who is the best footballer in the world?
The debate is open among football fans. Pele, Maradona, Messi or even now Mbappé, who can be considered the best player in the history of football.
After winning the last major title missing from his list, Messi reshuffles the cards in this debate that has been shaking the world of football for thirty years. Here are some comparative elements to try to answer this difficult question.
Triple crown against the 1986 and 2022 champions
With three titles (1958, 1962, 1970) in four World Cups, Pelé’s record remains unmatched. He was just 17 when he led the “Seleçao” to their first title (the youngest world champion in history) with 6 goals including two in the final. In 1962 he was injured in the second game. But in 1970, it’s the consecration: Pelé is at the top in a legendary team.
Maradona, ignored for the 1978 World Cup won by Argentina at home then disappointing in 1982, shines during the 1986 Mexican “Mundial”: he wins it “all by himself”, so much is the Argentina captain charismatic and decisive, especially during the quarter-final against England marked by the “goal of the century” scored solo and by the famous “hand of God”, the two faces of the “Maradonian” gesture. In 1990 he lost the final and burst into tears. In 1994 the story escalates: a positive result for ephedrine, he is excluded from the World Cup.
World champion on December 18, Messi has finally come full circle. His record is now the most complete with one World Cup (2022), one Copa America (2021), four Champions Leagues, a multitude of national championships and cups… and seven Ballon d’Ors. “Messi won his first World Cup, as his trajectory deserved”, Pelé also greeted on Instagram from his hospital room, with a nod to Maradona, who died in 2020: “Diego is certainly smiling”.
#10 vs. #10
The three players made N°10 legendary.
The ‘King’ played in a position close to that of a ‘nine and a half’, leaning to the left, during a highly prolific goal-scoring era, hence his staggering total of 1281 goals in 1363 matches, club and ‘Seleçao combined (record including friendly matches and approved by Fifa). He now shares the Brazilian team’s top scorer (77 goals in 92 appearances) with Neymar.
Maradona evolved more behind, on the axis or on the left wing but was very free, like a very offensive attacking midfielder. So Pele’s less impressive goal statistics (346 in 680 games), but such a significant influence accompanied by countless assists.
By accumulating goals (793 in 1003 professional matches), Messi can look his two elders in the eye. Lined up most of the time in attacking support but sometimes also in false 9, “Pulga” can also boast great success on free-kicks, penalties and assists.
Pele always presented a bright image and only played for two clubs, Santos (1956-74) and Cosmos New York (1975-77). Maradona (six club experiences) is sulphurous, with his shocking statements, his controversial gestures on the pitch, from the red card at the 1982 World Cup to his “hand of God” at the 1986 World Cup, and his extra-athlete woes, among cocaine and doping.
The Brazilian, who was a minister in his country, is close to the institutions, and wept with emotion when Fifa awarded him the honorary Ballon d’Or in 2014. The Argentine, with controversial friendships with the leaders of Cuba or Venezuela, it has on the contrary been in long conflict with FIFA since its suspension midway through the 1994 World Cup.
Messi’s wise child side brings him closer to Pele. The diminutive Argentine was long loyal to his training club FC Barcelona before a sensational move to PSG in 2021. But neither this choice for the money of a Qatar-funded club, nor his woes with the Spanish taxman, nor his criticism of refereeing at the 2022 World Cup seemed to tarnish his image.
Brazilian versus Argentinian, questions of ego
“I’m the best”: Pelé and Maradona have continued to claim the title of supreme player, in a rivalry that traditionally pits their countries against each other, South American giants. Above all, it is the volcanic Maradona who tickles the eldest about him, considering for example that his place is “in the museum” and mocking his submission to the powers in office. The placid Pelé replies that the palmarès is authentic (three World Cups to one) but also that his younger brother, due to his use of drugs, “is not an example” for young people. Like wise old men, they buried the hatchet in 2016.
Perhaps out of fear of offending Maradona’s Argentine fans, Messi has never explicitly positioned himself in this debate aimed at designating the best player in history. But he now he’s the only one still alive.