Not the GOAT
Lionel Messi is NOT the greatest soccer player of all-time. I know in the days and weeks ahead it will become all the rage to verbally beat this man while he is down. Jumping onto that dog pile is not my intentions at all. These are sentiments I have felt for several years now. And I want to be clear, that I do not claim to be a Lionel Messi expert. You will not catch me sitting around the house or at a soccer bar watching La Liga games every weekend. But from what I have seen of Messi over the years, my conclusion is that he is overrated. For the sake of clarity, “overrated” is often erroneously confused with “bad”, which is absolutely not my perspective. Certainly, Messi is an elite player today and would be in any other era. He is undoubtedly one of the best players of all-time.
However, what negates me from going along with this anointment of Messi as the GOAT, is that I don't even find him to be the best of his own generation. I won't delve too far into the ongoing Messi versus Ronaldo saga, as it has been rehashed ad nauseam by plenty of other folks, but I will present a brief argument as to why I feel CR7 is the better player. Moreover, those who emphatically state that Messi has overtaken Pele are showing natural favoritism to the present, while likely only possessing minimal knowledge and perspective of Pele's remarkable career. I wasn’t lucky enough to see Pele play live, but I think innately we are quick to dismiss the past and focus only on today, which is detrimental in this debate.
The Case Against Being the GOAT... The Trophy Case is Bare
Messi is the best player on what would easily considered a club all-star team with Barcelona. The La Liga is not a very deep league, with generally only the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and occasionally Atletico Madrid competing for the league crown. In turn, Messi often plays against relatively inferior talent, which inflates his league statistics to the obscene levels we see season after season. Again, this is not to diminish the mans ability and league accomplishments, I am merely putting them into the proper context.
Messi is a highlight machine. He is extremely capable of brilliant moments. But it cannot be glossed over that he has yet to win a single trophy with the senior Argentine national team (the Olympic gold medal from 2008 is not senior level international play). With that in mind, I fail to see how someone could be considered the GOAT without winning a single major trophy internationally. The international level is the pinnacle of our sport. It is where legends are made. And while yes I do understand that soccer is a team sport of course, thus Argentina’s failure to win on the grand stage isn’t all Messi's fault, it cannot be dismissed so haphazardly.
Statistics generally can provide the foundation for any argument, but one area of his game I find to be lacking that doesn't show up on the stat sheet is that Messi seems mentally weak. He reminds me of Lebron James early in his basketball career. Both are amazing frontrunners and ride the momentum of success to its maximum potential, but when the cards are stacked up against Messi, he often crumbles. He consistently wears a look of dejection on his face when his teams are down. True leaders, the true greats carry themselves accordingly no matter what the situation. Messi does not and that propensity for glumness cannot be ignored. How many penalty kicks has he missed on the grandest of stages? He “retired” after the COPA America tournament in 2016 because Argentina once again came up short in a final and he couldn’t handle the aftermath. To me, all of those are signs of mental weakness, and as far as I am concerned whoever you label the GOAT cannot be lacking in mental fortitude.
World Cup 2018
While both Ronaldo and Messi were bounced prematurely from this years World Cup, there is no doubt Ronaldo showed far better than his legendary counterpart. Messi was invisible throughout large segments of this tournament. CR7 was ruthless in every game. Even when he wasn’t scoring, he was involving himself in the play. He was attacking the ball. He wanted the ball. He would throw his body at aerial chances. Messi on the other hand was too dejected to involve himself often enough to make an impact. If the soccer gods were compassionate and just, one tournament probably wouldn't make or break a career. But I think this World Cup was poor for Messi. The perch in which the GOAT sits is extremely flimsy. If at some juncture Messi truly did overthrow Pele as the GOAT, then I think this World Cup saw the Brazilian legend ascend back to the top spot.
CR7 Is Better
In my humble opinion, after this tournament Cristiano Ronaldo went on to dethrone Messi from the top spot of their respective generation. That battle has been neck and neck for a decade now, but when you look at both of their careers, CR7 gets the nod for a multitude of reasons. Ronaldo has been successful in both the EPL and the La Liga. The EPL collectively has more more talent and depth, making regular season accomplishments more significant. Ronaldo also led Portugal to the UEFA European championship in 2016. When you throw this World Cup into the mix, to me CR7 takes the cake. Messi still has plenty of time left in his career to fully and unarguably attain the number one position. But as of today, right now he isn’t even the best player of his generation. How could the runner-up of a generation be the king of all kings?