NEW YORK – During an appearance at a Euro 2016 event, Diego Maradona talked with Brazilian soccer legend Pele. Those two, along with Lionel Messi, are the three best players in the history of soccer. When Pele asked Maradona if he knew Messi — widely considered the best in the world among current players — Maradona’s response was nothing short of shocking: “He’s a really good person, but he has no personality. He lacks the character to be a leader.”
Pele then continued, “Ah, I get it, he’s not like we were back in the days. In the ’70s, we (Brazil) had really good players like Rivellino, Gerson, Tostao.” Pele was admitting that when he played he often had other excellent players on his team. This wasn’t always the case for Maradona or Messi.
However, both Maradona and Pele are wrong in their assessment of Messi. Anybody who says that Messi has no personality hasn’t seen his last game, Argentina vs. Panama, when he scored a stupendous hat trick that showed, as if it were necessary, why he is the best in the world today. And with a personality of his own: that of a humble, perfectionist adored by fans all over the world.
I cannot help but think that both Pele’s and Maradona’s comments about Messi are the result of sour grapes. After all, until Messi started playing, they were considered the two best players in the world, a place they now have to share with him. And while Messi isn’t annoyed by the comparison with Maradona and Pele, both of these players seem resentful of him.
The recent game between Argentina and Panama was vintage Messi. At the game in Chicago, 53,885 fans were on hand to watch Messi, many among them wearing Argentina ‘s famed striped jersey with the same name and number on the back: Messi, 10. No explanation was needed. There was an air of expectation in the crowd, particularly because a lower back injury suffered during a friendly game between Argentina and Honduras meant there was no certainty that Messi would be able to play. However, to everyone’s surprise and amid a deafening roar from the crowd, Messi came to play, exactly 61 minutes from the beginning of the game, and he didn’t disappoint. Every time he touched the ball the crowd cheered.
He scored an easy goal in the 68th minute, followed by another goal with a free kick from the right side in the 78th minute. He finished off the hat trick in the 87th minute. By any measure, his free kick goal was as if he had a measuring tape in his eyes. The ball went up and descended with a jeweler’s precision in the right top part of the net, leaving Panama’s goalkeeper all but defeated. Two minutes later, Sergio Aguero scored the last goal of the match for Argentina.
What made this game unusual was that after each of Messi’s goals even the Panamanian fans cheered him. As Argentina’s coach declared, “When Messi came in, things were taken care of.” This was an opinion shared by Panama’s coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, who, talking about Messi, said with a mixture of sorrow and admiration, “He’s a monster.”
Any comparison among the three players is unfair, since they played in different eras with different styles. One can say that today’s athletes are more complete and the game is played at a faster pace.
One thing is certain, however. The three of them are superb players with different styles but with the same passion for the most popular sport in the world. They are soccer’s Holy Trinity.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an Argentine soccer fan.