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Why Maradona and Pelé are Wrong About Messi

During an appearance at a Euro 2016 event, Diego Maradona talked with Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. When Pelé asked Maradona if he knew Lionel Messi -widely considered the best soccer player in the world- 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,” said Maradona about Messi.

Pelé 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.” Pelé, who together with Maradona and Messi constitute soccer’s Holy Trinity of the best three players in the history of the game, thus offered a candid assessment of the fact that most of the time he played he also had other excellent players in his team. This hasn’t always been the case for both Maradona and Messi.

However, both Maradona and Pelé are wrong in their assessment of Messi. Anybody who says that Messi has no personality hasn’t seen the last game in which he participated, Argentina vs. Panamá, when Messi did a stupendous hat trick that showed, as if it were necessary, why he is the best player in the world today. And with a personality of its own: that of a humble, perfectionist player adored by fans from all over the world.

I cannot help but think that both Pelé and Maradona 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 had to share with Messi. And while Messi isn’t annoyed by the comparison with Maradona and Pelé, both of these players seem resentful of Messi.

The recent game between Argentina and Panama was vintage Messi. At the game in Chicago, 53,885 fans were there to watch Messi, many among them wearing Argentina’s famed striped jersey with the same name and number 10 in the back: Messi, 10. No explanation was needed.

There was an air of expectation in the crowd, particularly because of a lower back injury during a friendly game between Argentina and against Honduras, there was no certainty that Messi would be able to play. However, to everybody’s surprise and under 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 from a free kick from the right side in the 78th minute to end with a 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 jewelers’ precision in the right top part of the net, Panama’s goalie all but defeated.  Two minutes later, Argentina’s Sergio Aguero scored the last goal of the game for Argentina.

What made this game unusual is that after each of Messi’s goals even the Panamanian fans cheered him. As Argentina’s coach said, “When Messi came in, things were taken care of.” This was an opinion shared by Panama’s coach Hernán Darío 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 of playing. One can say that today 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. 

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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