Lionel Messi showed his stunning ability with a breathtaking four-goal demolition of Arsenal. Now the Barcelona star is being compared with Diego Maradona and Pele. But how does he match up with our own superstar George Best? Graham Luney assesses their two eras
The mesmerising skills of Lionel Messi have reignited football’s greatest debate but George Best remains Northern Ireland’s favourite footballing genius.
Football is a game of opinions but it’s time to study the facts and reach a conclusion.
Lionel Messi doesn’t realise how lucky he is to be playing in the Nou Camp and on some of the high quality surfaces across the globe. George had to strut his stuff on shocking surfaces, yet even pudding pitches like the one at Northampton Town couldn’t stop him from finding the net six times. Maybe we are being harsh on Messi — his breathtaking skills should be showcased on the best pitches.
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Today they are everywhere. It’s surprising there is any room for fans at matches. With our 3D glasses on, we can appreciate every little piece of magic Messi can conjure up. So many of George’s great goals were not captured by television, robbing supporters of seeing a genius at work.
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Why do they bother? Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris tried his best to send George flying into the muck but the Manchester United legend resisted his crude assault on a muddy Old Trafford pitch before casually rounding Peter Bonetti with consummate ease.
Messi has also been systematically fouled by teams, leading to the player’s temperament being questioned.
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Both players had pace to burn. Both sped past defenders, dropped their shoulder to beat a man and dazzled opponents with quick feet and powerful acceleration.
Their strength and fitness allowed mazy runs to leave defenders trailing in their wake.
A big criticism of George, though, was that he failed to train as often as he could have as his battle with the bottle was in full swing.
Gambling, womanising and alcohol problems put George on a downward spiral but at the peak of his powers in the late 1960s he was in astonishing shape and his football was also easy on the eye.
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Some fans have been worried by Messi’s small physique. At times he has been chopped down by teams determined to stop him. George was targeted in a similar fashion but both players have been simply too skillful for those who want to bring them down to earth.
Before illness ravaged his body, George had a superb physique and he had bravery to match his strength. He could brush aside the game’s tough tacklers. Messi’s physique is possibly his biggest weakness — Barcelona paid for his growth hormone treatment — but his feet are so quick that anyone planning to send him sprawling will usually end up watching him disappear into the distance.
George has been dubbed the most complete footballer ever but Messi also has all the tricks.
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Little Messi is weaving his magic in the shadow of another legendary Argentinian Diego Maradona. The comparisons between the precocious talent and Maradona only serve to pile more pressure on the shoulders of the boy whose ability was first spotted by Newell's Old Boys.
While the spotlight is on Messi all the time, he is keeping his feet firmly on the ground and will be shielded from those with negative intent.
After tearing apart Benfica in a European Cup quarter-final in 1966, George was pictured after the game in a giant sombrero, prompting the tag of ‘El Beatle' which stuck.
The cameras adored the good looking boy as he gained a massive celebrity profile. While they are both geniuses on a pitch, their personalities could not be more different.
It’s difficult to imagine Messi embracing a rock n’ roll lifestyle, even though the highest earner in the game may be tempted to have a gamble. George, though, never played in a World Cup and if Messi can do the business in South Africa this summer then he will rightfully take his place in the Hall of Fame with the game’s greats.
Argentina must construct their tactics around him and if they do the little man will crown a memorable year by lifting the World Cup.
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The game’s best players have much better protection now from referees. Catch a player high and late and you could soon she a red card brandished in your direction.
In George’s day he was physically assaulted on a weekly basis but he rarely complained because he knew his talent would make his attackers look out of their depth.
Goalkeepers are not allowed to pick up backpasses now, giving an attacking player another advantage but Messi is having to deal with much stricter offside rules so his all-round attacking play must be of the highest quality.
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No brainer. Lionel, where did it all go wrong?
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Tale of the Tape
Height: 5 ft 9 in
Clubs: Manchester United, Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Detroit Express, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions, Tobermore United.
Goals: 205 in 579 appearances
International caps: 37
International goals: 9
Honours: European Cup and European Footballer of the Year (1968); First Division title (1965 & 1967)
Strengths: Complete player, wonderful passer and finisher. Unbelievable skill and bravery.
Weaknesses: Over-indulgence — alcohol derailed his career
Birthplace: Rosario, Argentina
Height: 5 ft 7 in
Clubs: 1995–2000: Newell's Old Boys; 2000–present: Barcelona
Goals: 119 goals in 207 matches
International caps: 43
International goals: 13
Honours: Two Champions Leagues, three Spanish league titles, Spanish Cup, Club World Cup, the Ballon d’Or, World Player of the Year.
Strengths: Like George,
astonishing close control, strength to hold off defenders and lethal finishing.
Weaknesses: Lacking in height, though he is a strong header of the ball. At times, his temperament can be questioned and he still has to shine at international level consistently.