Football has been around for more than a century but only a handful of players have been able to achieve legendary status while transcending through different generations of fans. Diego Maradona is a name who is frequently regarded as a benchmark for greatness. The Argentine brought about magic on the pitch at a time when football was not so global and scientific. Along with Brazilian legend Pele, Maradona is considered as the greatest footballer ever. Hence, it is natural that comparisons have come about pitting Maradona with modern-day greats – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Many football fans can count themselves lucky to have witnessed two icons at the peak of their powers. For the most part, Ronaldo and Messi have been competing for the major trophies while playing for Spanish clubs. This is quite different from the days of Maradona and Pele, as South American greats were competing in different eras. Unsurprisingly, comparison of Ronaldo and Messi with the latest of the two legends – Maradona – has been subject of frequent debates amongst football fans and experts for several years.
The Case for Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi might be an Argentine but he has been involved with Spanish football throughout his career. After moving to Barcelona as a teenager with little hope of making it big due to a growth deficiency syndrome, Messi has been able to turn around his negative traits into positive attributes. Messi might not be a very physically imposing player, but he has the low centre of gravity that enables him to achieve quick movements on the field with amazing ease.
Messi was coming through the ranks at Barcelona when the club was going through the highs of Ronaldinho. Yet, it was not long before Messi was able to overcome his South American counterpart in terms of popularity and numbers on the field. His first two seasons with Barcelona in 2004 and 2005 were largely an introduction for the defenders to sit up and take notice.
Messi was making an impact but the arrival of Pep Guardiola as the Barcelona manager brought about a remarkable shift. Unlike Frank Rijkaard before him, Guardiola decided to use Messi as the central figure in the team with everything revolving around the Argentine. The move paid off extremely well with Messi getting 23 goals in 31 league appearances in Guardiola’s first season. The club also would go on to hand over Messi with the first of his many titles like the Champions League and La Liga.
The period from 2010 to 2018 belonged to Messi in terms of numbers. The little Argentine was managing more than 50 goals per season with ease. There were also record breaking campaigns like the 2011-12 campaign when he scored 73 goals in all competitions from just 60 matches.
One of the biggest letdowns for Messi has been his international career. Apart from the Olympic success in 2008, Messi has had little joy while wearing the national team colours. There is a huge drop in Messi’s goal tally for Argentina even when the team has been built to suit his personality. One argument in case of Messi’s poor performances for Argentina would be the lack of raiding fullbacks, as the best of Messi came when Dani Alves was at his peak. Unsurprisingly, Messi has only managed 37 goals in almost 100 competitive appearances for Argentina. His overall record – 71 goals in 142 games – looks good thanks to a string of goals in friendly matches.
The Case for Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo did not go through the same uncertain start to his football career, like Messi, when he was coming through the ranks at Sporting CP. Yet, the Portuguese has been able to achieve international stardom and some incredible records. Ronaldo has been praised on numerous occasions by his peers for his incredible dedication and devotion to the cause. Unsurprisingly, a person of such calibre has only gone through an uptrend throughout his career. This uptrend remains in place even into his mid-30s.
Manchester United did identify a lot of talent within Ronaldo and this persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson to spend £18 million on the teenager in 2003. In just six seasons at Old Trafford, Ronaldo transformed himself from an unpolished diamond into a global star, but his transformation was not yet complete. The transformation of his career from a great player to the greatest would come about when he made a world record transfer to Real Madrid in 2009. Real Madrid is often the stuff of dreams for a footballer partly because of the glamour associated with playing at Santiago Bernabeu along with several other stars. However, it also brings incredible pressure due to the expectations, which come along with wearing the white shirt.
Yet, Ronaldo displayed a remarkable sense of being able to thrive in such an environment as he went from strength to strength. If fans had thought that the best of Ronaldo came at Manchester United, they were in for a shock. The winger from Maderia in Portugal was transformed into a full-time centre forward with a lot of success. Ronaldo was constantly hitting more than 50 goals per season – a record that he maintained from 2010 to 2016.
An incredible career with Manchester United that led to the Premier League and Champions League success only got better at Real Madrid. It was no wonder that Juventus decided to pay more than £100 million for a player approaching the end of his career. Ronaldo’s influence does not extend just on the pitch. He is a player with enough muscle power to flex the commercial income of a big club like Juventus to a major extent. Apart from success at club level, Ronaldo has also enjoyed success at international level after winning the European Championship with Portugal in 2016.
The Case for Diego Maradona
The name Diego Armando Maradona is up there in the top few positions when it comes to a competition for the title of being the greatest footballer. A career that started with Argentinos Juniors in 1976 quickly transformed into a visual treat for spectators around the world. Unlike many of the South American stars from his generation, Maradona was able to command a lot of respect in the European football scene. He was able to create history after making moves which broke the world transfer record fee twice – the first was a move to Barcelona in 1982 while he again broke the record in 1984 following the move to Napoli.
Standing at just 5 ft 5 in, it would have been easy to forgive Maradona if he had not been successful in his playing days. Such was the brutal physicality back in the days that a player with small physical stature would simply have no chance against the physically dominating opposition. Yet, Maradona was able to weave his magic from the number 10 position with ease. Maradona was a leader on the pitch and his presence struck fear into the opposition. The attacking midfielder also had an eye for goal.
Maradona did not have the incredible goals-to-game ratio which many modern players boast. However, he was able to achieve success at a time when science was just making its presence felt in the game. The modern player is governed at various levels by science and data, which have helped extract the maximum possible performance out of his talent. Yet, this was not the case in the 1970s and 1980s when Maradona had to rely less on numbers from the lab.
While the club career was able to provide a reasonable amount of success with Italian Serie A and Copa del Rey titles to his credit, Maradona was able to influence much more at international level. He was a major factor behind Argentina’s success in the 1986 World Cup with one of the two goals in the knockout stages against England famously etching itself into history as the ‘Hand of God’. The second goal in that match was a single-handed effort, as Maradona went past five England players in a mazy run to score a goal, which would be crowned as the ‘Goal of the Century’ on FIFA.com.
The Ultimate Comparison
Lionel Messi has been able to break numerous scoring records, win several collective honours with Barcelona, and take up more Ballon d’Or awards than any other player. The achievements set by Messi might never be equalled on several fronts. He has picked up an astonishing 33 trophies, which includes 10 La Liga titles and four Champions League honours, with Barcelona already. There is a strong chance that Messi will add more collections to his trophy cabinet until he retires. For standing goals that he has scored throughout his career, Messi has been a disappointment at international level. He did come close to winning the World Cup with Argentina in 2014 when the team finished as the runner-up. Yet, his failure to win the coveted International title lets him down badly in the ultimate comparison.
Even though Messi has achieved a lot in his career, he has undoubtedly been helped by an excellent squad. Furthermore, Barcelona have been built around Messi for the best part of the last decade.
Cristiano Ronaldo certainly has had to do it the hard way, as he has created the need for maximum attention wherever he has gone. After starting out as a relatively unknown at Manchester United, Ronaldo forced Sir Alex Ferguson to give him a free role and Ferguson is a manager who has always put the team ahead of a player. Despite having the pressure of the entire Real Madrid political setup and a huge transfer fee on his shoulders, Ronaldo was able to deliver admirable results at the Santiago Bernabeu. Portugal are a relatively mediocre team in comparison with giants like France, Germany, and Spain, but that did not prevent Ronaldo from leading the national team to Euro glory in 2016.
Ronaldo, though, has often been accused of being self-centric and putting his personal records over the collective welfare of the team. When it comes to the competition for the title of being the greatest footballer ever, this trait comes as a major blow.
Maradona may not have the glittering goals-to-game ratio like Messi or Ronaldo. He may not have won a bucket load of trophies during his club or international career. Even the Ballon d’Or awards were initially not focused on the Argentine, who was delivering the goods with the likes of Boca Juniors and Argentinos Juniors. Yet, Maradona shined in an era where players were given little protection against physical challenges. He had to play through injuries more often than not, but there were no complaints from the little Argentine, who wheezed past his opponents as if they were invisible. The pain that Maradona had to endure is remarkable, but he still managed to push his teams to glory. Most of the success achieved by Maradona with his club or national teams was made possible even when they lacked a string of great players.
One of the crucial successes of Maradona is bringing a lot of stricter rules and regulations with regard to challenges. Now, we are in a situation where players can pick up yellow cards for a single bad tackle and receive straight red cards for tackles which were commonly inflicted on Maradona. It would be almost impossible to think that the Ronaldo and Messi would have been able to achieve those incredible goal tallies without the help of these strict rules. It is difficult to put a price on this contribution from Maradona, who is truly the greatest the world has seen.