For the last two years I’ve watched my way through (male) football history. I wrote about what I saw in a series of blogposts on Teams of the Decades. Starting in 2015 and working my way back in five year steps, I concluded that project this April with the Team of the Decade 1950-1960.
This blogpost is the second and final one of a mini-series of extra blogposts that are intended to bring closure to the whole project. In the first one I compiled what I think is the best team in football history. In this one I will write about who is, in my (hopefully educated) opinion, the best football player of all time, whereby “all time” is defined as 1950-2017. (Impossible to judge before that.)
Now, before we get to the real discussion there are a few preliminary points to be mentioned.
First of all, my customary note of caution. Ranking football players is not an exact science. There is always a degree of subjectivity about it. Having said that, it is not entirely subjective either. Some answers to the question who was the best football player ever are plain wrong (me, for example). While there is no way in which the best ever debate will ever be solved, educated opinions are possible. What I try to present here is just that.
Secondly, how do I define “best”? I can’t give you an exact definition, but both quality and quantity of performance matters. And nothing else. Titles, public perception, artistic qualities – all fine and well, but not relevant to the question who was the best. To be a candidate for the best ever title you have to perform really well and do so for a considerable timespan. In theory, the best player ever need not have won anything ever. Luckily, football (history) is not a black box. We don’t have to infer from titles and stories who might have been the best. We can just watch the matches and form an opinion of our own. That is what I did.
Thirdly, in what follows I will write about four players who are candidates for the title of best ever and some other who, for one reason or another, miss out on being a member in this exclusive circle. What do they all have in common? They are attacking(-ish) players. Now that should raise some suspicion. Have I simply overlooked more defensive players like so many do? Maybe, but not quite. First of all, I’m well aware that football history contained many outstanding defensive players (Beckenbauer, Baresi, Busquets, etc.!). But two things stopped me from including one in my top four. I don’t think any defensive player was quite as good at defending as, for example, Pelé was at attacking. Maybe there is a structural reason for that. I’m not quite sure myself, but bear with me: the perfect defender guarantees you at least a draw. But the perfect attacker guarantees you a win (at least in combination with a half-competent defense). Now this is all very sketchy and open to many objections but I think the basic notion might be true: the influence of the best of attackers is less limited than those of the best defenders. Now, the perfect footballer, of course, would be somebody who could attack and defend and everything in between, but… we’ll talk about Di Stéfano later on.
There is a second reason why no defensive players feature in this discussion. Comparing them to more attacking players is just very hard. Even harder than comparisons across different eras in my opinion. I will just give you, dear reader, the choice: if you want this article to be more reputable in content, just add a “attacking-ish” to every mention of “best player ever”. If you want to go for the wider scope or are convinced that my arguments are basically correct, you can understand me as talking about all players post 1950.
Finally, a short note on comparing players from different eras. Football has evolved and so have the players. Not only did become tactics better, but players are much better trained and physically more fit than they were, for example, 40 years ago. When I compare players from different eras, I try to account for these changes. A player from the 50s, for example, will be considered to have lots of pace even if he is slower than most modern players. However, I won’t deny that comparing players from different eras is hard and I will not be able to do justice to all players. I’ll just do my best.
A Few Words on Some Players Who Miss Out
…is probably the most influential figure in post-war football history. A groundbreaking player in many ways, but not a model pro. Now, that alone should not speak against him, but it did affect his career. His peak ended prematurely and all things considered too early to merit inclusion. His decision making was also a bit too idealistic.
Now he is a model pro! And, yet again, that shows in his performances. He is an über-reliable goal machine… and little else. Most actions that happen on a football field are only indirectly related to scoring goals. He participates in them too little. Also, his decision making was very questionable until he became a more rational player in his early 30s.
A wonderfully iconic player. Definitely one of my favourites. But way too hit and miss to be a real candidate. A player for (very) special moments but not for the day-in-day-out greatness that is required to become a best ever candidate.
Talent-wise he could’ve become a candidate. But as we all know, his body didn’t allow it. Maybe his decision making was a bit too questionable, too.
He actually comes close to achieving candidate status. A tremendous output over many years at the highest level. I think he just lacked a bit of magic to rival the four selected players.
There are, in my opinion, four players who have a credible claim to be the best player in football history. They are in chronological order: Alfredo Di Stéfano, Pelé, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi.
(No euro-centrism here!)
All four of them are amazingly talented forwards who had, or in Messi’s case: still have, fine careers during which they proved their worth time and time again. They scored lots of goals but did so much more than that. I have written about their playing styles before. Di Stéfano was a part of the Team of the Decade 1955-1965 and named Best Player of the Decade for the 1950s Team. Pelé was a starter for the 1965-1975 Team of the Decade and was named Player of the Decade twice, for the ’55-’65 and the ’60-’70 Team. Maradona made the first team for the 1985-1995 Team of the Decade and was singled out as the standout player of the 80s. Messi was Player of the Decade for the 2005-2015 timespan and will be included in the 2010s Team as well. (Surprise!)
Since I’ve already described their general playing style in the aforementioned blogposts I will not repeat that. In what follows I will point out what’s so special about them before finally ranking them. Doing that I will make plenty of comments on their playing style but it is not my intention to write a full portrait on any of them.
What Makes Them Special?
The most basic answer to that question is: in my opinion, they were the four players with the highest combined score of quality and quantity of performance. However, in what follows I will make some short comments on what qualifies them in particular.
I don’t see how it could be possible to quantify raw talent. But if it were, my impression is that Diego Armando Maradona might just have the highest talent score in the history of football. That directly implies that I consider him even more talented than the other three candidates. The way he interacts with the ball is just so natural. Like it actually is a part of his body. The fact that he was a child prodigy who entertained audiences with his mastery of the ball fits that observation. In his best moments he was the ultimate Argentinian football genius, playing with passion and neverending inventiveness. His best moments are quite likely to be the best moments anybody’s ever had on a football field. Think of his legendary second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. None of the other candidates have scored a goal of that quality at that big a stage. (Has anybody?) Comparing his talent to that of Messi is difficult because they are very similarly talented but in the end, I think Diego’s gifts might just have been slightly bigger.
Alfredo Di Stéfano
In some ways Di Stéfano is the odd one out in this exclusive circle. Pelé’s, Maradona’s and Messi’s playing styles are rather similar. Sure, there are some differences but looking at the bigger picture they fill kind of the same role. Di Stéfano is different. That is what makes comparisons between him and the other three particularly difficult. The other three can be described as variations of the dribbling, scoring and creating second forward. Di Stéfano, on the other hand, is Mr. Total Football (the father to Cruyff’s son and Michels’ Holy Spirit). Even the basic description of forward or attacking player is not necessarily correct in his case. He was a holistic playmaker, rather than focussing on the final third like the other three. He dropped extremely deep, sometimes into his own box, and guided the whole attacking move into the danger area. And he did way more defending than the other three (maybe combined). His general profile is closer to that of the ultimate all-round footballer than those of Pelé, Maradona and Messi.
The default candidate for the title of best football player ever. Pelé is surely the best athlete among the four candidates. I think he was faster, stronger and taller… wait, he actually was not taller than the other three. Di Stéfano was 5 cm taller than him, Pelé was only 1,73m. I must say I’m quite surprised by that. But my surprise really only underlines my general point that Pelé was a fantastic athlete. For example, he was the only one of the four to pose any kind of aerial threat. Sure, Messi’s and Maradona’s physique suited their playing style just well but all things considered Pelé comes closer to having the ultimate body for an attacking player. Also, Pelé was extremely good at a very early age. He produced absolute masterclasses in the 1958 World Cup, age: 17. I’m very confident in saying that he was the best 17-year old player in the history of the game. Pelé is no total all-rounder like Di Stéfano but when it comes to the more restricted field of qualities that are typical for a forward, Pelé was really complete. Amazing goalscorer, fantastic dribbler but also really creative.
Doing great things on the football pitch is great. Obviously. Obvious, as well, is that all four candidates did plenty of great things during their career. Just look at their highlight reels and every one of them will blow you away. However, there are great things and there are right things. If you do a great thing on the football pitch, most of the time that will be the right thing as well. But not every player who does some great things does also do a lot of right things. “Genius comes at a price” – you hear that often when people talk about the great football artists. With Lionel Messi, that is not the case. His whole game is infused with a deep rationality. He does what needs to be done. Sometimes that is the most amazing goal you have ever seen, sometimes it is just the simple lay up. Messi’s game is marked by the cool efficiency that is usually reserved for central midfielders like Toni Kroos.
The Big Discussion
I don’t want to put my readers on the rack any longer, so here is how I rank the four candidates:
4th: Diego Maradona
3rd: Alfredo Di Stéfano
1st: Lionel Messi
I have been thinking about the question for some time now, and for about a year or so my ranking of the four players hasn’t changed. This makes me reasonably sure that my opinions on the matter have reached a mature stage in which they are likely to remain as they are for some time to come. However, my judgment is and forever will be a preliminary one. Maybe new evidence or new insights will provide me with reasons to change my verdict. Please feel free to argue your case if you disagree with me.
A note on the degrees of certainty in my ranking: The pick I’m most sure of is the one for the first place. There is very little doubt in my mind that Lionel Messi really is the best player in football history so far. Next in line comes the judgment that Pelé was a better player than Maradona. All verdicts involving Alfredo Di Stéfano, except for the No.1 spot, are made with much less assurance because he is, as I mentioned, in some ways the odd one out in this list. The third place seems about right, but I’m not willing to bet on me changing him to fourth or even second at some point in the future.
In what follows I will explain my choices, which means that I give reasons why I ranked these four players the way I did.
Diego Armando Maradona finishes last in this series. I think he is only the fourth best player of all time. This directly implies that I think he is an absolutely amazing footballer who had great career. Being the fourth best player of all time is by all means a staggering achievement. So when I will elaborate why I didn’t rank him even higher, please keep in mind that I rate him extremely highly and that his fourth place in this ranking is, more than anything else, a testament to his greatness.
I already elaborated on how I think Maradona might have been blessed with the greatest amount of talent of any football player ever. The vast majority of his talent was not wasted. He turned it into a career full of great performances and brilliant triumphs.
I have written longer descriptions of Maradona’s playing style elsewhere, but if you want to summarise what he was all about, the following should be not too far off: Maradona was an extremely skilled attacking player who could both score and create goals through his precise and inventive passing, mazy dribbling and unconventional acts of genius. As I say in my Team of the Decade 1980-1990 piece, Maradona’s playing style did change more than just a bit during his career. In his early days he was relying very much on his “Gambetta” dribblings. Later on, when he was an established superstar and opponents triple-marked him on a regular basis, he went on dribbling runs much more infrequently. Instead he developed an outstanding one-touch game, doing lots of little lay-ups and opening up space for teammates through creative short passes. This proved to be an excellent decision and some of his very best matches, like the World Cup ’86 semi-final between Argentina and Belgium, showcase his more varied style. If you want to watch some of his best performances, I recommend this early Superclasico, this regular Clasico, the aforementioned match against Belgium, and this Napoli match in which Maradona single-handedly destroys the mighty Milan of Arrigo Sacchi.
So why don’t I rank him even higher? You’re aware of this old cliché of the flawed genius? Of course you are. It’s omnipresent in football history. Players like Garrincha, George Best and, for a more recent example, Ronaldinho do fall into this category. They were all fantastically talented and yes, they did produce great feats on the pitch, but they had their inner demons who stopped them from becoming the best possible version of themselves. One day they would produce magic, but on other occasions they fell short. In a more controversial move, I’d also add Johan Cruyff to that list. Yes, a fine, even a great career, but a diva and not a model pro. Not that I care, but it sometimes showed in his game. Diego Armando Maradona, of all the flawed geniuses, is possibly the greatest genius and was the least flawed, at least insofar as he had a long career full of great peaks despite his flaws. But a flawed genius he was. Now, this ranking is about performance and performance alone. This means that for now, I don’t care what a player did off the pitch. This applies to Maradona and his less-than-professional lifestyle as well. But, yet again, it showed on the pitch. Of all the four candidates in my greatest of all time list, Maradona was the least reliable one. His quota of rather subdued performances among the matches I’ve seen is higher than that of Messi, Pelé and Di Stéfano. He was a player who could reach for the stars one week and be lethargic (or off on holiday) the next. (Take this match against Inter as an example.) Some writers, for example Jimmy Burns in his biography of Maradona (“The Hand of God”, of course), go as far as to question his status as an all-time great based on these shortcomings. (I’ve read the book some years ago, please correct me if my memory lets me down.) I think this is rubbish. But they point to a flaw in his otherwise fine portfolio, that is indeed there. They just blow it out of proportion.
Now, again, we are talking about a comparison between players who all played at a surpremely high level. Maradona’s shortcomings sound harsher than they are because they are measured by the superhuman consistency of Di Stéfano, Pelé and, most of all, Messi. The other three were footballing machines. Maradona was very much a human being. With all the highs and lows that come with being human. That is what makes him more of a cult hero than the other three, but that is what ultimately makes him a lesser footballer, too.
A final consideration to strengthen my argument: look at his goalscoring statistics. Unlike Di Stéfano, Pelé and Messi who all reached goal/game quotas of almost 1 (or more) for longer spells of their careers, Maradona (post Boca) never achieved ratios that were considerably higher than 0.5. Now, goal statistics aren’t everything. In fact, the frequent assumption that you can judge an attacking-ish player by his goals, is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about historical players myself. Because most of the arguments around were just too simplistic. But I think in this case, there is a lesson to be learned from comparing Maradona’s statistics with those of the other three. He was not as reliable as a provider of goals as the other three, because he was not as reliable all things considered. Sure, he maybe was a bit more of a midfielder (rather than an attacker) than Pelé and Messi and he played most of his career during the low-scoring 80s (and even in even-lower-scoring Italy), but while these are mitigating factors, I think it remains true that his comparative lack of goals is telling. Let me put it this way: both Maradona and Messi are capable of scoring a hattrick against the best team in the world. But Messi will score another hattrick against the unexciting mid-table team next week. Maradona, not so much.
Next in line: Alfredo Di Stéfano. The mastermind behind the most succesful club side in football history is, in my opinion, the third best player to ever play the game. As I’ve already pointed out, Di Stéfano is the toughest one to judge out of the four candidates. This has to do with the fact that he played most of his football in the 50s, a time from which little footage and very few full matches have survived. Evaluating him properly is therefore very hard. But it’s not just the fact that he finished his career more than 50 years ago, that makes the comparison between him and the others hard. His player profile is also markedly different. Alfredo Di Stéfano was a total footballer. Maradona, Pelé, and Messi weren’t. While those three did the superhuman in the last third of the pitch, Di Stéfano did the superhuman by not restricting himself to any particular part of the pitch. He was Real Madrid’s playmaker, the general who orchestrated his troops. He did so in the final third. He did so in the middle third. And he did so even as far back as his own box. This is basically unmatched in football history.
I like to think of Di Stéfano as conceptually superior to the other three players. When one asks oneself “where should the best player of any given team play?”, one sensible answer seems to be “wherever he can help his team the most”. Everything else being equal, positional restrictions pose an obstacle to fullfilling that goal. When I fantasize about the ultimate footballer, I’m thinking about a player who pops up anywhere, distributing his contributions wherever they are most helpful to the greater cause. Di Stéfano comes as close to this ideal as any player I have ever seen.
One could say something like “with player X, the team has at least half a player more on the field” about any of the four candidates because they were so good that they counted for more than one player. But in Di Stéfano’s case, this statement is even more fitting. Because he did the work of more than one player, his teams really seemed to have a numerical advantage. I have hardly talked about concepts like “work load” in this blog post so far. This is only natural because Maradona, Pelé and Messi did few of the things that are often labeled as “work” on the football pitch. Tracking back, pressing, covering large parts of the field – that is not really part of their expertise. Di Stéfano, on the other hand, is the workhorse among the four candidates. He didn’t need someone to do the running for him. He did his own share and then some. And while doing so, he still reached a goal/game ratio of significantly more than 0.5 and was a creative presence as well. Truly the most exceptional player profile I have ever seen.
So, like Maradona, Di Stéfano possesses a quality that gives him an advantage over all other candidates. Why then doesn’t he rank above Pelé and Messi? The reason is this: while Di Stéfano was a conceptually superior player, I do think he was a technically inferior player to the other candidates. Now, when you read descriptions of Di Stéfano you will come across statements that label him a technically outstanding player. I do agree. But compared to the other three, who are all absolute wizards with the ball, he falls behind. The ball isn’t glued to his feet like it is with Maradona, Pelé, and Messi. His passing, too, can be imprecise. Di Stéfano made the utmost out of his considerable but not limitless talent. But the other three were (rhetorically speaking) touched by God. Di Stéfano was only touched by Di Stéfano.
I said that I am reasonably sure that Messi is indeed the best player of football history so far. This does not imply that I think Messi is much better than Pelé, though. I am 100% sure that Messi is an absolutely amazing player, but so is Pelé. There are relatively few matches in watchable quality from Pelé’s finest days in the early 60s, so please keep this in mind when I discuss which of them is better.
First of all, I want to emphasize that they share a lot of qualities. Both of them produced a good decade’s worth stream of masterclass performances. They scored lots of goals, roughly one every match, with a significant percentage of them being created, not just executed, by themselves. This is an important point. You are a great player if you score lots of goals, but the very best, like Pelé and Messi, create more than a few themselves. Among those goals they created themselves, more than a dozen per player stand out as absolute wondergoals.
But while Pelé and Messi belong to the very best goalscorers of all time, they were also exceptional creators, not just for themselves, but for others as well. Both of them had a strong claim to the title of “best creator” while being the “best executor” at the same time. Both were capable of inventive killer passes that would make the very best classical No.10s very proud.
Both of them were amazing dribblers. Messi is a bit more of the traditional “Gambetta” player while Pelé was a bit flashier. However, he wasn’t nearly as dependent on using tricks as some modern players are. They actually have a shout at being the best and second best dribbler of all time. Players like Garrincha were more famous as dribbling specialists but both Pelé’s and Messi’s dribbling was arguably more purposeful.
Pelé and Messi performed very consistently. Pelé seems to have had a bit more trouble with injuries than Messi had so far, but apart from that, there is little separating them in terms of consistency. Pelé reached the heights a bit earlier than Messi did. He was already a world beater at 17. But Messi was better at 29 than Pelé was. Have a look at the 1970 World Cup and you’ll see a Pelé who is still on par with his fantastic attacking partners, but who no longer truly transcends the world class category. Messi, on the other hand, is still Messi at 29.
Now to the most interesting part: why did I choose Messi ahead of Pelé? I just said that there is little that separates them in terms of consistency. This is true – in a way. But in another sense, it is slightly off the mark.
Imagine somebody would analyse the contributions of Pelé and Messi in an average match during their peak years. The analyst watches the matches, writes down all their notable contributions (obviously all players contribute in a myriad of ways all the time, but let us focus on the more apparent ones) and orders them. Which of them were helpful? And if they were helpful, how helpful were they? Did the player do something right or did he even produce an act of genius? And if he did something wrong, how strongly does this negative contribution speak against him?
If you did that with Pelé and Messi, here are some of the things that I think you will find:
- Both of them produced acts of genius. Absolutely amazing things that mark the outer edge of what is possible on a football field.
- Maybe Pelé even did as many of these genius things as Messi did. And maybe the highest “genius peak” isn’t lower in Pele`s case than it is in Messi’s case.
- However, Messi does very rarely do something wrong. Pelé’s quota of unhelpful actions is small by anyone’s standards, but significantly higher than Messi’s.
- When Messi doesn’t do something genius, he does something right. With Pelé, it is more of a mixed bag.
As I said in the part on Messi’s most outstanding strengths: Messi’s game is marked by the cool efficiency that is usually reserved for central midfielders like Toni Kroos. Pelé’s isn’t. His game is way more stringent, more rational than that of many other great players of the past, but he lacks the all-encompassing rationality of Lionel Messi.
In one of the Team of the Decade pieces, I compared Maradona to Messi and argued that Messi basically is Maradona schooled in La Masia. I still think that this is true. Messi is the first of the über-players of football history who was schooled in what I think is the most advanced (and by now dominant) school of thought in football, the Dutch school of football, based on the teachings of Michels and Cruyff, who first understood the central importance of intellectually understanding the game and adjusting one’s actions accordingly. His playing style knows next to no unnecessary embellishments. His football is thrilling, virtuosic, artful, but only insofar as it needs to be. I argue this point at some length in an essay called “Form Follows Function – On The Rationality of Lionel Messi” and stand by what I said there.
Remember Arsene Wenger talking about Messi being “a playstation player“? I think this is an expression of the same basic point. His game, unlike that of Pelé, knows basically no component that can be classified as “trial and error”. He just seems to have a masterplan in his head of what needs to be done in order to achieve his goal. And he actually possesses the qualities to just pull it off with minimal fuss.
This inherent rationality results in him making very few mistakes. Sure, not every single one of his actions is a success, but you rarely see him do stuff that was irrational. “Oh, he shouldn’t have tried that” – what is a normal sentiment with almost every other attacking player in history is rarely said about Messi. In that, he is indeed closer to players like Kroos and Xavi than to even the most amazing attacking players.
Guardiola has once expressed the same sentiment very well:
Pep talks about Leo. pic.twitter.com/mUINBs572Y
— Diana Kristinne (@DianaKristinne) 8. Juni 2017
So while Messi and Pelé were both very consistent players over the course of their careers, Messi’s consistency was significantly higher when one looks at the individual actions within a match.
A second thing that makes Messi the better player in my eyes: he just is the better passer of the ball. Pelé is a fine passer for someone whose main strength might be his goalscoring prowess but Messi has a claim to be the best creative passer in the history of the game. Both his final balls and his passes in the build-up are not significantly weaker than those of legendary passers like Platini, Laudrup, and Bergkamp. The fact that he became one of the most productive assist providers during the last couple of years mirrors that strength. Messi was roughly as well a passer of the ball during the first few years of his period of dominance as Pelé was but has grown beyond that during recent times. Just look at the endless compilations of him playing one killer pass after the other. If anyone of the big four comes close to that, it is arguably Maradona, not Pelé.
Both of these points are connected. Because Messi is such a rational, focussed player, he can reach a very high level of precision in his actions. And because he can reach such a high level of precision, he is so good at passing the ball.
I personally think Pelé possesses few qualities that Messi hasn’t got as well. He might be physically superior, but then again, Messi’s physique is just perfect for his playing style. Pelé is a better at headers, that is true. But it is not enough to offset Messi’s advantages. Pelé’s career was longer than Messi’s is so far. But I tend to think that Messi already had more standout seasons than Pelé ever had. (Really hard to judge, though.)
I already said that this ranking is about performance and performance only. Facts like that Pelé has won three World Cups to Messi’s zero are therefore not of intrinsic importance and I don’t think they are of substantial extrinsic importance either.
To watch Pelé at his best, look for the 1958 World Cup semi-final against France or, even better, his only full game at the 1962 World Cup. The highlight reel of him playing against European teams is worth watching, too.
One of the very best Messi performances came in 2011 against Real Madrid. (Same goes for the 2nd leg.) For a more recent Clasico masterclass, watch his legendary performance at the Bernabeu in early 2017.
Pelé and Messi produced careers of day-in-day-out brilliance. But I think Messi performed even better and I gave reasons that support this claim.
I therefore think that Lionel Messi is the best football player in history so far.
Here is the updated Best Team of Football History, now with a Best Player:
Manager: Alex Ferguson
Bench: (four players per position) Yashin, Kahn, Schmeichel, Neuer; N.Santos, R. Carlos, Krol, Breitner; Baresi, Scirea, Koeman, Passarella; Nesta, Moore, Desailly, Kohler; Zanetti, D. Santos, Cafu, Thuram; Bozsik, Makelele, Souness, Redondo; Matthäus, Coluna, L. Suarez M., Pirlo; Maradona, Zidane, Platini, B. Charlton; Cruyff, C. Ronaldo, Gento, Henry; G. Müller, Ronaldo, Romario, van Basten; Eusebio, Garrincha, Zico, Bergkamp
Best Player: Lionel Messi
Best Team: FC Barcelona 2008-2012
Best Club: Real Madrid
Best Match: FC Barcelona – Real Madrid 5-0, 29.11.2010