Commentary

Forget 'greats' debate: just enjoy Messi

Updated: January 10, 2012, 5:43 AM ET
By Tim Vickery | Special to ESPN.com

Three consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year awards clearly marks out Lionel Messi as the best of his time. But the best of all time? Here, the debate becomes much more complicated.

Michel Platini is unconvinced. Messi, he says, "has one advantage compared with the others [from the past] in that he is much better protected by referees -- which is as it should be. He can play his football and express his ability. In the past, players had to think first about avoiding being kicked."

Platini is speaking from experience -- and has the bruises to prove it. For all the physical evolution of the game, it would seem undeniable that it's easier these days for a player of Messi's type. The treatment handed out to Pele and Diego Maradona would these days bring a jail sentence rather than a verbal warning.

But if this is an argument against Messi's all-time claims, then the passage of time has also weakened another of his critics' claims -- that to be considered a true great Messi must shine in a World Cup.

It might have been the biggest stage for Pele and Maradona, but the sport's shifting dynamic in recent years has led to the World Cup being replaced by Europe's Champions League as football's main event -- as illustrated by a comparison between World Club champions Barcelona and World Cup winners Spain. Without Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta's midfield interplay missed the killer touch in the final third of the field. In the absence of Xavi, Iniesta and Dani Alves, Messi for Argentina was not the same force.

Making comparisons across eras is always likely to be a frustrating exercise. The point with Messi, surely, is to enjoy him. He exemplifies so much of what is good about the game of football.

There's his size. I vividly remember seeing him for the first time, almost exactly seven years ago in Colombia when I was covering the South American Under-20 Championships. Hearing rumors that he was something special, Argentina called him up, but did not give him the No. 10 shirt. He was a shambling little 17-year-old, with the unassuming air of the pigeon-toed runt of the litter. He looked a most unlikely superstar -- until the ball fell at his left foot and stayed tied to it as he went on a slalom dribble, with abrupt changes of direction at breakneck speed. Messi, though, was always in control, and after playing a couple of defenders out of the game was able to lay off a neat pass to a teammate.

The lesson had been reinforced: Never judge a player by his appearance. Football is a game for all shapes and sizes.

Then there is the simple joy he clearly receives from his own special talent. There is no feeling with Messi that the game and the rewards it brings are some kind of passport to a life of celebrity glamour. As club coach Pep Guardiola said a couple of months back, Messi is fulfilled playing football.

In large part this is because he does it so well. Not just in his individual exploits, but in his knowledge and awareness that the game is collective. He is a great individual whose excellence is always placed at the service of the team.

Jorge Valdano observed a couple of years ago that Messi is a perfect synthesis of Argentine street football and the Barcelona academy. It is a magnificent observation.

Messi plays with the spirit of a child, as if the Camp Nou was a piece of wasteland close to his house and the other players are his neighborhood friends. But he has also thoroughly absorbed the teachings of La Masia, Barcelona's much-envied youth development structure. One of their objectives is to groom stars who do not behave like stars -- a perfect description of Xavi, of Iniesta and of Lionel Messi.

Perhaps, in order to prove his all-time greatness once and for all, he really does need to turn it on in a major tournament for Argentina. Not because he has something to prove in terms of the standard of his play, but to show that he has the leadership qualities to make the difference when not surrounded by the fruits of Barcelona's long-term philosophy.

"Discovering" Lionel Messi seven years ago is the highlight of my career. But as the player himself would point out, at 24 he is only getting started. I am hoping for plenty more highlights before he hangs up his boots.

Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.