Brian GlanvilleAs the plaudits shower on the gifted Lionel Messi, why do I keep thinking about Ron Clarke, a largely forgotten Australian athlete? A middle distance runner who, between Olympiads, set record after record, but who, when it came to the Olympic Games themselves, never came close to a gold medal? Anticlimax after four years anti-climax.

So where is the analogy with Messi, author of those five glorious goals? A somewhat distant one, I admit. Simply that for all his brilliance with Barcelona he made scant impact for Argentina in the 2010 World Cup.

Decent enough performances early on, no impact in the crushing defeat by Germany. Afterwards he insisted he was satisfied with his own performance and he didn’t as some people did, put any blame on Maradona as manager.

The fact seemed to be that where he has such a free rein at Barcelona, popping up so incisively in attack wherever he wants to, under Maradona he was confined to being a more lateral position. Was there at the bottom of this a competitive urge in Maradona, whether he realised it or not, unwilling to see his own World Cup thunder stolen?

For how could it be? Those two matchless solos at the Azteca in 1986 against England and Belgium. His essential contribution in Argentina’s path to the Final four years later although, for much of the time, he was virtually playing on one leg.

But if the World Cup like the Olympics is the ultimate criterion, how can the best of the best be anybody but Pele?

I was privileged enough to see him excel in two such tournaments, the first in Sweden in 1958 at the astonishingly early age of 17, when, after a hat trick against France in the semi final, he scored two spectacular goals against Sweden in the Final in Stockholm; the first coolly and calmly juggling the ball in a penalty box crowded with hefty Swedes before driving his right footed shot home, the second with a glorious header, soaring above the defence, though he stood no better than 5 foot 8.

With all due deference to the splendid Messi, when did he ever head a goal like that; or like the one Pele headed to put Brazil ahead against Italy in the World Cup final of 1970 in Mexico City? Not to mention the two jewelled diagonal passes he gave later in the game to the right, enabling Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto to score.

Pele for me was simply incomparable and were I to choose a runner up, it would be Alfredo Di Stefano, the third Argentine on the short role of honour. But then, Di Stefano never played in the World Cup finals.

As a youngster he left his native Buenos Aires to make money for a while in Bogota, Colombia who were then out of FIFA and could pay as they pleased; nor not play at all when it came to transfer fees. Then as we know, Di Stefano, when Colombia came back into the fold, took off for Spain and triumphantly, autocratically, ubiquitously led Real Madrid to five consecutive triumphs in the first European Cups, here there and dazzlingly everywhere a miracle of pace, stamina and versatility.

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Forgive me if I don’t join the ecstatic chorus of praise for the recent documentary QPR: the four-year plan.

What right have I to pass judgement on a documentary? Well, I did conceive and write the BBC TV programme European Centre Forward, mostly shot in Turin, its protagonist the England ex-centre forward Gerry Hitchens, which won the silver bear award at the 1963 Berlin film festival. And in 1966 I wrote the commentary for the official World Cup film, Goal!

It was typical of the blinkered arrogance of Flavio Briatore, the tycoon who had had his troubles in Italy, and later would be drummed out of Formula 1 for deliberately instigating a crash. He was revealed in all his vanity; the fly on the wall technique certainly delivered remarkable moments, but where was the context?

Why did we have just one evanescent sight of Bernie Ecclestone, who was supposed to have put some of his immense wealth into the club? Why did we learn nothing of the billionaire steel mogul Mittal who was also supposed to be bank rolling the club; though we did see his conscientious relative who tried at least to bring an element of sanity into the proceedings.

Why was it not emphasised that Gianni Paladini, who acted as a kind of chorus to Briatore as Chairman, had no money in the club and hence no real power? It might even have been mentioned, though it had happened before the documentary was made, that he’d been threatened with a gun before a match by people who demanded he signed himself out of office? A case which came to criminal court but bewilderingly resulted in no convictions.

Why were we not told that Paulo Sousa, so shabbily turned out of office simply because he said he’d not known that one of his stars had been moved out, was a famous Portuguese international in his day? A fly on the wall can see only so much, despite its compound eyes and I wish we had been told more.

By Brian Glanville


  • Peter

    Messi is a big time name, legal name of a past not forgotten and brought so many emotions

  • Mark Rojinsky

    The early ’70s were pioneering years. I remember those original, flamboyant Dutch teams, Feyenoord and Ajax who played with such flair. My favourite player at the time was Johann Cruyff. In appearance the gaunt, Chaucerian Cruyff resembled a medieval Dutchman. His perforamnce against Brazil in the 1974 World Cup semi-final was very exciting. The West German forward Gunter Netzer was also a phenomenally powerful star – all flowing blond hair, thick thighs combined with an amazing ability to lead the attack for West Germany against England in the ’72 European Nations’ Championship. Perhaps the fair-haired Carlos Babington of Huracan and the hippie-ish Ruben Ayala [both of whom featured at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany]are subtler examples of classical Argentinian talent than either Maradona or even Messi? Ayala of Atletico Madrid was one of the most dangerous strikers in Europe whilst Babington played remarkably well against Italy in the ’74 tournament.

  • Wil Blythe

    Messi has 42 goals in 32 games in spain i think…hes won the champions league twice and was the star man all the way through both of them campaigns..I think his best performance or up there was when man utd knocked barca out of the semis(under rijkaard at the time) and he was playing injured -they simply could not get the ball fairly.

  • Jonathan Kan

    Mr. Glanville:

    I regularly read your works since 1990’s, and I owe you most of my Football History knowledge. Messi indeed still has some way to go before he can be considered the greatest. However, here’re several points I beg to differ.

    1. If the Ron Clarke metaphor could apply to Messi, it should also apply to Di Stéfano as well. Even though he never play at the World Cup finals, he did play at the qualifiers for Spain, and the performance in 1958 qualifiers was far from satisfactory. Even the team boasts an all conquering forward line in Kubala, Gento, Luis Suárez, and himself, they were held 2-2 draw by Switzerland at Santiago Bernabeu. Then in second match at Hampden Park, with the same forward line, they even lost 2-4 to Scotland. Di Stéfano was scoreless in both critical matches, even though the La Roja recovered and win all the rest of the match, it was too little too late. Messi on the other hand, never had such a dismal World Cup qualifiers performance!

    2. As your works stated, many footballers and managers at the time argued that Di Stéfano was even better than Pelé, due to his all around ability, and his five consecutive European Cups. Which prove that winning the World Cup is not the only measurement of Greatness. Even nowadays winning five consecutive European Cups is almost impossible given the Champions League format, Messi already has three (two as first team regular if you want to be picky, but keep in mind he play a pivotal role in 05/06 first knockout round against Mourinho’s Chelsea) European Cups under his belt, accumulate more than five European Cups is possible for Messi.

    3. Let’s go back to the Ron Clarke metaphor. Middle distance running is an individual sport, while football is a team sport. In 1958, Pelé was surround by great players like Didi, Garrincha, Zito, Vavá , Nílton Santos, Djalma Santos, Zagallo, and Gilmar. That Brazilian team was so good that even Pelé was injured at most of the 1962 World Cup match, Brazil still carried on and win it all without him. Messi enjoy a similar luxury at Barça but not in Argentina national team. 2010 and current La Albiceleste was even more top heavy than 1970 Brazil, only got a lots of great strikers but sub par or over-the-hill midfielders and defenders. Had Messi choose Spain instead of Argentina in 2005, he would receive same support as in Barça, he could have won a World Cup and European Championship, perhaps even 2006 World Cup as well and became the undisputed “The Greatest Ever”.

    4. Finally, management. In 1986 and 1990 World Cup, Bilardo tailor made the Argentina national team for Maradona. He was well cover by a pack of hard men, therefore he could given a free rein to direct the attack. In 2010 Maradona wanted to repeat the same trick, but the defensive players was simply not good enough to provide cover for Messi, and Germany took them apart. In 2006 quarter-finals, late in the game when Germany and Argentina tie at one goal apiece, Pekerman used his last substitutions quota, replace Hernán Crespo with…Julio Cruz! Argentina lost penalty kick shot out at the end. Who know what might have been if Messi was given the chance? Argentina in 2006 processed a younger and more well balance team, it was Pekerman, rather than Messi, who blew his best chance to win the World Cup.

    Messi is not the “Greatest among Greatests” (Di Stéfano, Pelé, Beckenbauer ,Cruyff, and Maradona belong to this category) yet, he currently belong to one of the “All time Greats” (at the same class of Puskás, Eusébio, Bobby Charlton, Best, Platini, Zico, van Basten etc.,) already. Winning more European Cups alone would push Messi to the higher level. Winning at least one World Cup certain help, but given the current sorry state of Argentinean football (depleted talent pool, no more quality player down the pipeline), sadly even winning Copa América would be a bridge too far for Messi.

    Regards,

    Jonathan Kan

  • Leslie van Kramberg

    I must acknowledge the wealth of knowledge Mr Glanville has re football and at the same time also note that sometimes I just don’t know how he forms his opinions on certain issues not close to his heart,maybe if Messi was English,the hyperbolic English media,of which he is part of, would have bestowed the title of ‘Greatest’ upon him with disregard to World cups won or not.

  • Daniel scott

    I would say that messi’s goal against manchester united in rome 3 years ago fitted the same criteria that pele’s did. Leaping high into the air inbetween vidic and ferdinand, 2 large and very talented defenders, and delicately lobbing the ball over van der sar into the opposite corner. It was a beautiful moment and it was at the highest level of todays game

  • Russ Snyder

    Mr Glanville

    Interesting article.

    I was never able to see Mr Di Stefano, nor Mr Puskas or Mr Matthews for that matter….but I was lucky enough to see an older Pele, and I must concur with you. His gazellian grace, super quick moves with and w/o ball and deadly shot (did I mention a perfect passer to boot?) …..still equal’s the best of the best in my mind, if you will.

    If I could rank, in order of chronology, not best, of whom I have seen that I feel follow Pele’s footsteps, however large those footsteps may be…

    Pele
    Eusabio – a deadly combo of grace, skill and power. Las Vegas in the NASL was his sad demise. I was there that night.
    Johan Cryuff – magestic
    George Best – although I saw an older shaggy haired Best play for the Ft lauderdale strikers, he was incredilbe.
    Franz Beckenbauer – Kaiser was cool headed and never misplaced a pass
    Maradona – a human tank of great skill
    Zidanne – before his incredibly dumb red card in WC 2006, twas thought of highly in these parts
    Messi – simply fantastic in modern day terms

    What strikes me about Messi is the support he has with Barcalona. Seemingly co-joined twins separated at birth, Xavi & Inesta, the skill of recent add Fabregas, allows Messi to run in a cycle if you will, playing off those tremendous server’s, and playing wonderful service to them. What does this all mean?

    If Argentina would somehow allow Messi to ‘play the cycle’ and not be wasted/crowded up front with a Higuien/Aguerro/Tevez conglomerate…then maybe Lionel would grab that elusive 4 year prize.

    Time will Tell, Mr Glanville, time will tell…

    All the best.
    Russ Snyder