The greatest of all time (G.O.A.T) is the quintessential sports debate. It is universal – from racket to ball, contact to non-contact, water to field – and, as such, it is the most popular among fans, whether they be advent or casual followers of the sport in question. In some cases, there is a consensus among the majority. After all, it is widely accepted that individuals such as Tom Brady, Michael Phelps and Roger Federer are at the top of their respective mountains. Yet, this understanding is by no means concrete because the biggest challenge to any G.O.A.T debate is its subjectivity. This is usually typified by the so-called ‘generation gap’ where it is said that if the 1960s was the decade you first began watching football, Pelé was the best; in the 1970s, it was Johan Cruyff; and in the 1980s, it was Diego Maradona. For those who did not grow up watching these players, trophies and statistics are the first port of call, closely followed by out-of-context ‘best of’ video clips and rounded off with – again, out-of-context – quotes from those who played with and against said individual.
Currently, we are living through the latest chapter of the debate; that between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Their rivalry combines the three aforementioned sources of evidence with a global coverage not afforded to their three predecessors. This has resulted in inflated proclamations that Ronaldo is the G.O.A.T whenever he scores a goal, followed by a similar proclamation a week later when Messi does the same. What cannot be denied, however, is that both men could retire tomorrow and still be included in the debate, particularly as they are both now closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. But, how do they compare in contrast to those who have at one time or another also been labelled the G.O.A.T.
Case For: More so than anybody else on this list, Pelé‘s reputation is built on trophies and statistics. Six Brasileiro Serie A championships and two Copa Libertadores between 1961 and 1968 cemented Santos as the most dominant force in Brazilian football and even led some to label them as the best team in the world. He also led Santos to two consecutive International Cup (predessecor to the Club World Cup) victories over European giants, Benfica (1962) and AC Milan (1963) to demonstrate that, as both an individual and a club, they could compete with some of Europe’s greatest. At the centre of this golden era were the Os Santásticos: a group of Brazilian footballers brought through the Santos ranks and spearheaded (and overshadowed) by Pelé. His club career, however, pales in comparison to what he achieved on the international stage; winning three World Cups and playing a starring role in Brazil’s 1958 and 1970 success. Even in the 1962 (injury) and 1966 (group stage exit) World Cups where his involvement was cut short, Pelé entered the tournament as the best player in the world. Through both a blend of electric speed, power and impressive technique, Pelé became renown for his dribbling displays and ‘big game’ mentality. As a result of these exploits, Pelé has become synonymous with the hallowed Brazil No.10 shirt.
Case Against: There are two significant criticisms often aimed at Pelé. The first is the fact he spent his entire career (barring a twilight spell for New York Cosmos) in Brazil and, ultimately, away from some of the greatest Europeans teams of all time in Ajax, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. There will be some who point to loyalty and others who point to fear as the reason for Pelé not making the move across the Atlantic. The second criticism is his heavily scrutinised goal scoring record of 1,281 goals in 1,363 games. A remarkable statistic on the surface, but one that lacks plausible evidence given the absence of video evidence for the majority of these 1,281 goals. A significant number of these reported goals also came in friendlies in which the level of opponents varied drastically from those he occasionally faced on the World Cup or International Cup stage. With this in mind, we can see the pitfalls of statistics; they should not be the basis of an argument, but rather a contribution to it. Perhaps even more damning to Pelé‘s legacy is that it’s arguable whether he was even the best Brazilian of his generation with that title perhaps better attributed to Garrincha or Jairzinho.
Verdict: Despite being at the forefront of two footballing dynasties for Santos and Brazil, Pelé‘s legacy can be defined by two things: his World Cup success with Brazil and the dubious nature of his goal scoring record.
Case For: It is the man who is most denied a voice in the G.O.A.T debate that has had the greatest impact on football. A pioneer for Dutch football and a leading light in the exportation of total football across the world, Cruyff inspired a generation. Ten league titles with Ajax, Barcelona and Feyenoord – more than any other player on this list – and seven domestic cups across spells with the aforementioned clubs reflect a trophy-laden club career. It was with Ajax – where eight of Cruyff’s league titles and three consecutive European Cups were won – where Cruyff enjoyed his most successful spell as the leading light in what is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. His international career was not quite as kind, but it still put Cruyff on the map in 1974. In that World Cup, Cruyff led the Netherlands to dominant wins over Argentina and Brazil, lighting up the tournament in the process and subsequently received the Golden Ball in spite of defeat to West Germany in the final. Who knows what might have been in the 1978 World Cup had it not been for a kidnap attempt on Cruyff’s family that forced him to retire. As an individual, Cruyff was the best player in the world in the early 1970s, becoming the first to win the Ballon d’Or three times (with only Messi and Ronaldo winning more since) and succeeded in elevating those around him. For the statisticians, 383 goals in 666 appearances at club level as well as 33 goals in 48 caps for the Netherlands was an impressive return for an attacking midfielder playing at the highest level. Technically brilliant and intelligent fluidity, Cruyff was a trailblazer matched by few on a technical and visionary level.
Case Against: The 1974 World Cup Final embodied the ‘nearly’ nature of Cruyff’s international career and remains the biggest stick for critics to beat him with. His early influence in the game was eventually subdued by West Germany and later events meant that 1974 was the only opportunity Cruyff would have to win the World Cup. Without it, he has been overlooked in favour of the two World Cup winners he bridged the gap between; Pelé and Maradona. For those who place an emphasis on goals, Cruyff’s rough average of a goal every other game at club level pales in comparison to others on this list.
Verdict: An exceptional player that arguably played football better than anybody on this list. His tactical influence changed the way football was played, albeit in a career that extended into coaching, but for his talents on the pitch alone, he deserves to be mentioned in the debate.
Case For: Before there was Messi, there was Maradona. An outspoken leader whose left foot acted as a magnet to the ball, Maradona’s charisma and talent forced you to take notice. From an outrageous skill set to wonder set-pieces, there was little Maradona could not do with a football. Whereas Cruyff had the ‘Cruyff Turn’, Maradona had the rabona. In between a spell at Barcelona, he picked up three league titles with Boca Juniors (1) and Napoli (2) as well as several cups across a career that peaked in the 1980s. In 1986, Maradona had arguably the greatest individual World Cup campaign in history as he appeared to single-handedly lead Argentina to success with a string of sensational performances. Along with the World Cup, Maradona was awarded the Golden Ball and went on to enjoy the best years of his career with Napoli in the wake of his 1986 triumph. These achievements and an awe-inspiring ability on the ball saw Maradona voted the FIFA Player of the Century ahead of Pelé (2) and Cruyff (13). Had non-European players not been excluded from the Ballon d’Or, it is likely Maradona would have amassed just as many as Cruyff, if not Messi and Ronaldo.
Case Against: If there was ever one game of football that embodied a footballer, then it was the 1986 World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and England. It certainly speaks volumes that people talk more about Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ than his ‘Goal of the Century’. For all of Maradona’s arrogant brilliance, it was (and continues to be) undermined by questionable actions on and off the pitch. Maybe such things should not take away from Maradona’s ability on the pitch, but they still nonetheless taint his legacy. The likelihood is that fans today know Maradona as much for his history of drug abuse as his ability to run rings around defences. It was the same self-destructive tendency that forced his exit from Barcelona after just two seasons and unceremoniously ended his international career at the 1994 World Cup. In terms of trophies, Maradona also has the least impressive collection out of the players on this list.
Verdict: If ever there was someone who supported the argument that individual talent should not be measured by the number of trophies won, then it was Diego Maradona. A supreme talent with the ball at his feet, but absent of the sportsmanship that would have solidified his legacy.
Cristiano Ronaldo (2002-Present)
Case For: Portugal’s all-time record goal scorer and Euro 2016 winner, no footballer in history has more Ballon d’Ors than Cristiano Ronaldo. With a CV boasting spells at Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid and now Juventus, CR7 has amassed five league titles, two Copa Del Reys and one FA Cup as well as numerous individual accolades since first making his debut in 2002. On the European stage, Ronaldo has tasted victory in the Champions League (5) more times than any other player and picked up the FIFA Club World Cup on four separate occasions. Perhaps even more impressive has been his transformation – both physically and spatially – from a pacey, traditional winger to a free-roaming supporting forward. The pace and skill (typically step-overs) to beat a player one-on-one that was once his trademark took a back seat in favour of a clinical ruthlessness that has made Ronaldo one of the greatest goal scorers the game has ever seen. 592 goals in 793 appearances, the current all-time record goal scorer in the Champions League and the record goal scorer for Real Madrid and Portugal, there is no denying how prolific Ronaldo has been in front of goal.
Case Against: Like Maradona, Ronaldo’s biggest downfall is arguably his attitude. Whilst his discipline and determination to win and stay in peak physical condition cannot be overlooked, there is a certain arrogance and selfishness to Ronaldo that is aggravating to say the least. This is not helped by his overwhelming desire to be in the spotlight – often at the expense of his own teammates – and notable acts of simulation throughout his career. Increasingly during his time at Madrid, Ronaldo contributed less to the team off the ball whilst spending most of his time on the pitch as the furthest player up the field. Whereas Messi was able to create his own chances, Ronaldo waited for his teammates to create such chances for him. To label him a tap-in merchant might be step too far, but a Cruyff or Maradona, he is not. The occasional wonder free-kick aside, his set-piece ability has also been exaggerated. Equally, for somebody with a reputation as a ‘big game player’, it could be said that he has rarely had a decisive impact in the matches which have since come to define his career (the Champions League finals and Euro 2016) as well as an indifferent El Clasico record. Likewise, his World Cup record should not be given a free pass because of Portugal’s Euro 2016 success. Finally, there is also the question as to whether he is even the best Ronaldo to have ever played football.
Verdict: No player on this list has undergone a transformation as drastic and successful as Ronaldo. With a drive and motivation that demands success and in a sport where goals are the deciding factor, Ronaldo has forged a goal scoring legacy that ensures statisticians will always have a compelling case to argue.
Lionel Messi (2004-Present)
Case For: Ernesto Valverde’s revelation that Messi uses the first minutes of every match to analyse his opponents before growing into the game should come as no surprise. The genius of Messi is not necessarily in his goals or silverware collection (even if it is comprised of nine league titles, six Copa Del Reys and four Champions League trophies), but in the subtlety and ease in which he does things and the elegance in which he carries the ball, gliding past defenders in the process. Something that he does not necessarily receive enough credit for are the improvements he has made to his game in order to adapt to a slightly deeper role. Arguably overshadowed by some of his teammates, Messi is among the best passers of the ball and is just as likely to start a goal scoring move as he is to finish one – evidenced by the fact he has registered the most assists (165) in La Liga. With 585 goals in 671 appearances, he is the record goal scorer in Barcelona, El Clasico and La Liga history, and might even usurp Ronaldo’s record in the Champions League if he maintains his current ratio (0.82 compared to Ronaldo’s 0.76). Furthermore, and despite a trophyless international career, Messi is the record goal scorer (65 in 128 caps) for a nation that is not shy in producing world class attacking talent. Once just the latest in a long line of graduates from the fabled La Masia, Messi has since become the heart of Barcelona. With their recent win, Barcelona usurped Real Madrid for the most wins in El Clasico history (96-95) having previously been some way behind (66-87) prior to Messi’s debut. Such a stat goes to emphasis just how good Barcelona have been – and consistently so – with Messi in the team. Indeed, in arguably the greatest team of the twenty-first century and one filled with some of the best players of their generation, Messi continues to be the best player. The joint record Ballon d’Or winner with five, it is easy to make the case that Messi should/would have won more if the award was actually awarded to the best player over the course of a season; as opposed to the best player in the most successful team (2017 and 2018 are the clearest examples of this).
Case Against: As is the case with Pelé, critics of Messi will point to his failure to challenge himself outside of the comfort zone that is Barcelona. Not only does this fail to take into account his record in the Champions League (where his record against English teams, in particular, is particularly impressive), but it also diminishes a trait that is increasingly rare in the modern game: loyalty. Had Barcelona not paid for his expensive medical treatment, Messi might not have made it as a professional footballer. For a trait that is usually celebrated, it is strange to see how it can be used to undermine Messi’s claim to be the greatest. Naturally, the biggest attack is related to his international career as part of a regularly under-achieving Argentinian team. Losing three consecutive finals between 2014 and 2016 prompted Messi to retire from international retirement in frustration and, despite ultimately reversing this decision, he was criticised for his lack of character and, rather strangely, winning-mentality.
Verdict: Maradona’s skill, Cruyff’s brain, and the goals of Pelé and Ronaldo. Each of the standout elements of his rivals can be combined to partially explain what makes Messi so special.