What does it mean to be the Greatest of All Time — the GOAT — of your sport? Every rookie shaking hands with Commissioners Roger Goodell or Adam Silver is standing on that stage convinced that they can transcend every other athlete to compete at the top level of their respective sport and be dubbed the best ever. Some sports have a definitive consensus on the greatest ever. Do the names Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Jerry Rice mean anything to you? These are men who simply dominated statistically and physically to such an extent that other talents who came before and after them simply fell short again and again. However, soccer has no such clear distinction, despite several generational talents. So, can a conclusion be “objectively” reached? Probably not, but let’s go for it anyways.
How does one define objective grandeur in a sport that has fielded thousands of top-notch athletes from across the globe since the year before Swarthmore was founded? It’s not easy. However, through a number of factors, individual statistics, awards, and team success, we can start to get a sense for how the all-time great players stack up against each other. Again, this gets tricky. Should a player who has scored more goals than anyone else rank higher or lower than someone who has been on a multitude of dominating teams? Soccer is also more complicated because of the weight put on both the club and national levels. The reason that there is a debate at all is that everyone has their own set of criteria and weighs the factors very differently. In order to reach any sort of conclusion here, I have my own criteria, and I will explain how they work.
First and foremost, players obviously need exceptional individual accolades and statistics. This is an objective measure. You just cannot be called an all time great, much less the GOAT of a sport, without them. Simply put Michael Jordan, is greater than Robert Horry (despite having 5 fewer titles) because of his 30,000 points and 5 MVP awards. This, in soccer terms, leads to a situation where strikers and attacking midfielders are generally ranked higher because of their higher propensity for accumulating prestigious awards and breaking statistical records. Yes, soccer is a team sport, but that does not lessen the importance of simply making things happen on the pitch.
The second key criterion is similarly objective, and measures both club and national success on the biggest stage. This includes domestic cups, the Champions League (European Cup from 1955-1992), the European Championships, and the World Cup. No matter how successful a player is at any one level, they need to demonstrate the ability to lead squads to the Promised Land at different levels. There are many good players on great teams, but the truly great players rise when they must.
In general, there are three players who can rightly be considered the greatest: Pelé, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi. All three have dominated their respective tiers of competition and eras, and each has a legitimate claim.
Pelé’s claim to fame comes from pure scoring output, amassing a ridiculous 660 league goals and 1052 goals total when including unofficial friendlies. No one else has or ever will come close to those tallies. Pelé won three World Cups for Brazil, is still Brazil’s all time top scorer, and was named the athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999 and the FIFA footballer of the century in 2000. He has been considered the GOAT for 60 years. However, critics point out that his record-breaking scoring both took place in an era with less athletic competition (the 1950s and 1960s) and, more importantly, that he never played in the European leagues, which were were far more competitive. Without any success in the European Championship, the Premier League, or La Liga, his name will always have an asterisk next to it in the record books.
Diego Maradona, while best known for the extraordinarily controversial “Hand of God” goal in 1986, was a magician with the ball in his day. Unlike Pelé, he did play in Europe, but also had success in South America. He was the top scorer in Argentina five times before moving to Barcelona and adding 108 goals to his name in Europe. Maradona came fifth in Player of the Century voting, one vote from coming fourth and 14 from third. Despite his club skill, Maradona was most dominant when he donned the blue and white of Argentina, playing in four World Cups, leading a mediocre squad to back-to-back World Cup finals, winning it in 1986. A captivating force and historically expensive player, Maradona’s greatness was unparalleled when he played. Significantly, however, his Barcelona and Napoli squads never made it far in the European Championship, only playing in six matches and never winning. Without the club success that his competitors garnered, Maradona’s case is weakened.
Lionel Messi has made a career out of making and breaking records, and he’s only 27. His individual success, in some respects, is unparalleled. He is Barcelona’s all-time leading goal-scorer, as well as being the top scorer in La Liga and the Champions League. He is a four-time consecutive Ballon d’Or winner (Europe’s best player), a three-time European Golden Shoe winner, and the only one to hold all those distinctions. He has the most hat tricks in Champions League history, led it in scoring in four consecutive competitions, and set the European record for most goals scored in a season. He has scored more hat-tricks than anyone in the history of Barcelona’s rivalry with Real Madrid, “El Clasico.” He is the first player to ever score in consecutive matches against every professional team, with a 21-game streak. In terms of team success, his Barcelona squads have also been a staple of dominance. They have won the Club World Cup twice, Champions League thrice, La Liga six times, and Copa del Rey twice. The biggest knock to Messi’s claim is his lack of a World Cup title; however that does not mean he hasn’t been internationally successful. He won the Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2008 and brought his nation to the World Cup finals, registering four “Man of the Match” awards and the Golden Ball for the competition as a whole.
Choosing between the three legends is essentially impossible, as it should be. How can three eras of dominance over 20 years apart be compared? How can you weigh international squads against club teams? Does quality of teammates diminish an all time great’s stock, because they “didn’t do it alone?” In my humble opinion, Messi’s individual brilliance, as well as his consistent superlative records against arguably the best competition of all time, gives him an edge over the others. The scary part? He shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.