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Is Lionel Messi the best male sports athlete of all-time? World Cup final could be a persuasive closing statement

Michael Jordan won five National Basketball Association MVP awards. Tom Brady has won the same award three times in the National Football League. Willie Mays was honored twice by Major League Baseball’s National League. Lionel Messi was presented the Ballon d’Or as the best player in world soccer seven times.

So that about covers it, then, right?

Messi is the legend among legends, the greatest of the greats, the best in all of men’s team sports, and maybe men’s sports, period? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

It’s a debate, the kind of easy-to-answer but impossible-to-decide dispute that for decades has been the life force of the bar room, sports talk radio and, now, social media.

As Messi approaches what he says will be his last major final for the Argentina national team, Sunday against France for the 2022 FIFA World Cup title, he has achieved so much in the sport it is tempting to go searching through the men who have dominated other prominent sports to see if any have done it at quite the same level as Messi.

MORE: Messi on the brink of his first World Cup title

Wayne Gretzky won the Hart Trophy nine times as National Hockey League most valuable player and lifted the Stanley Cup as champion four times. LeBron James’s achievements rival Jordan’s in basketball, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds all could make their case in baseball, and Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis all have proponents as the greatest boxer.

All but James, though, have presented their final arguments. Their careers have been over for years, even decades. Messi still is there on the field to continue constructing his legend, and well more than half a billion people — based on the audience for the 2018 final — will be watching as he pursues his first World Cup gold medal.

“The goal Messi set up against Croatia — covering that much ground, without anybody else touching it at this stage of a World Cup. That doesn’t happen,” Jason La Canfora, an NFL insider, talk host with 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore and soccer connoisseur told The Sporting News. “That doesn’t happen in the average La Liga game; that’s definitely not happening in a World Cup semifinal.

“If he brings home a World Cup and does it being a part of all the goals they’ve scored and does it in a World Cup that started with maybe the worst loss in Argentina history [loss to Saudi Arabia]. There was a lot of tumult, a lot of people ready to throw dirt on him forever after that, and make him own that more than anybody else. And Argentina have turned around and had a wondrous tournament since. If he finishes this by holding that trophy, I don’t how you don’t know have him there with the ultimate icons of that sport.”

MORE: Argentina’s path to win the World Cup

Is Lionel Messi the greatest soccer player of all-time?

To be considered the greatest performer in all men’s sports, Messi first would have to be acknowledged as the greatest in his own.

His rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo has crackled since they finished second and third behind Kaka in the voting for the 2007 Ballon d’Or. Ronaldo then won in 2008, and Messi followed a year later. They finished No. 1 and No. 2 in some order nine times, but Messi’s continued brilliance in recent years, with Ronaldo fading and feuding with multiple clubs, has ended whatever competition there was between the two for all but the most ardent Cristiano fans.

So that leaves the historical icons: Maradona and Pele.

The comparison with Diego Maradona heavily favors Messi because his peak has lasted so many more years. Maradona lost 15 months of his career for failing a drug test in 1991, while at Napoli. He only played 61 club games from 1992 until his retirement in 1997 and also was suspended when he produced a positive drug test during the 1994 World Cup. Effectively, he was finished at age 31.

Since he turned 31, Messi has won a Copa America, a La Liga title in Spain, a Ligue 1 championship in France, and the Ballon d’Or twice.

MORE: Lionel Messi career record in finals

That leaves Pele, which is an entirely different discussion. Pele was extraordinary from the time he was 17 (when Brazil won the World Cup behind his six goals) through 1970 (when he won his third World Cup title and contributed to more than half the team’s goals) and onto his time with the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s.

Soccer was different, then. Although there was intense European club interest in signing Pele, he remained at his original Brazil club, Santos, until he left for the Cosmos and a contract of nearly $3 million in 1975.

During his time in the U.S., Pele almost was an evangelist for the sport in an unconverted nation. Although he drew curious fans around the country during his three seasons with the Cosmos, he did not make America a soccer nation. But he did inspire such young players as Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Tony Meola, who helped the United States men’s national team, more than a decade later, to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

Messi only had to show up and play. Such formerly agnostic countries as the U.S., Australia and Canada long since have been turned onto Messi’s magic and to all of the sport. He did not need to be a pioneer. He needed to be a player.

And he has been the best.

MORE: Who’s the best soccer player in the world today and all-time?

Lionel Messi: Better than everybody

Shohei Ohtani has been competing in Major League Baseball since the 2018 season, when he was named American League rookie of the year for batting .285 with 28 home runs — while also starting 10 games as a pitcher and striking out 63 batters. Not since Babe Ruth a century earlier had a player arrived at the game’s highest level and excelled both as a batter and pitcher.

He since has developed into an elite pitcher whose ERA was a career-best 2.33 last season and a dominant batter who hit 46 home runs in 2021. “He is out Babe Ruth-ing Babe Ruth,” La Canfora said.

Ohtani is the best player in baseball, for the first time demonstrating that person could come from outside the Western Hemisphere.

It is almost certain, though, that if that player were to emerge from outside the Americas, he would be coming either from Japan, where Ohtani was born and raised, or South Korea. It’s just not as popular in other parts of the world.

You’ll find even fewer places where American football is contested. Ice hockey is popular and well-played across much of Europe, from Sweden and Germany in the West to Russia in the East, but the interest does not reach into countries with warmer climates on that continent or Asia, Africa, and South America.

MORE: Who has scored the most goals in international soccer?

Soccer is universal, though. Not every country, not even every big country, has been able to rise to World Cup level, but there are outstanding teams and players from across Asia, Africa, South America, North America and, where the sport’s headquarters reside both physically and metaphorically, in Europe.

Basketball is widely played and enjoyed across the globe, but it owns a fraction of the global sports market in terms of revenue compared to soccer, which isn’t far from commanding half of that money.

So for Messi to be better than everybody in soccer means he is, in a sense, better than everybody.

“I think it’s more competitive,” La Canfora said. “because there are more kids growing up in more parts of the world thinking, ‘My dream is this. The only way out is this.’”

Of all those young men ever to follow that path, no one but Messi ever scored 79 goals in a calendar year (2012, 91 with international goals included). He holds the record for most goals for a single club, with 672, and most assists for a single club as well as records for most assists in the Champions League and World Cup.

MORE: Ranking of the 50 greatest seasons in sports history

His run of scoring goals in 21 consecutive league games is soccer’s equivalent to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in baseball, and he is the only player to score 40 or more goals in 12 consecutive seasons. He is the only player to score in seven different competitions in a year, all in 2015.

No other man scored in his teens, 20s and 30s in World Cup competition. He has played in more World Cup games, has twice been the only player to be man of the match four times in a single World Cup and could make it five in Sunday’s final.

“I’m inclined to believe that he is the greatest player to ever live,” Nate Bukaty, who has been the voice of Sporting Kansas City for nearly a decade, told TSN. “And if they win this World Cup, with the way he’s playing, it absolutely adds to his case in a major way. Not only would his team have won the World Cup, it would be in large part because of him. He will be the most valuable player on a team that wins the World Cup and, to me, that’s massive.”

Messi: Most popular athlete on the planet?

If you ever heard the phrase, “Ali, bomaye,” either when it first became a thing or through an article or documentary in the five decades since, you might have some understanding of what it is like to be Messi.

Heavyweight champion George Foreman had no idea, when he traveled to Zaire in 1974 to face the challenge presented by Muhammad Ali, of how severely fans supporting him at ringside would be outnumbered. That was the power of Ali, then widely considered the most famous person in the world even though he was the contender in that bout.

It was like that for Ali the rest of his life, long after he’d shocked Foreman to regain the title, long after his retirement from the sport.

That is Messi now. Well, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. They are the world’s most recognizable athletes, possibly the most recognizable figures in any discipline.

“For me, soccer is different, because soccer is so global,” La Canfora said. “When you start talking about the the entire globe, and you get out of a North American bunker, the way soccer would be consumed in the Middle East, the way soccer would be consumed in a country like India, China and the far East — I don’t know that you can throw in any American football player and say they resonate the way an average sort of starter for Manchester United would. Not even a superstar.

“It’s just a different scale. It’s hard for me to put a lot of baseball players or a football player or a hockey player anywhere near the notoriety that someone like a Messi would have on any continent, in a large part of the world that has really no use for a lot of these other sports.

“There’s plenty of places Tom Brady can go, and does go, and he can be off the grid. I don’t know where — private islands and stuff like that — but you can’t tell me if Messi goes to Tahiti there’s not going to be people following him, or find out he’s there and stake out his hotel. That’s got to be crazy.”

MORE: Comparing Messi vs. Ronaldo at the World Cup

Does Lionel Messi need the World Cup to be the best ever?

One of the differences with Messi’s career, or any soccer player’s career, is there are so many more opportunities for achievement than are available to the best basketball players in the NBA, in Major League Baseball, in the National Hockey League or America’s National Football League, which plays a brand of football much different than the one that has obsessed the planet during the World Cup.

In those leagues, there most often is a single championship. You win it, or you don’t. That’s it.

Great soccer players will have the opportunity to pursue domestic league titles, domestic cup competitions and continental tournaments with their clubs. With their national teams, there are continental championships and, the grandest of all, the World Cup.

Success means needing a bigger room to handle all the trophies, plaques and medals that can be won.

It also means there are more items to be secured for one’s career to appear complete. And that’s particularly true when the trophy that remains most elusive is the most widely recognized, prestigious and coveted.

MORE: All-time leading scorers in Argentina history

Lionel Messi trophies

At this stage, one cannot accurately say Messi has won everything there is to be won, even with 11 domestic league titles, seven domestic cups, four Champions League trophies, three Club World Cups, a Copa America, an Olympic gold medal and an Under-20 World Cup. That’s a lifetime’s worth of winning, and yet he has not yet had the victory of a lifetime.

Will there always be a “yeah … but” associated with Messi if Argentina are unable to win the 2022 World Cup final?

“Yes. I think there will be. And I know how unfair that can be. And I’m not suggesting it’s correct,” Bukaty, who also co-hosts the morning show on Sports Radio WHB in KC. “But that will be uttered by millions of people, whether we think it’s a fair statement or not.”

Bukaty cited that in the enduring debate between Jordan and LeBron James regarding the identity of basketball’s greatest all-time player, NBA championships are used as a weapon against James — even though he’s won four — and played in the NBA Finals 10 times! The Jordan crowd inevitably points to Michael’s six rings and attempts to end the debate there.

“As a fan of Messi, that’s part of the reason I’m rooting for him to win it,” Bukaty said. “Because I’d like for that to go away. It absolutely goes away if he finishes this thing off.”

Abdullah Anaman
Abdullah Anamanhttps://aanaman.me
I am a highly competent IT professional with a proven track record in designing websites, building apps etc. I have strong technical skills as well as excellent interpersonal skills, enabling me to interact with a wide range of clients.
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