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On Messi as the greatest of all time

Watching Barça’s spectacular fall at Anfield on Tuesday, I remembered the other times they have crumpled in the Champions League: the 4-0 defeat to PSG, the 3-0 defeats in both Turin and Rome. These are results that are at odds because they are surrendered by a great team with supposedly the best player of all time. Not that Messi was the biggest culprit in any of those matches, but you couldn't you say it was like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, as it had been just a few days earlier in the Camp Nou. The tumble and fall at Anfield was more like Silence of the Lambs and one of those lambs was Messi, just he was in Paris, in Turin and in Rome.

The definition of greatness

Of course, Messi is a wonderful player – I just have to close my eyes and I can visualise him weaving all number of wonders. Yet there’s something missing: when the going gets really tough he just isn’t the same. One day I heard Sacchi talk about what a fully realised footballer is, whether they are average, good or great: “A player for every era, every area of the pitch, and every pitch.” After nights like the one at Anfield, and it's not the first, I have to ask myself if Messi fits that description. In cases like this my mind goes back to Di Stéfano; I once heard Iñaki Gabilondo say: “When someone is asked about the best player ever and they don’t say Di Stéfano, I know they didn’t see him play.”

Genius

Naturally, we all lean towards the first genius we set our eyes on. I’m someone who caught Di Stéfano and Pelé and tend to play down the impression younger generations have of Cruyff, Maradona and now Cristiano and Messi, particularly the magic of the latter. But year after year in the Champions League, and with one World Cup after the next, and Copa América upon Copa América, it seems that the finest specimens end up choking. Every time it happens, I recall Sacchi: a player for every era, every area of the pitch, and every pitch. I’m not sure Messi fits that definition. Di Stéfano certainly does.