Maradona almost single-handedly won the World Cup for his country, Pele transformed the sport while Lionel Messi’s goal and trophy records are outrageous… after the Argentina legend’s death, Sportsmail asks who is football’s greatest player of all time?
Football lost one of its best players, if not the greatest ever, when Diego Maradona tragically died at the age of 60 at the end of last month.
His death led to an outpouring of emotion within the football world and Argentina had three days of national mourning for the star who captained them to 1986 World Cup glory.
Maradona’s place in the pantheon of footballing greats is secure, but is he the best there has ever been? Pele and Lionel Messi would have something to say about that and it is a divisive issue to put one of them above the other two.
But here, three Sportsmail reporters try and make the case as to why Maradona, Pele and Messi should be considered the greatest footballer of all time.
The case for Diego Maradona — by Chris Cutmore
The greatest things in sport — goals, games, triumphs, characters, players – are defined as that because they are unmatched, unrivalled, unique. You’ve never seen their like before, and you probably never will again.
No one has ever scored goals of such quality or infamy on the grandest stage of all like Diego Maradona did against England in 1986; no one has almost single-handedly won the World Cup for their country, or a major league title for their club, like Maradona did for Argentina and Napoli; no one has ever risen from the slums to become not only their country’s most idolised footballer but also their most cherished, worshipped even, son, like Maradona in his homeland.
Hell, no one has ever even warmed up for a game like Maradona did.
Only two other players come close: Pele and Lionel Messi. They were and are unfathomable talents. But neither faced and utterly conquered such fierce challenges like Maradona did.
Reflecting his own life path from metal-sheeted shack to gold-leafed palace, Maradona transformed no hopers into world beaters simply through his own sheer will. Pele, for all his greatness, was the star turn in Brazil teams jam-packed with legends.
And Maradona did it with such attitude, football’s Tony Montana: he was given nothing, and took everything. The world was his. Balls were his weapon too.
Maradona played football like Messi in an era when everyone else played like Vinnie Jones. He glided across quagmire pitches, while today’s stars moan if the pristine grass is cut a millimetre too long. He took such a brutal beating in every game that two pairs of shinpads, plus drugs – medicinal and recreational — eventually became the only way he was able to play.
When the Butcher of Bilbao came hunting for Maradona, he caused career-threatening injury. When Messi plays Bilbao, the worst he has to contend with is a tug on the shirt. A quick moan to the referee puts his assailants in their place. Maradona had to fight back, quite literally, as he headbutted, elbowed, kneed and karate-kicked against his attackers and their allegedly racist insults.
Na na, na na-na
In many parts of the world this simply isn’t even a debate. In England we are still embittered by the Hand of God. To the rest of the world, Maradona simply is God.
His morality is held up against him here, just as Tiger Woods is judged against gentleman Jack Nicklaus. But if you want to debate ethics, choose Socrates — the chap from Ancient Greece or the doctor/player from 1982, your choice. This is about footballing talent, achievement, inspiration and divinity.
The gods of the generations since Maradona — Zidane, Ronaldinho, Messi – they have all said it: Maradona is the greatest.
No wonder. Maradona was doing all their signature moves — the Marseille turn, the Elastico, the left-footed waltzes through entire defences — before they had even started playing professionally. Before Messi was born, even.
Before Napoli’s UEFA Cup semi-final, second leg of 1989, Maradona prepared on the Olympiastadion pitch to face the mighty Bayern Munich by dancing, clapping and performing jaw-dropping tricks with the ball in time to the sound of ‘Live is Life’, a song by Opus which played over the loud speakers. It has a very catchy hook, childish and joyful:
Just like Maradona, the crowd sang and clapped along too, bewitched. It’s not the same as winning a trophy — although he did inspire that too a few weeks later – but they had never seen anything like him before. You haven’t either, and you won’t ever do so again.
And that’s why Diego Armando Maradona is the greatest footballer of them all.
The case for Pele — by Joe Bernstein
It’s not only talent and success that makes you the greatest. It’s impact as well.
Pele established football as the universal game at a key period in its history. He began his career in black-and-white and ended it in colour when television made sport accessible throughout the world.
He became the first footballer famous and popular enough to become a brand and paved the way for Muhammad Ali and Usain Bolt to show the colour of your skin isn’t a barrier to becoming popular everywhere.
Maradona and Messi have also brought pleasure to millions but nothing can compare with the influence of 17-year-old Pele being chaired off in tears after winning the World Cup in 1958.
His dazzling array of goals in that tournament embodied The Beautiful Game, a phrase he coined.
More than a decade later, he was the star of the best team ever, Brazil ’70, and as an encore made the United States fall in love with football for the first time.
Pele’s statistics are amazing – the only player to win three World Cups, one of only four to score in multiple World Cup finals, the first to score a thousand goals.
Then there was the talent that first established Brazil’s reputation for samba football.
There are fewer clips of Pele compared to modern peers but those that exist show a player who could dribble as quickly as Maradona or Messi, was stronger, better in the air and carried more firepower in his shooting.
The one gap in his CV was not playing in Europe but at the time South American club football was just as strong. Pele proved it by making Santos world champions in 1962 and 1963. They thrashed Eusebio’s Benfica 8-4 on aggregate and Pele then scored four goals the following year against AC Milan.
Milan wanted to buy him but Brazil wouldn’t allow their national icon to leave. The Government bought him a factory as a token of their esteem.
Like Elvis Presley, peak Pele didn’t need to leave his own country for the world to recognise him as a legend.
The case for Lionel Messi – by Max Winters
As a millennial who missed Pele and Maradona, there can only be two candidates for football’s greatest player and I have always leant more towards Messi than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi is the top scorer in LaLiga history and for both Barcelona and Argentina. He has won a staggering 20 major trophies with his club and is out on his own with six Ballon d’Or wins.
But it is more than the numbers with Messi. They don’t do his ability justice.
Growing up and watching Pep Guardiola’s revolutionary Barcelona team was captivating.
The ‘Tiki-Taka’ philosophy at the Nou Camp brought about one of biggest shifts football has ever seen and Messi, playing in the specially-created ‘false nine’ role, was at the heart of everything.
In an era where tactical nuances have become key to the modern game, Messi has taken football back to its very basic elements.
Everything he does is a piece of art, whether it be a 30-yard free kick, a mazy run to take the ball from the touchline to the net or the final touch on a stunning piece of build-up play.
Messi dribbles and teases defenders as though he is on the school playground, he controls the pace and direction of any match he plays in and the consistency in which he scores goals is frightening. And he does this while playing like he has all the time in the world.
Messi has also reached new heights when the technical level of football across the globe has been at its highest.
Maradona and Pele may have played in a more physically brutal era of the game but a quick look at their greatest triumphs shows the speed of play and defending is not at the level it is now.
The frequency with which Messi is asked to perform is also higher than Pele and Maradona.
In the 1985-86 season when Maradona won the World Cup, he had made 31 appearances in all competitions for Napoli. The season after he made 41. In Messi’s last five season he has made 44, 50, 54, 52 and 49 appearances.
Some use Messi’s international woes as a stick to beat him with and he has still not taken Argentina to the heights that Maradona did at the Mexico ’86 World Cup.
Yes not winning a major tournament with the support cast he has had is a blotch on his record.
But tournaments, where anything can happen, are no measuring stick for a player’s ability and achievements. Club football, where a player plays for at least 80% of the football calendar, is what really matters.
Barcelona’s resounding fall from grace in the past few years has also dented Messi’s reputation in the eyes of some.
He may go, he may stay and finish his glorious career as a one club man but the fact Guardiola wants to reunite with him at Manchester City in the Premier League proves there is plenty more to come.
Messi has 640 goals and 282 assists in 742 games for Barcelona, 71 goals in 140 caps for Argentina, 10 LaLiga titles and four Champions League winners’ medals.
It doesn’t get better than that. — MailOnline.