22 May ~ My growing frustration with the mania over Lionel Messi reached a crux recently when I read an article that placed him alongside sporting legends such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods. A clear distinction needs to be made between legends and stars. Having grown up in North America during the era of Gretzky and Jordan, I can attest that these two were not simply the best at what they did, they redefined the criteria for what being the best was. While other sports stars were doing the same as their predecessors (only better), they did things no one had ever seen before or thought possible. For all their records – a testament to their stardom – their legends lie in revolutionising their sports.

When a father in Edmonton tells his son about Gretzky, he isn't listing records. He's starting sentences like: "He would see the play unfold a minute before it…" before cutting himself off and trying (and failing) again with: "He carried his team from…" before finally resigning himself to the wholly unsatisfying cliche: “You just had to have seen him play." Legends have that intangible, indescribable quality.

When I watch documentaries on Muhammad Ali, I hate him. He is arrogant and disrespectful – at least, in the context of today's world. In Ali's world, he was the voice of the unheard, a figure of pride where there were very few. It helped that he was one of the most dominant fighters of all time, but so were boxers like Larry Holmes and George Foreman, who don't share anywhere near the same status as Ali.

They were stars of their sport, while Ali – a legend – was bigger than their sport. Some people might say  sport and politics should be mutually-exclusive, and sometimes I am inclined to agree. But such divides are what separates stars from legends: while stars sit at the top of their sport, legends rise above it.

Though admittedly I am not a fan of golf, it is clear that Woods has transformed the sport. He took what was traditionally reserved for rich, old, white men and delivered it to millions of otherwise indifferent fans. If you charted my interest in golf over my lifetime, you would see a huge jump from a steady nil to what it is today, right around the time of Tiger's emergence.

That this surge of interest happened subconsciously – I never actively decided to start watching golf – is a testament to just how influential Tiger Woods has been to not just golf, but the sporting world as a whole. He single-handedly changed it.

Messi has shattered records and won a lot of trophies, albeit with a very good team swimming in a shallow pond. He is a pleasure to watch, but all of this merely cements his status as a star, which he undoubtedly is. But while all legends are stars, not all stars are legends.

We need to keep the legendary club exclusive as a tribute to those athletes who are truly worthy of the honour. Let's not try and force Messi into company he is currently not worthy of, just for the sake of being able to claim we saw a legend in the making.

This article appeared first on I Bloody Love Football

Comments (31)
Comment by blamelesz 2012-05-22 15:00:46

"We need to keep the legendary club exclusive as a tribute to those athletes who are truly worthy of the honour"

In that case, why are you trying to make a case for Gretzky? The number of people who know who he is falls off a cliff once you get outside Canada and the US.

Comment by reddybrek 2012-05-22 15:16:03

Do any footballers rise above the sport itself re-inventing it completely? Pele? Maradona? Cruyff? Not really.

Messi is better then all of them though and certainly deserves to be called a legend if they are.

Maradona was previously the best ever. However he was tainted by cheating, thuggery and doping. Messi makes Maradona look like a cult favourite now.

The lack of Messis acheivements with the Argentinian national side at present is irrelevant. With all due respect to Belgian and English sides of 86 they are up to the standard of the present Madrid team who Messi has destroyed time after time.

Messi is adored by neutrals. Even by supporters if rival clubs quite often. Surely thats the ulitmate accolade in football?

Comment by Coral 2012-05-22 15:33:27

I agree that by the criteria no footballer is really a legend. But Messi it not liked because he is the best, it is because he is not as "bad" as Maradonna and Ronaldo personality wise. I don't think anyone can say that Messi is definitely better than Pele or Cryuff etc without it just being an opinion

Comment by Brunislaw 2012-05-22 16:16:24

Hmm, in the U.S. we've never reserved legend for "single most important exemplar of a sport" - which I take it is why you're trying to make a stand. As you know it's routinely used for sportsmen who were among the best of their time. All-stars, basically, or household names. Ali isn't the only boxing legend; no one would blink if you said "boxing legend George Foreman" or "NFL legend Franco Harris."

And I agree with the above - Messi is simply a breed apart, which in the modern game is saying quite a lot. His exploits are justifiably legendary. If people are still talking about goals you scored years after the fact (like that one against Zaragoza), you're a legend.

Comment by Frank Heaven 2012-05-22 16:22:38

Reddybrek, think you need to pause and reflect on your post a moment - Messi's lack of achievement at international level is 'irrelevant', when considering legend status?

International football, let's remind ourselves, is the highest level of the game, and the World Cup is its greatest stage. No buts.

Messi has not played beyond the quarter finals of a World Cup.

Maradona won one almost single-handedly, playing in a very average Argentina team in 1986. Pele won three World Cups, more than any other player.

Even taking club competition into consideration, Messi is surrounded by some of the greatest players in the world, in a team head and shoulders above all bar Madrid in Spain, so most games are a turkey shoot.

Maradona, on the other hand, twice won Serie A with another average team in Napoli, when it was the toughest league going.

Comment by Brunislaw 2012-05-22 16:38:03

Frank, by your criteria Maradona would seem to be the sport's only real legend, as Pele certainly didn't win his WCs single-handedly and arguably wasn't the best player on his side at all three of them.

Barcelona don't have much competition in Spain of course, but they've done the business in Europe. CL football is not really inferior to WC football I don't think.

Comment by FCKarl 2012-05-22 16:55:54

A truly interesting and good topic. One that transcends sport. Thank you for bringing it up.

I think that what requires legend status is not just what one does on the field, court, track, ice rink, or in the ring. The "legend" also does become a spokesperson for something and for things. Or even, yes, a symbol for something. And the "legend" engenders some usually high levels of respect -- again, respect not just as a result of on the pitch for 90 minutes weekly, on the basketball court, or whatever venue is that sport's "arena."

Let me assure readers here that Wayne Gretzky is known far and wide. Eastern Europe, northern Europe, Scandinavia. Guess what? In southern Chile and Argentina they play some ice hockey. In New Zealand, too. Grezky would be recognized instantly walking down the street or getting out of a taxi.

Legends tend to be a little older than Messi is now. So, yes, he still has plenty of time. But to most of us, he still seems the shy boy in now a young man's body. A genius and unstoppable on the pitch, but not very active off the pitch. Who has ever seen Messi at a microphone ready to give an inspirational sentence or two, or just strong phrases?

Even now it is unlikely to think of Messi in year 2022 or 2026 as the keynote speaker, the motivational one, at the grand opening of a new phenomenal academy or multisports arena.

He certainly could still yet. He'll be playing (at least I certainly hope so) for another eight years. Maybe nine or ten?

View the YouTube clip of Pele farewelling fans and the game in his green New York Cosmos shirt at the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey. Hear the power and conviction in his voice. You can feel that he's got everyone's undivided attention. And a worldwide TV audience is indeed watching -- even back then. You don't have to like everything that Pele did then or has done since, but Pele touched lives (as he still does today).

Often these legends can look at children and have this pleasant bond, instant bond. Children seek them out. For good or ill, children trust them.

And that is what defines legends. They touch. In ways that are not logical or fully describable.

Another player we know all-too-well, Cristiano Ronaldo, will go down in the books as a truly great player on the pitch. But his life trajectory to date will never place him in the category of "legend." He is the hedonist's hedonism poster child. He is Mister Bling-Bling who pursues glory. And that is far too shallow for legendary status.

Many of these guys have very spotty personal lives with wives and girlfriends and children in and out of wedlock hither and yon (perfect example: Franz Beckhenbauer)

Michael Air Jordan is also problematic in this area. But he still lights up rooms and faces, young and old, when he steps into a space. And that is the irony of it. The irony is that these legends, despite all their personal travails, can command a presence when they step to a microphone to communicate. People listen. Their significance was not just limited to watching the "legend" ply his trade with ball, puck, or gloves.

When they touch through communicating.

Pele, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer are the true legends of the last 40 years in this sport. For not just their playing, but their speaking (good and bad) and what they've done -- the many things, projects, initiatives they have done -- off the pitch, even while still players in their late 20's and early 30's.

Legends are indeed multinational. Though they cannot speak multiple or even just more than their birth language, they communicate to larger global audiences, as the author of this article indicated.

Messi still has time. And he does not need to aspire to this more elevated plain we call the rarefied realm of "legends." Frankly he'd really need some coaching to come out of his shell. Right now, that does not yet seem likely. However, he certainly could; we'll have to wait and see.

I, for one, would very much like to see Messi transcend in this way. Because I think he has far, far more to offer this life and this world than just scintillating runs and uncanny pace and deft touches on the ball.

Note: It is the same with Xavi and Iniesta. Great players for absolute certain. And they'll be famous and world known for years after they stop playing. But they are not "legends" because we really do not know them, the have not touched us so much -- beyond the pitch.

Comment by geobra 2012-05-22 17:25:48

Should we really be using the word 'legend' for those who are still playing? Messi is, at the moment, probably the best footballer in the world. I say 'probably' because some might go for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Isn't that enough for the time being?

Comment by Adam Wilson 2012-05-22 17:49:51

A few random thoughts:
If a legend 'transcends' sport, then inclusion must go to Clough and Shankley. Neither won that much, but transformed the clubs (and places) they were at inspiring mass emotions (particularly of pride) far beyond the trophies they won. In the same way players of small clubs have their own special place in a football club's history, even if they were only playing for a few seasons. Having some tragic element also helps, making them simultaneously glorious and human. I would name transcendent individuals to be Kathy Freeman, Daley Thompson and Jessie Owens. Hmm, what have they got in common, along with Ali, Woods, Pele and Jordan? Perhaps we're getting somewhere now about sport elevating the individual above their otherise more likely life destination...
sorry, rambling thoughts over.

Comment by JimDavis 2012-05-22 17:50:09

I'm not one who feels (like for example FCKarl) that Legend status is the exclusive domain of Alpha males. Indeed, part of Messi's charm and appeal is that he does not appear to be such an individual. Yet for me it is still far too early into his career to be considering him a legend. As unlikely as it seems now, for all we know he could run out of puff and end up being the next Kaka.
For now I am just delighted that his career is happening within my life time.

Comment by Patrick_Kirwan 2012-05-23 09:00:15

The lad's 24 years of age. Let's save this discussion for another 20 years at least.

Comment by Coral 2012-05-23 09:59:20

Just as a point on the international part of Messi, for me it is not a big issue because the World Cup is only a few games at the end of the season and Messi will have played something over 50 games come the tournament start. But what it does highlight is the need to achieve with someone else. There is a chicken and egg type question here, are Barca the (arguably) best in the world because of Messi, or is Messi the (arguably) best in the world because of Barca? Christiano Ronaldo has won titles with Man United and Real Madrid and set scoring records in two very different leagues. Messi has a team that is built around his main assests and has never played anywhere else.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 10:06:09

I think the author of this article and some of the subsequent posters are labouring under the illusion that Barcelona are achieving remarkable results because they are playing against lesser opposition. Perhaps we should remember that 5 of the 8 teams that contested the semifinals of the Champions League and the Europa League were from La Liga, and that the team that could only finish half way up that league (Athletic) convincingly beat the runner-up in the Premier League (Man Utd) over two legs, before beating the team that knocked out the winners of the Premier League (Man City). Barcelona also thrashed Santos in the World Club Cup last year, and beat the fifth placed team in the Bundesliga (Bayer Leverkusen) 10-1 over two legs. Now, we could decide that Barcelona are benefitting from a global drop in the standard of football, but it would make more sense (and be more gracious) to agree that they are just a good team.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 10:47:00

I am not too fussed about the semantics of of "legend", "star", etc., but I am interested to clarify what, in the author's opinion, makes Messi a lesser light than the sportsmen he cites. The criteria for Gretsky seems to be the difficulty in explaining just how good he was. Well, I could do that for Messi, too. In fact, I could do that for Andy Sinton (here, let me try: "That Andy Sinton, he was ... well, you just had to see him play, really." See, easy.). Ali and Woods seem to have reached legend status because the wider public identified with them as part of a greater social/political struggle, which is nice, but perhaps the status of "political/social legend" would be better fitting in this case, and the discussion better held in a forum with a greater scope than football. Tiger also gets points because he made you interested in golf. I am not, nor have I ever been, interested in golf so, in the interest of fairness, should Woods lose points for that? Messi generates a lot of jealously because he is good at football, which is exacerbated in his detractors because, unlike other great footballers (read: CR7, Rooney, Zidane, Gazza, etc.), he does not appear to have any massive character flaws that they can focus on. The legend thing is subjective and a question of semantics, but for my money I have never, and I doubt I will ever, see anyone play football quite like Messi does, and that—in my opinion—puts him on a par with any other sportsperson out there.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 10:48:26

"International football, let's remind ourselves, is the highest level of the game, and the World Cup is its greatest stage. No buts." Frank, I think a lot of football people would disagree with you there.

Comment by trickydicky 2012-05-23 11:27:29

Michael Jordan dominated a sport played laregly in one continent/country (I know Basketball is fairly big in Eastern Europe) and where success is a result almost exclusively of your physical qualities. Messi might be a brilliant basketall player, have all the skills, but unless he's playing dwarfs it wont count for shit. Likewise, if Jordan wasn't 6ft 5 or whatever his ability as a basketball player wouldn't have counted for anything, we'd never have heard of him. How many people may have been as good as Micheal Jordan but who just weren't tall enough, we'll never know. At least with Messi we are sure, he is the best, even when compared to someone with all the athletic powers of Ronaldo.
Messi is the best in the world at the sport 90% of the world's population want to be best at. Gretzky was the best in the world at a sport played by Canadian's, Americans who couldn't get in the "football" team, some Russians and a few Czech's.

The one and only thing that stops Messi being a total icon in the way that Ali and Maradona were is his almost total absence of personality. Or at least, what Barcelona let us see of it.

Comment by Coral 2012-05-23 11:54:24

"(Athletic) convincingly beat the runner-up in the Premier League (Man Utd) over two legs"

Yeah I have heard this a lot. Goes quiet when we talk about a 6th placed team winning the Champion's League though and Barca themselves losing to them in semis.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 12:18:50

Coral - Kudos to Chelsea for beating Barça, but I do not think it is being too controversial to say that the better team did not win that particular tie (not according to Lampard or Torres, anyway), whereas Athletic clearly deserved to beat Man Utd. It is also probable that Chelsea would have finished higher up the league had they played football under AVB instead of sulking. Anywho, my point was not what a wonderful team Barça are, but rather that the other 19 teams in the "shallow pond" that is La Liga do not represent a "turkey shoot" and the idea that "Barcelona don't have much competition in Spain" smacks of ignorance.

Comment by quoththeraven 2012-05-23 12:27:33

While this is strictly a North American convention, Wayne Gretzky's status as a legend is probably upheld most by the fact that since he retired, nobody has worn his jersey number (#99). Most teams have at least one player they honour as a "club legend" by retiring their number, but no one else in hockey has had their number taken out of circulation by the entire league, if not the entire hockey world. While shirt numbers - and conventions in general - work differently in football, it is unlikely that there will ever be a similar mark of respect for Messi or any other player.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 12:40:36

Squad numbers have not been part of football for very long (20 years) and, as far as I know, there is little or no precedent for retiring numbers. I also imagine it is a little easier to retire a somewhat distant number such as "99" than it would be to retire the number "10". Out of interest, did any other ice skaters wear the number "99" before WG, or was he the only one? It goes without saying that quite a lot of football players have worn the number "10" (legend: I think three consecutive Ballons d'Or demonstrate a certain degree of respect.

Comment by Coral 2012-05-23 14:24:16

@Didling, I was just pointing out that trying to say that La Liga is comparable to the Premiership based on a couple of games is relatively meaningless. I also love the phrase about deserving to win. So they would have won if only they could finish better? Or if Chelsea weren't so damn pesky and blocking the centre of the pitch?

Looking at the two best teams in La Liga, they played no one from the other leagues where 4 teams are eligble and only one played a team from what is considered a decent league (Barca playing Milan). Soon as they met decent teams they crashed out.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 15:29:35

I did not mean (and certainly did not say) that Barça deserved to beat Chelsea, but that lots of people (including members of the Chelsea team) believe that Barça are/were the better team. And I disagree about Barça not playing strong teams in the Champions League. Three countries got four places last year: England, Germany and Spain. Barça played a team from Germany and won 10-1 and lost a very close game to an English team. Of the other eight games that Barça played in the CL, four were against a team from the next highest ranked association (Italy/Milan), and they won two and drew two. Milan finished second in Serie A this year. Given the seeding used in the CL, Barcelona could barely have had a harder draw. I should stress that I am not trying to argue that La Liga is better than the Premier League, but that suggesting that La Liga is a "turkey shoot" for Barça and Madrid when they have to play teams such as Athletic, Atlético, Valencia and Sevilla every week is way off the mark.

Comment by Coral 2012-05-23 15:45:36

Apologies on that, forgot the hammering of Bayern L. The 5th placed German side.

I see your point regarding La Liga but I just don't think it is as hard as it was. Arguing on the UEFA cup is a non starter because we know that English teams are not particularly focused on this.

Again the argument is do Barca make the La Liga look easy because they are so good or because the league is so easy. How many different Spanish teams have won the Champion's League ever? And in the last 10 - 15 years? Other than Valencia at the start of the noughties they have not had a runner up in that time other than the big two.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 16:33:23

As ever with these things, the answer is undoubtedly very complex (if it even exists), that is why I get bugged by facile comments such as "turkey shoot", which is simply the analysis of someone who has watched the season highlights, taken a look at the league table and drawn their own (erroneous) conclusions.

Comment by Coral 2012-05-23 16:59:22

'tis a fair point on the turkey shoot point.

Comment by JimDavis 2012-05-23 19:02:53

It is the arms race between the top two in Spain that is turning it into a better funded SPL. The same may yet evolve in England.

Comment by Diddling 2012-05-23 19:39:08

I totally agree that La Liga is a two horse race, and that this rather detracts from the spectacle. However, I think that the result of this is that the trailing teams work hard to keep up, and are better as a result. Is the same true in Scotland? Does the Old Firm make Hearts, Hibs, Dundee Utd, etc. better, or worse? Off the top of my head, if you compare them to the leagues of Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland (about which I know nothing, other than that they do not include clubs the size of Celtic or Rangers), you might argue that the Old Firm forces the level of the trailing clubs upwards. Anyone?

Comment by llannerch 2012-05-23 23:06:28

Judging a player's 'legendary status' by whether he/she is knwon in lots of countries is reductionist. It ought to be judged by his/her sporting merits pure and simple. And though essentially subjective, if a lot of knowledgable observers form a consensus about an athlete then that is the justification.

That people outside North America and/or people who DON'T know much about ice hockey but will have heard of Gretsky (perhaps even be able to name only him if called upon to name a player from the sport) is perhaps proof that he transcended the mere sporting. The same can probably be said of Bradman or Gareth Edwards

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2012-05-24 08:59:39

"When a father in Edmonton tells his son about Gretzky..."

Yes, and when a father in Catalonia in 2030 tells his son about the little Argentinian, it'll be much the same. What you seem to be saying - and more or less admit where Ali is concerned - is that Messi isn't a legend because he's the best right now, rather than in the past.

Trust me, when the time comes, nostalgia will sweep Messi even higher, just as it has for others.

Comment by Coral 2012-05-24 10:08:43

"I totally agree that La Liga is a two horse race, and that this rather detracts from the spectacle. However, I think that the result of this is that the trailing teams work hard to keep up, and are better as a result"

Or get themselves into enormous debt trying, such as Valencia. Spanish teams are lucky there is no point deduction for administration as there would be a lot of teams even further behind the big two. Some of them have spent all season in administration. Interesting point though, I just think that the leagues will struggle further as they have pushed to compete and are now going to really suffer because they cannot match the resources the big two have.

Comment by venezraider 2012-05-28 14:18:06

back in 2007 I was sat in the VIP section at Copa America in Venezuela, (my friend worked for one of the big sponsors so we had VIP tickets for the whole tourament)
I was watching Argentina v USA and this little skinny 19 year old kid was tearing the USA apart I turned to my friend and said "that kid is going to be the greatest of all time if he doesn't get injured" She translated it into Spanish and people were laughing at me, I shrugged my shoulders and carried on watching him and Argentina destroy the US.
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and in broken english said "you know football and you are correct he will be"
I turned around and a small man gave me a big smile, it was Pele. I sent my friend down to the gift shop and she got me Pele and Messi jerseys which I got signed after the game.
If the greatest of all time Pele thinks that way so should the rest of us !

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