Why Lionel Messi doesn’t need to win the World Cup to be considered the best of all time

1. Lionel Messi needs to win a World Cup to be the best player of all time.
2. Lionel Messi hasn’t won a World Cup yet.
3. Therefore, Lionel Messi is not the best player of all time yet.

When it comes to discussing who’s the best player of all time and if Lionel Messi could be considered a candidate for that title, the argument above or a very similar argument is often heard. In this essay, I try to analyse the argument and argue that it’s not very convincing. In doing that, I’ll use some methods typical for the academic field of analytic philosophy.

First things first: How should we interpret the first premise? Are the people who typically argue like that trying to say that Messi, once he’d have won a World Cup, would automatically become the best player of all time? Is winning a World Cup a sufficient condition for Messi being the best of all time? I do think that, more often than not, this is not what people are trying to say. In most cases, what people mean is that winning the World Cup is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for Messi being the best of all time. He needs to win it in order to be considered the best of all time, but even if he wins it that doesn’t guarantee that he indeed is the best of all time. Therefore, we can re-phrase the first premise of the argument:

1.*Winning the World Cup is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for Lionel Messi being the best player of all time.

Given this understanding of the first premise, the argument is structurally sound. That means, if we accept all its premises, we need to accept the conclusion. As of 2015, Messi fails one of the necessary conditions for being the best player of all time. This directly implies again that as of 2015, Messi can’t be the best of all time.

Now we have to ask yourselves: are we willing to accept the two premises? Do we think that they are true? We can hardly argue with the second premise. In this world Messi hasn’t won a World Cup yet. Maybe in a different, but not very different, world from the one we live in – maybe a world where Ezequiel Lavezzi has better nerves – he did win it. Still the argument is obviously an argument talking about the actual world, the one we live in. In this world, Messi hasn’t won a World Cup yet. So premise 2 is true. If we don’t want to be completely delusional, we have to accept this empirical premise.

So we’re only one step away from concluding that the argument and all its premises are sound and Messi isn’t the best of all time yet. We only have to accept 1*. But this is where the trouble starts. The truth of premise 1 is far less obvious than that of premise 2. We might even reach the conclusion that premise 1 includes concepts that are so murky that we’ll never know whether it’s true or not. „Best of all time“; what should that be? Isn’t that a matter of personal opinion? There are good reasons to be very skeptical about questions like these. I’m not claiming to prove the opposite. Still, I’m going to assume that we are, at least in principle, able to find out if premise 1* is true or not. At least we can ask which reasons there are for accepting or rejecting 1*. This is exactly what I will do. In the end, I’m going to reach the conclusion that all things considered we shouldn’t accept 1*.

Well, why should we accept 1*? What reasons are there for accepting it? We can start by asking the following question: is it only true for the subject Lionel Messi that winning the World Cup is a necessary condition for him being the best of all time, or is it true for every footballer X that winning the World Cup is a necessary condition for him1 being the best player of all time? Just a quick reminder: we’re talking about a necessary, not a sufficient condition. Even if we accept the truth of the

General form of premise 1*: Winning the World Cup is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for X being the best player of all time

this does not entail the absurd conclusion that every player who has won the World Cup is the best player of all time – sorry, Kevin Großkreutz.

Should we accept the general form of premise 1*? Must one, not just Messi, win the World Cup to be considered the best of all time? Here’s what could be said against that assertion: If one really needs to win a World Cup to be considered the best of all time, then no player from a small footballing country has any chance of becoming the best of all time, no matter how good he is. An historic example might be George Best. Originating from Northern Ireland, he had, by all means, no chance of winning a World Cup, no matter how good a player he was. Even if he would have been a much better player than he actually was, much better even than the likes of Pelé, Maradona or Messi, his chances of winning a World Cup remain close to zero. Given the general form of 1*, it means that he had no chance of being the best of all time, no matter how fine a player he was. For me, that is an unacceptable implication. Therefore we should reject the general form of 1* – or at least revise it.

Here’s an attempt to revise it:

1* General 2: Winning the World Cup is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for X being the best player of all time; given that X originates from a major footballing country.

Now the ‘George Best-case’ is excluded. Since he’s not from a major footballing country – a vague but not unintelligible term – winning the World Cup isn’t a necessary condition for him being the best of all time. Still, 1* General 2 does not convince me. Consider the following case:

Lionel Armando Di Stefano: The year 2034, Lionel Armando Di Stefano is an amazing footballer from Argentina, clearly a major footballing country. Sadly he can never win a World Cup, because he has the bad luck of being born into a generation of Argentinian players that are, with the notable exception of himself, utterly incapable. Therefore, he can never be the best of all time, no matter how well he plays.

Again, any principle that implies that L.A. Di Stefano indeed can never be considered to be the best of all time, is unacceptable to me. Every principle that allows the sentence „X can never be considered the best ever, no matter how well he plays“ to be true just has to be false. So, let’s revise the principle again:

1* General 3: Winning the World Cup is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for X being the best player of all time; given that X has a realistic chance of winning the World Cup as far as factors are concerned that aren’t up to him (country of birth, quality of teammates, etc.).

Now, this principle is much more plausible than the ones before. Given the fact that Messi played a World Cup final, we can surely assert that he had a chance of winning the World Cup. If 1* General 3 is true, Messi has to win the World Cup in order to be considered the best of all time. Plus 1* General 3 isn’t as obviously false as some of the other general principles discussed.

Still, why should Messi, or any other player for that matter, have to win a World Cup in order to be considered the best of all time? What’s so special about the World Cup that winning it is a necessary condition for being the best ever? Here are some attempts to argue for the special status of the World Cup:
Biggest stage: The World Cup is the biggest stage in world football. You have to win there to be the best.

Let’s just assume that we have an understanding of what „the biggest stage“ means. It has something to do with playing in front of a global audience, under intense scrutiny by the media, etc.. Let’s further assume that indeed the World Cup is the biggest stage in football. But what is the importance of playing on the biggest stage? Why should a hypothetical player, who is a far better player than Pelé, Messi and Co., who never played on the biggest stage not be a candidate for the title of best player ever? The stage he plays on in itself does not seem to be of importance when it comes to rating a player.

But something about a player needing to prove himself on the biggest stage isn’t too far off. We only know the true quality of a player if we see him play against top-class opponents. In theory, there could be a player who is by far the best ever playing somewhere in the lower leagues, utterly dominating every match he plays in, but because of some strange coincidence he never plays on a big stage, let alone the biggest one. But we wouldn’t be able to truly judge his quality as a player because he’s never tested himself against the very best of opponents. This could provide the basis for a more convincing argument for the special status of the World Cup:

Best opponents argument
1. For a player to be considered the best ever, he needs to have proven himself against top-class opponents.
2. Only by winning the World Cup does one prove oneself against top-class opponents.
3. Therefore: For a player to be considered the best ever, he needs to win a World Cup.

I tend to accept the first premise. As I said, the best player ever may have never played against top-class opponents, but we couldn’t possibly know that he’s the best ever.

However, the second premise doesn’t convince me. That is for two reasons: first, for quite some time now, the World Cup isn’t the only stage where one can prove oneself against top-class opponents. The UEFA Champions League immediatly comes to mind. But even the two or three biggest domestic leagues in Europe feature so many excellent players and teams that one could argue that you have tested yourself against top-class opponents if you have played really well in those matches. For example: if you played a dozen or more Clasicos and performed really well in most of them, you have clearly tested yourself against top-class opponents. This leads me to my second reason why the „Best opponents argument“ does not convince me: Even if the World Cup would be your only chance to play against top-class opponents, it can’t possibly be about winning it. You can prove yourself against top-class opponents without winning the tournament. Even if we accept a very demanding version of „to prove yourself against top-class opponents“ that reads „to show yourself clearly superior to top-class opponents“ it is highly implausible that you can only do that by winning the whole thing. Firstly, because a World Cup only consists of a few matches and some bad luck, woeful refereeing or other things that you can’t control can keep you from winning it even if you’re significantly better than your opponent. Secondly, because football is a team game. If your team just isn’t good enough to win the World Cup, you’re screwed because you cannot do it on your own. You can make the difference and lead a team to World Cup glory that wouldn’t have won without you, but you cannot win the whole thing on your own. Maybe, in theory, you can, but there has never been a football player, not Pelé, not Di Stefano, not Messi, who was that good. In real life, no player can win a World Cup on his own.

Or so you would think. Many people claim that there has been a case of one player winning a World Cup on his own. Well, not literally on his own obviously , but with a vastly inferior team. They point to Diego Maradona and the 1986 World Cup. I’m not convinced. Maradona obviously had an outstanding World Cup in 1986, but his team wasn’t that bad. It featured a very solid defensive block and some quality attacking players like Burruchaga and Valdano. To say that he won it on his own is just not accurate.

It should be obvious to everybody taking just a bit of time thinking about the issue, that no matter how good you are as an individual player, there is no guarantee of you winning a tournament like the World Cup. Plus, the best way to argue for the importance of the World Cup in discussions about who is the best player ever, seems to lie in pointing to the fact that you face excellent opponents in a World Cup. But the same applies to the Champions League or El Clasico. The second premise of the Best opponents argument is therefore false.

The obvious question now arising is of course: Well, has Messi proven himself against top-class opponents, be it at a World Cup or somewhere else? There can be only one answer to this: Yes, he has. It is a mistake often made to reduce Messi to the goals he scores, but in this case it is helpful pointing out that we are talking about the all-time top scorer of both the Champions League and El Clásico. When playing against the best of opponents he regularly delivers outstanding perfomances. I’d grant that we haven’t seen the best version of Messi at a World Cup yet (although by all standards except the one’s he keeps setting, he had two very strong tournaments) but as it turns out that isn’t a necessary condition for calling him the best ever anyway.

To sum things up: there may have been a time when the World Cup was the only place where all the best players of the world met. Under those circumstances, it would have been understandable to argue that a player needed to prove himself there. But even back then, winning the whole thing could not possibly have been a necessary condition for a player to be considered the best ever. Nowadays, and one might add: for some time, the best players compete against each other on a far more regular basis. The Champions League features basically all of them. And even some domestic matches, especially El Clásico, see a staggering number of world class players playing against each other. For a player to be considered the best of all time, he has to prove himself under those circumstances. Messi did so during the last 7 years or so. He did so time and time again. Of course I’d need to say more to make a convincing case for him actually being the best ever, but if what I argued in this essay is correct, the fact that he hasn’t won a World Cup yet, shouldn’t stop us from placing him at the very top.

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