The 30-year-old will spend another three seasons at Camp Nou, and his unwillingness to prove himself abroad will taint his legacy
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In 1959, Pele scored what is considered the greatest goal of his career, and perhaps the best goal of all time. From a career of 1,283 goals, a header against Juventus is praised above the rest due to the outstanding technique in the build-up.
As no video evidence of the goal exists, computer simulations based on eye-witnesses and Pele himself were used to show how the then-18-year-old chipped the ball over three players and then the goalkeeper before heading it home – all in one fluid movement in which the ball never touched the ground.
There is no doubting that the virtual goal is spectacular. But it is one that comes with asterisks and disclaimers when being discussed as the greatest ever. The simulation is partly based on how Pele described it – and the Brazilian is not a man known for his humility, as he told FIFA.com in 2012 that “I was born to play football, just like Beethoven was born to write music and Michelangelo was born to paint.”
The opposition, Juventus, were not the one known to European audiences, either, but rather a local Brazilian side that Santos easily defeated with Pele scoring five times in a 10-1 rout.
Lots of Pele’s goals were scored against inferior opposition, with the Brazilian only leaving Santos to join New York Cosmos at the end of his career, and never plying his trade in Europe.
Whenever an argument about the greatest player of all time comes up, Pele is one of the first names on everyone’s lips. But his lack of success outside of Brazil is always cited as a reason why he cannot be considered alongside Diego Maradona, who transformed Napoli into the champions of Italy, or Johan Cruyff, a three-time European Cup winner with Ajax who also claimed domestic titles with Barcelona and Feyenoord.
On Saturday, Lionel Messi signed a new contract with Barcelona, keeping him at Camp Nou until 2021. By that time, the Argentine will be just about to turn 34, having spent 20 years with the Spanish club.
Messi arrived at La Masia as a 13-year-old, and has achieved everything he could ever have hoped at Barcelona. To date, he has won eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues and five Ballons d’Or.
Messi loves Barcelona and Barcelona loves Messi. It is unsurprising that he has decided to spend another three seasons with the club that he has made his own.
However, by signing a new deal at Camp Nou, he is also ensuring that his legacy as the world’s greatest player will come with an asterisk like Pele’s repeated challenge to successors: “When Messi’s scored 1,283 goals like me, when he’s won three World Cups, we’ll talk about it,” Pele told Le Monde in 2012.
The 30-year-old helped Argentina secure qualification for the 2018 World Cup with a tremendous hat-trick in their final qualifying game against Ecuador, but he will never match Pele’s record of three World Cups – and is also unlikely to even equal Maradona’s single World Cup triumph thanks to a lack of strength in the current Albiceleste squad.
“I like Messi a lot, he’s a great player. Technically, we’re practically at the same level,” Pele said. “He’s a great player for Barcelona, but when he plays for Argentina, he doesn’t have the same success. People always ask me: ‘When is the new Pele going to be born?’ Never. My father and mother have closed the factory.”
At Barcelona, Messi has been surrounded by some of the greatest players of the current generation. For the past 11 years, he has been chosen in the FIFPro World XI, which has featured at least two other Barca stars every year in support of the Argentine, including the likes of Ronaldinho, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Neymar.
When he lifted the Ballon d’Or in 2011, Messi dedicated the trophy to Xavi: “I want to share this with my friend; he deserves it.”
Before signing the new three-year deal with Barcelona, Messi was linked with clubs across Europe, including a potential world-record €300 million transfer to Manchester City.
Mino Raiola, the agent responsible for superstars like Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, urged Messi to move away from Camp Nou, telling Marca: “A player like Messi must try another experience with a different club and prove how great he is.”
Because of the decision to stay at Barcelona, football fans will be filled with doubt. Could Messi really have done it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke? The talent around him at Barca and the lack of success with Argentina will surely lead to people wondering if he is truly eligible for the greatest-ever discussion.
It is a little too easy to say Messi cannot be the greatest ever because he has only played for one club. But it will definitely be a topic of conversation, especially by supporters of great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who won everything in England before moving to Real Madrid.
By signing a new Barcelona deal, Messi has ensured his legacy will be tainted by questions of ‘what if?