maradona, but I have to admit the more I watch the mesmeric Messi, the more I feel he’s the greatest to glide over grass.

Agreed, he has not won a World Cup yet and, unlike Maradona, I can’t see him leaving the Nou Camp to produce miracles in Italy, but in terms of pure ability, I reckon Lionel has the edge.

Like Diego, he is battered and bruised in every match he plays. Unlike Diego though, Messi tends to just get up and get on with it, rather than indulge in histrionics and retaliation. Good guy, as well as a great player.

And what’s so exciting is that year on year he seems to improve dramatically. He gets quicker, more adept at weaving past opponents and he scores more goals.

He’s not 24 yet and is already Barcelona's third-highest scorer in their history. He’s hit 52 goals in the current campaign. Unbelievable. So much of what Messi achieves is down to that breathtaking balance. It’s in his head as well as his feet.

Arsene Wenger once described him as akin to a Playstation character. If there was a Playstation character like the real Messi, the computer game would be derided for being far-fetched. Messi really is that good.

And to think he has not peaked yet! By the time he hangs up his boots, we’ll be in little doubt that Lionel Andrés Messi, son of a factory worker and part-time cleaner, is the best footballer of all time.

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