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QATAR 2022

Is Messi the greatest soccer player of all time?

Is Messi the greatest soccer player of all time?
Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates after winning the penalty shootout of the Fifa World Cup 2022 quarterfinal match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, 9 December 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohamed Messara)

It’s okay to debate it – don’t let people ruin your fun. Because one thing is for sure, having an opinion about the game and expressing it is an inalienable right.

And so, Lionel Messi has reached his second World Cup final with a dazzling performance that people will be talking about for years.

As have the rest of the Argentina team, but most of the discussion in the next few days is likely to ignore Angel Di Maria, Julián Álvarez and Enzo Fernández, and centre on the man many believe to be the greatest footballer of all time. Many people also dispute that he is the greatest footballer of all time.

There will be lots of talk, echoes from debates down the years, about whether Messi needs to win a World Cup to be considered the greatest. People will compare him to Pele, Zinedine Zidane and, most pertinently, his Argentine countryman Diego Maradona.

There will also be comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo, the spicy old to-and-fro argument that will still be going aboard some spaceship long after our sun explodes and Earth is consumed by the fires of the apocalypse.

This is Maradona’s Argentina. His presence is everywhere, forever entwined with the World Cup. And as a counter to this line of debate, there will also be lots of sensible, centrist types who will say things along the lines of “Why can’t we just enjoy them both?” or “Does it matter who the best is?”

Essentially, that sentiment is telling you not to have an opinion. Walk the middle ground, don’t feel strongly about anything and drift on through life without committing to anything. It is, in a way, a method of shutting down debate.

Is that a dramatic thing to say about what is a fairly frivolous football opinion? Maybe, but surely the frivolous things are the things everyone can have opinions about. Who are they going to harm?

Lionel Messi of Argentina waves towards the crowd at full time of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia at Lusail Stadium on 13 December 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo: James Williamson – AMA / Getty Images)


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If you speak your mind about, say, Palestine, you’d better be sure you know what you’re talking about, because otherwise you could cause some damage.

But an opinion on the best footballer of all time? On whom is that going to have a negative impact in any material way?

Half the point of being a football fan is to have opinions about things. Whether that’s in conversations with friends, strangers, taxi drivers, builders, café owners, bar staff,  or people in the street.

Radio phone-ins, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, TikTok or whatever your social media of choice is. Before games, at games, during games, after games, outside games. At home, at work, at the pub, over dinner, in the street.

To fill uncomfortable silences with your in-laws, to form bonds with your parents or siblings, to break the ice with a stranger at a wedding. To bore a partner, to fall out with a friend, to maybe even make new friends.

Lionel Messi of Argentina during the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia at Lusail Stadium on 13 December 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo: Sebastian Frej / MB Media / Getty Images)

Opinions about relatively frivolous football things are great. They’re also terrible. They’re often really entertaining but also frequently tedious.

But nobody should be able to tell you not to have an opinion – about things that matter and things that don’t.

The British radio hosts Danny Kelly and Danny Baker used to say in terms of football opinion that they were “sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain”. There’s plenty of value in that.

We in the media are constrained by the need for those opinions to be informed, relatively sensible and backed up by some sort of logic, facts and a foot in reality. But the rest of you aren’t bound by those shackles. Say what you think about football, make it outrageous, be polemical; forget moderation, facts are optional, leave logic behind.

You’re allowed to be unreasonable, to have opinions without anything to back them up, to like someone because they share a name with your friend, or to take against someone because you don’t like their face.

It’s absolutely fine not to have an opinion about whether Messi is the greatest. It’s absolutely fine not to care.

It’s absolutely fine to watch the final days of this World Cup without putting the action on the pitch into any sort of historical or contemporary context.

It’s also absolutely fine to turn off the TV as soon as the final whistle goes, to not pay any attention to what happens next or about what people are saying.

But if you have an opinion, express it. Don’t be made to think that your preference is invalid, or that everyone is just going to shout “BOOOOOOOOOORING!” at your face and insist that you sit on the fence.

Does it ultimately matter who people think is the best player in the world? Not really. Is the constant comparison between players of the same or different eras boring? For a lot of people, yes.

But settling on one side is far more interesting than the alternative. “Messi amor” is everywhere in Argentina, where he is “all the superheroes in one”. DM168

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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