IN FOOTBALL, old clichés die hard. And in a World Cup where Belgium have been mentioned as dark horses more often than Black Beauty and Red Rum combined, we are growing tired of the frequent references to how Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have to produce the goods in Brazil to tick the one unmarked box in their outstanding careers.
It is nonsense of course. Even if Messi had failed to deliver those stunning, match-winning goals against Bosnia and Iran, he could still justifiably claim to be one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Yet for many he needs a World Cup winner’s medal before he is considered an equal of either Pele’s or Maradona’s – whose status as the best the sport has produced has been set in stone for decades.
Still, while their brilliance has never been in doubt, some uncomfortable truths have been airbrushed out of history. First to Pele, scorer of 77 goals in 92 internationals, and blessed with an extraordinary array of skills which brought him to four World Cup tournaments and has left him as the only man to hold three winners medals.
Time hasn’t diluted the size of those achievements yet the fact of the matter is that in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, he played just twice, doing remarkably well in Brazil’s opening game against Mexico before he picked up a muscle injury in their next outing against Czechoslovakia, ending his tournament.
It was left to others – notably Vava and Garrincha – to carry the flame which they did effortlessly, Vava becoming the first man in World Cup history to score in the final of two World Cups, before Pele, Paul Brietner and Zinedine Zidane emulated the feat.
Contemporary reports list Vava as the brightest star of Brazil’s 1958 winning team although Pele – scorer of the winning goal in the quarter-final, of a hat-trick in the semis and of two goals in the final – provided the Hollywood script, being at 17, the then youngest player to feature in a World Cup.
Whether he was a better player than Garrincha, though, is open to debate. But certainly he was a better story when he came back in 1970 – after his personal disappointments of 1962 and 1966 – to reach a second World Cup final and redemption in Mexico City.
Significantly, that tournament was the first to be televised live around the globe and the colour images of Pele attempting to lob the Czechoslovakian goalkeeper, Ivo Viktor, from the half-way line before he later sold the Uruguayan keeper, Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, an outrageous dummy provided visual evidence of his skill, whereas we largely depend on hearsay to be convinced of Garrincha’s and Vava’s brilliance.
With this in mind, there is little doubt Pele’s career was a triumph of circumstance as well as skill – the 1970 World Cup being much more widely seen than the 1962 one, while the presence of Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostão and Rivelino in that 1970 team helped him reach loftier heights than previously possible.
Clearly a great, the question of whether he is the greatest deserves to be scrutinized. He never played club football in Europe – whereas Alfredo di Stefano did – scoring 307 goals in 396 matches for Real Madrid, where he won eight Spanish championships, to go along with the five titles he had previously won in Argentina and Colombia. Five European Cups complete his medal collection – yet he didn’t play in a World Cup, never mind win one.
Accordingly, Di Stefano’s name has not bridged the generation gap the way Pele’s has. With his exploits not captured on colour television, his name remains locked in a period of time rather than transported forward to today.
Lately, however, Di Stefano’s name has returned to conversation, chiefly because his records are being broken by Messi and Ronaldo.
And when you assess the damage Messi has done to Spanish and European defences over the last nine years, you have to wonder if we are witnesses to the ultimate master of this sport. Twice he has won the Champions League, twice the World Club Cup and on six occasions, La Liga. His return of 354 goals from 425 games for Barcelona speaks for itself.
Maradona – his hero – finished his career with 95 fewer club goals and has already been surpassed by the number of goals Messi has scored in international football. Yet Maradona is still regarded as Messi’s superior, chiefly because of what he did in 1986, when Mexico, again, provided the setting.
The perception is that he did it on his own in that tournament – an impression re-enforced when you watch the YouTube videos of how he slalomed around English and Belgian defenders to score four goals in the quarters and semis. The only person to lend him a Hand – it seemed – was God.
But again history has a habit of removing some vital details. Maradona may have supplied the pass for the winning goal in the World Cup final, but it was Jorge Burrachaga who scored it, just as it was Pedro Pasculli who got the winner in the round of 16 game against Uruguay and Jose Brown and Jorge Valdano who scored Argentina’s first two goals in the 1986 final.
A one man team? It may surprise you to learn that Valdano enjoyed a marginally more successful club career than Maradona – winning two Spanish titles and two UEFA Cups. Six others who started against West Germany – Nery Pumpido, Hector Enrique, Oscar Ruggeri, Sergio Bastia, Ricardo Giusti and Burruchaga – won the Copa Libertadores – a prize which eluded Maradona.
So too did the European Cup – and between them Di Stefano, Messi and Ronaldo have won that competition nine times and yet for so many the World Cup remains the trophy that defines the greatest – if not greatness. Should Messi and Argentina prevail next month, all arguments can end.