There are 91 reasons why Messi is greatest


Tough crowd, those Argentine journalists.

They annually select the country's top athlete, an award called, "Olimpia de Oro." I'm guessing many of them mixed too much Fernet into the nightly cocktail before voting this year.

Sergio Martinez won the distinction, a middleweight boxing champion who knocked out Matthew Macklin in March and defeated Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. by unanimous decision in September at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The latter fight was a mismatch until the 12th round, which was terrific.

One great round. Olimpia de Oro.

Huh?

Sebastian Crismanich was second in voting. He is a taekwondo fighter who won the South American country's only gold medal at the London Olympics. I could actually make an argument for him winning the award, given how beloved Olympic champions are in small countries.

Lionel Messi was third.

There is no argument for that. It's too stupid.

Messi might have established himself this year as the world's best soccer player.

Ever.

He is certainly a part of the discussion today, having moved into the sacred pitch occupied by Pele and Diego Maradona. Messi is in the conversation now. He's that incredible.

The time has come to produce annual lists of the greatest athletic achievements from the previous 12 months, of remembering what made sports so notable from January until now.

We are sure to mention LeBron James winning his first NBA championship, and Adrian Peterson being on the brink of unthinkable NFL history given major knee surgery, and sprinter Usain Bolt backing up his spectacular Beijing Olympic performance four years later in London.

Messi's efforts will likely also be recognized, but I'm not convinced they will be given proper placement among others.

He set the record for most goals in a calendar year with 91, besting the 85 scored by Gerd Muller in 1972.

The record stood for four decades.

"We will," Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova said when describing his star, "never see a player like him again."

Question: Have we throughout the game's history?

It's no different than debating who is the best quarterback of all time or the best hitter or the best shooting guard. Statistics from different eras always make it a subjective exercise, but the fact Messi just finished the greatest individual season in history playing the world's game on its biggest stage speaks to his phenomenal skill.

How we can be sure we have seen history's greatest NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball player when so few countries play those sports at a professional level?

We know who the best soccer player is. Messi. Every nation plays the game at some level. Billions of people know Messi, want to be him, want to become him as a player.

It's the apples and oranges argument. Pele scored 760 official goals and won three World Cups for Brazil. Maradona captained Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986 and is arguably the greatest dribbler in history.

Messi, however, competes at the game's highest level in an era of bigger, stronger, faster players when performance-enhancing drugs have become commonplace throughout the sporting arena.

He does it all at 5 feet 7 inches. He's a tiny man with the talents of a giant.

But he hasn't won a World Cup, and that more than anything stops most from placing Messi alongside Pele and Maradona. Messi hasn't been unreal when playing for the national team, but consider that World Cup matches are far more defensive and conservative than any in the Champions League.

Messi gets fouled more than Pele ever did and yet remains healthy and fit. Pele played in a time of little defensive pressure, when teams merely changed possession for most of 90 minutes. He never played in a European league.

There is more attacking today, more pressing forward, more scoring. The quality of play is far better now.

Messi is to soccer what Barry Sanders was to the other type of football, an athlete who rarely takes direct contact. Messi has arguably the greatest balance of anyone in history. He never slows when changing direction, never possesses a ball that doesn't remain inches from his foot.

The best soccer players usually reach their peak at age 27 or 28. Messi is 25. Yeah. Scary.

He is part of a Barcelona team with arguably the world's three best players and five of the top 10, a collection of small, skilled midfielders whose passing and attacking style is rivaled by none.

They are a bunch of John Stocktons to his Karl Malone.

It's true. Messi probably wouldn't have scored 91 goals on a different, less talented team. But he did, and for it he now deserves to be part of the conversation when debating the greatest players in history.

No matter what those drunk Argentine journalists say.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

 

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