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Jack: Comparing Messi to Pele, Maradona at World Cup is wrong

Kristian Jack
5/20/2014 10:01:23 AM
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Watching the Montreal Canadiens lose goaltender Carey Price to injury this week reminded me of what I often think is the great weakness of North American sports.

The reliance of individuals in team sports.

Hockey is obsessed with goaltenders. A team loses and the first place people look at for blame is in between the pipes.

Baseball? As they say, momentum is all about the next day's starting pitcher.

NFL? Find an elite quarterback if you want to win the Super Bowl and stop using Trent Dilfer as an example (unless you can find one of the greatest defences to go alongside him).

Basketball? You won't find many NBA championship teams that doesn't feature a current or future hall of famer.

The global game of soccer is often very different, as the achievements of Atletico Madrid this week have shown.

A sport that is so reliant on teamwork rarely allows a figurehead to rise to such prominence to make a championship be about them. Sure, domestic leagues have outstanding players who take over games, weeks, even months of a campaign, but without their teammates they are just one man with a ball at their feet. Even the greatest players in the world today are surrounded by players close to their level that allows them to perform brilliantly so often.

For some reason, however, every four years many forget the common sense around this belief and two words are the reason for it.

World Cup.

There have only been nineteen of these in history and, specifically for the last 16 of them, it has been considered as the ultimate thing in the sport to win.

However, the World Cup is not without its failings. Many games produce predictable, sterile games dominated by defensive-minded teams, unable to replicate the teamwork earned by club teams over long periods of time, who, subsequently, know its far easier to stop than score.

It is a tournament that lasts one month every four years. The best team plays seven games and does not even have to win them all. Yet, because it is so short in time and so infrequent on the game's calendar, the World Cup cares little for reputations, instead choosing to make them. This allows the sport to be much more 'North American' in terms of individuals stamping their authority on it.

With this in mind, collectively, we owe it to future generations to be extremely careful with the evidence provided (and this is not always easy with the lack of video available to us once the tournament ends).

First of all we must remember that players can have excellent tournaments without actually winning it. This rule is for all, not just for those you didn't expect to win it anyway.

Take Lionel Messi's 2010 World Cup. Many adjectives have been used to describe this including 'poor' and 'disappointing.' What nonsense.

Messi was excellent in South Africa but because he didn't score a goal some thought he was disappointing. When his out-of-his-depth manager, Diego Maradona, decided to play without a central midfield, Argentina were sent home packing in the quarterfinals. They never had a chance of winning the World Cup and none of that fell on the shoulders of Messi.
 
Since leaving South Africa, Messi, with Barcelona, has won everything there is to win in club football, and added three more Ballon D'Or awards.

He has consistently succeeded in the most competitive tournament, the Champions League, the sport has to offer.

He is described by many as one of the greatest players to play the game but suddenly he is removed from such a camp, by some, the closer a World Cup gets to starting, when a new hurdle is put in his path to reach the pantheon of greatness; a hurdle he simply cannot jump himself.

Messi's countryman, Ossie Ardiles, who won the World Cup in 1978, hit the headlines last week with this gem of a quote:

"To be considered alongside the top, top guys like Pele and Diego Maradona and so on, Messi not only needs to be in the World Cup but to win it."

Mr Ardiles isn't the only one who feels this way, of course, and in fact there is an alarming chance he is in the majority rather than the minority when it comes to this topic.

What a pity. And while we are on this quote, who is 'so on' exactly?

When Pele played, the World Cup was everything. He changed the sport and is arguably the greatest player to play the game. The World Cup made him the global star that he simply couldn't reach himself at Santos.

Maradona graced four World Cups and is forever remembered as the face of Mexico 1986. It is fitting for a man so talented that he had that event to catapult him towards the legends of the game but many who celebrate Maradona's greatness, because of those 30 days in Mexico, often, conveniently, forget his 1982 and 1994 World Cups ended in disgrace. 1990? Don't let their runner-up spot fool you. His team was even worse than Messi's 2010 side and his performances weren't even close to the ones shown by Barcelona's current star in South Africa.

There is no disputing Maradona's greatness on the field but if the guardians of football history and, subsequently, the makers of reputations are going to base so much on what happens at World Cups then they need to be fair about it. 

In a sport that cares so often about who wins and loses this seems like an impossible task.

Only one team can lift the trophy when it all finishes on July 11. Of course, Messi will be considered as one of the true greats if that team proves to be Argentina but why should we wait to find out what some of his flawed teammates can do for him before we give him such an honour?

Just because Maradona, Pele and 'so on' won the World Cup?

The game is full of true, elite greats who never did. Pele and Maradona call Alfredo Di Stefano the most complete player ever and what of Johan Cruyff, who was magnificent in the 1974 World Cup and did everything but win the tournament?

Rather than holding the World Cup to a higher standard that some cannot reach, those who lean on individual quality, should enjoy its beauty at producing other stars whose solo acts can carry their teams far.

Garrincha, Eusebio, Cruyff, Paolo Rossi, Toto Schillaci, Roberto Baggio, Romario, Davor Sukur, Ronaldo, Oliver Kahn, Fabio Cannavaro, Diego Forlan and David Villa are just some examples of that. Some won, some didn't. Some are true greats, some aren't.

Their reputations were enhanced by their World Cup play but also because their team was able to get to the final week of the event.

Neither Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo needs to win a World Cup to be graced amongst the greatest ever. It appears, before the tournament already starts, that Ronaldo doesn't have the team to get him to the trophy, and if the tournament proves the same for Argentina why should Messi be judged differently to Ronaldo?

This special group, created by the likes of Ardiles, that features Maradona, Pele and 'so on' is a hindrance to football history and an ignorance to the game itself.




Golfer Taylor Pendrith is the highest ranked player on Canada's men's national team. The recent graduate of Kent State University is 18th on the world amateur rankings. More...

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