The Soccer GOAT - cast your vote

Who ya got?

  • Pele

    Votes: 25 32.1%
  • Diego Maradona

    Votes: 3 3.8%
  • Leo Messi

    Votes: 38 48.7%
  • Cristiano Ronaldo

    Votes: 3 3.8%
  • Johan Cruyff

    Votes: 5 6.4%
  • Alfredo di Stefano

    Votes: 1 1.3%
  • Franz Beckenbauer

    Votes: 2 2.6%
  • Zinedine Zidane

    Votes: 1 1.3%
  • Dennis Bergkamp

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Other (write in below)

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
    78
With Messi potentially on the move and the "GOAT" term being flung around quite liberally, perhaps now is a good time to revisit the topic of who the best player in soccer history is. Use the poll to choose your GOAT, and then list your Top 5 players of all time in order - we'll use the Ballon d'Or voting system, giving 6-4-3-2-1 points for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th place votes in that order.

(Point of order: one of the listed nominees in the poll falls into the "serious not serious" category.)
 

Royal Reader

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Messi
Maradona
Zidane
Puskas
C Ronaldo

I always feel Pele is a little overrated. He's like the Hank Aaron of Soccer to me - really good, for a very long time, but merely great rather than transcendent like some of the other guys he gets in conversations with. it's not clear to me he's obviously better than Garrincha on the '58 squad, they won without him in '62, and there's a galaxy of stars around him on the '70 team.

I feel like between-era comparisons are particularly tough in soccer, though. Di Stefano and Best never played in a World Cup. Puskas played many of his best years behind the Iron Curtain. Maradona's club record is spotty for someone so talented. Messi never winning an international tournament will be a mark against him unless he pulls one off late (though personally I downrate this due to the lesser prominence of the international game in the modern era, and he did get Argentina within an extra time of winning the WC). Ronaldo has the silverware, but my adult life coincides broadly with the whole career of both, and I just can't say in all honesty that CR7, great as he is, ever felt like the better of the two.

Ultimately the two Argentines are my top two, just because I feel like "One man team" type outfits built around them could compete at the highest levels of the game in their respective eras, which is to a degree less true of any of the others in the conversation.
 

67YAZ

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1. Messi - Things will change when we have historical perspective, but he's been so much better than everyone else for so long. The sport today is better and more difficult than it has ever been - more people play, scouting scours more of the globe, training and development methods are merging traditional knowledge with sophisticated data analysis, players don't smoke at halftime, tactics spread and adapt week to week. And still, Messi stands over it all.

2. Cruyff - to a significant extent, he created the modern game while still a player on the pitch. Like having the best player and best manager of his time rolled into one charismatic, confrontational, endless-demanding package.

3. Maradona - probably the most skilled player of all time, equally fueled and undone by his pathological need for excess.

4. Pele - the man, the myth, the legend.

5. Cristiano Ronaldo - He was right there with Messi year after during the highest quality era the sports has yet seen.

Next 5: It's hard for me to sort out Puskas and Di Stefano, the curse of two all-time great playing together. Zidane, Beckenbauer. And Maldini because fullbacks never get the love they deserve.
 
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Section30

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I saw Pele on the Cosmos in the twilight of his career. Pele is downgraded(incorrectly) because he didn't play in an era where all of his play was chronicled on film. Pele was the youngest player to win the world cup at 17. In the next world cup he would have been the youngest to win at 21. Messi scored 6 goals in the finals for the world cup but never won. Pele won three times. Pele holds the record for assists in the world cup. How dominant was Pele? He scored 92 hat tricks(276 goals). He wasn't only a scorer, he holds the world cup record for assists and the record for assists in a single game. After 1962 he had knee injuries that by the end of his career totaled 7 operations on the left knee, 5 on the right knee. Remember this was old style, when I got his autograph in 1975 I was staring at his knees which were completely scarred front to back. Also he was from an era where tackles were more violent and common than the modern day game. The abuse he recieved from defenders desperate to not be embarrassed was severe.

Pele
Messi
Ronaldo
Cruyff
Beckenbauer( he revolutionized the position)
 

BaseballJones

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I don't know enough about soccer history, so I can't put these other guys (from, say, the 60s and 70s, etc) into perspective. But I'd love to hear more about Messi vs. Ronaldo and why you guys think Messi is superior. I'm not arguing for Ronaldo...I just think it's so incredibly close and I would love to hear the rationale.

This was written last year so the numbers have changed a little, but this is interesting..


Both guys are just unbelievable though.
 

Kliq

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Imagine thinking Dennis Bergkamp was better than Puskas, Marco Van Basten, Eusebio, Ronaldo Classico, Garrincha, Platini, etc.?
 

Vinho Tinto

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I saw Pele on the Cosmos in the twilight of his career. Pele is downgraded(incorrectly) because he didn't play in an era where all of his play was chronicled on film.
His club career shouldn’t be ignored either. His Santos teams define the club to this day. Santos was the only Brazilian club to win the Libertadores until 1976.

He is still the all-time leading scorer for club and country.
 
Imagine thinking Dennis Bergkamp was better than Puskas, Marco Van Basten, Eusebio, Ronaldo Classico, Garrincha, Platini, etc.?
That was a joke. (From an Arsenal fan - "serious, not serious".) Once you get past the top six or seven, figuring out which names to add to a Top 10 (or Top 9 plus "Other) ballot is impossibly difficult, so I thought I'd throw in one of my favorite-ever players just for kicks.
 

wiffleballhero

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I feel like there is some sort of soccer cognoscente thing where you can't say Pele and maintain your soccer street cred. but IDK, it sure seems like he is something of the Babe Ruth of the game: era defining and a transitional figure into a modern version of the game while also putting up huge numbers.
 

coremiller

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Era comparisons are very difficult in soccer. First, because there was very little international player movement before the mid 80s, it's hard to compare the quality of competition across time. How are we supposed to judge the level of competition in e.g. Brazilian state leagues in the 1960s, when Pele was scoring a billion goals, versus the current big European leagues? Second, until recently most players' games outside of the World Cup or European finals were not on global TV, or even local TV. Even of those who were around back then, nobody saw both Pele's and Cruyff's league games at Santos and Ajax. Most of our knowledge of players from older eras comes from a small handful of World Cup games plus journalistic reports, grainy film clips, and local legend. Even the statistics are not always reliable. Third, there were hardly any players of African ancestry in the top European leagues until relatively recently, now e.g. 9 of the 20 outfield players on the current England team are at least partly non-white, and the French team that won the last World Cup started six non-white players.

Fourth, starting around the late 80s/early 90s (the modification of the backpass role after Italia 90 was a major factor here) the game evolved to become much more athletically and tactically demanding, Players typically run about 2-3 times as far in a match now as they did 30 years ago. A good example -- Socrates was one of the best midfielders of his day, but his version of getting in shape for the 1982 World Cup was to quit smoking for a few months. He was a brilliant player, but could he even play at the top levels in today's game where the physical demands are so much greater (his one year in Seirie A, which had a notably higher level of professionalism, was a total disaster)? Could Maradona, who was never known for his commitment to training or a healthy lifestyle, have cut it at the top level today for more than a season or two, or would he have flamed out at a young age? A lot of British players in the 80s and 90s were essentially (dys)functional alcoholics -- one of Wenger's major innovations at Arsenal was to ban drinking in the players' lounge. How are we supposed to factor in those kinds of things?

As a result, there's basically no way to do any kind of realistic objective evaluation of, say, Pele and Messi.
 

Titans Bastard

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His club career shouldn’t be ignored either. His Santos teams define the club to this day. Santos was the only Brazilian club to win the Libertadores until 1976.

He is still the all-time leading scorer for club and country.
Pelé scored a lot of goals, but it's worth mentioning the context: most of his career was before Brazil adopted a national league in 1971, so he spent a lot of time dunking on small teams in the São Paulo state league.
 
Era comparisons are very difficult in soccer. First, because there was very little international player movement before the mid 80s, it's hard to compare the quality of competition across time. How are we supposed to judge the level of competition in e.g. Brazilian state leagues in the 1960s, when Pele was scoring a billion goals, versus the current big European leagues? Second, until recently most players' games outside of the World Cup or European finals were not on global TV, or even local TV. Even of those who were around back then, nobody saw both Pele's and Cruyff's league games at Santos and Ajax. Most of our knowledge of players from older eras comes from a small handful of World Cup games plus journalistic reports, grainy film clips, and local legend. Even the statistics are not always reliable. Third, there were hardly any players of African ancestry in the top European leagues until relatively recently, now e.g. 9 of the 20 outfield players on the current England team are at least partly non-white, and the French team that won the last World Cup started six non-white players.

Fourth, starting around the late 80s/early 90s (the modification of the backpass role after Italia 90 was a major factor here) the game evolved to become much more athletically and tactically demanding, Players typically run about 2-3 times as far in a match now as they did 30 years ago. A good example -- Socrates was one of the best midfielders of his day, but his version of getting in shape for the 1982 World Cup was to quit smoking for a few months. He was a brilliant player, but could he even play at the top levels in today's game where the physical demands are so much greater (his one year in Seirie A, which had a notably higher level of professionalism, was a total disaster)? Could Maradona, who was never known for his commitment to training or a healthy lifestyle, have cut it at the top level today for more than a season or two, or would he have flamed out at a young age? A lot of British players in the 80s and 90s were essentially (dys)functional alcoholics -- one of Wenger's major innovations at Arsenal was to ban drinking in the players' lounge. How are we supposed to factor in those kinds of things?

As a result, there's basically no way to do any kind of realistic objective evaluation of, say, Pele and Messi.
You can say this about every sport, though, can't you? And still we attempt to compare baseball and football and basketball and tennis players of different eras, etc. - all you can do is evaluate them relative to their peers at the time. For example, Maradona was driven to become the best player in the world; if he'd needed to train harder to become the best, I'm almost sure he would have been able to. (The counter-argument would be akin to faulting Roger Bannister for not running his famous mile in under 3 minutes and 45 seconds.)
 

coremiller

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You can say this about every sport, though, can't you? And still we attempt to compare baseball and football and basketball and tennis players of different eras, etc. - all you can do is evaluate them relative to their peers at the time. For example, Maradona was driven to become the best player in the world; if he'd needed to train harder to become the best, I'm almost sure he would have been able to. (The counter-argument would be akin to faulting Roger Bannister for not running his famous mile in under 3 minutes and 45 seconds.)
Yes, and cross-era comparisons in all sports are enormously problematic for many of the same reasons. But soccer poses special challenges compared to U.S. based sports because until recently it was global without being globalized, and there aren't many meaningful statistics. At least some sportswriters and fans who were comparing Ted Williams and Willie Mays, or Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana, actually saw both of them play more than 5-10 games in their life
 

coremiller

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You can say this about every sport, though, can't you? And still we attempt to compare baseball and football and basketball and tennis players of different eras, etc. - all you can do is evaluate them relative to their peers at the time. For example, Maradona was driven to become the best player in the world; if he'd needed to train harder to become the best, I'm almost sure he would have been able to. (The counter-argument would be akin to faulting Roger Bannister for not running his famous mile in under 3 minutes and 45 seconds.)
W/r/t Maradona in particular, maybe he would have. But maybe not -- Maradona was a cocaine addict who was basically washed up at 29 even in a much less demanding era.
 

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I feel like there is some sort of soccer cognoscente thing where you can't say Pele and maintain your soccer street cred. but IDK, it sure seems like he is something of the Babe Ruth of the game: era defining and a transitional figure into a modern version of the game while also putting up huge numbers.
Yeah I mean evaluating Pele is tremendously difficult because he was prevented from competing against the best in the world except at the World Cup. So the "cognoscenti" are the extremely eurocentric types who really undervalue the extent to which Pele himself made it a global game, earned South America's street cred internationally and boosted the ability of south americans to play in europe at the top levels, and popularized the game everywhere else. I mean, the NASL sucked, but Pele drew college football-sized crowds to see him, which in no small part contributed to the re-emergence of plausible pro leagues in the USA after 4 decades of neglect and contempt following the Soccer Wars.

A large part of considering Pele for this label is that star factor, the fact that he was up there with Muhammad Ali as one of the most famous sports figures in the entire world and changed the sporting landscape and pop culture write large. Much like Tiger Woods, a decent fraction of today's players owe the size of their paychecks to his work, whether they realize it or not. He was named player of the century by FIFA, which is a very eurocentric organization - surely they know where their bread was buttered. And personally, I fell in love with soccer as a 7-year-old by playing Goal! on NES, watching the 1990 World Cup, and reading a biography of Pele, whose personal story I adored. He's an incredibly sympathetic figure, and remains a great ambassador for the sport, even if he's gone out of his way to avoid being controversial in any respect or advocating for (say) social and political change. So that has to be weighted here. Cruyff, Beckenbauer, they've all influenced the game greatly as well, but they didn't bring about systemic change in the scale of the sport in quite the same way.

Also, he won 3 world cups, and was the focus of a sustained ass-kicking in each of those world cups to the point of being intentionally injured by the overmatched opposition. They lost in 1966 in no small part because of those on-field injuries. That says something about his value relative to (say) Garrincha. It says something that the Brazilian FA thought of him as a national treasure that they couldn't let leave, even as other cross-atlantic transfers started happening to the big leagues. So yeah, you've got to discount his astronomical goal totals to some degree, but we do have the Libertadores as a high-level competition at that point, plus all his international duty, to say that he was truly world-class for a very long time. I say let the cognoscenti sneer, because they're overthinking it. I won't argue anyone who wants to put him behind Messi, but I'd be pretty skeptical of putting him behind anyone else.
 

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I don't know enough about soccer history, so I can't put these other guys (from, say, the 60s and 70s, etc) into perspective. But I'd love to hear more about Messi vs. Ronaldo and why you guys think Messi is superior. I'm not arguing for Ronaldo...I just think it's so incredibly close and I would love to hear the rationale.

This was written last year so the numbers have changed a little, but this is interesting..


Both guys are just unbelievable though.
This is from a few years ago (2014 during/after the World Cup, in fact), but if you follow the links to the author's other work studying it, he's looked at it very deeply from a lot of angles:


And obviously, being 2 years younger (33 today vs 35), he's going to continue to look better vs Ronaldo as their careers taper off.
 

BaseballJones

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Wow that is pretty deep stuff. Obviously his conclusion is pretty clear that Messi is better. Thanks for that.
 

sodenj5

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I don't know enough about soccer history, so I can't put these other guys (from, say, the 60s and 70s, etc) into perspective. But I'd love to hear more about Messi vs. Ronaldo and why you guys think Messi is superior. I'm not arguing for Ronaldo...I just think it's so incredibly close and I would love to hear the rationale.

This was written last year so the numbers have changed a little, but this is interesting..


Both guys are just unbelievable though.
I think that Messi gets more credit than Ronaldo for being the modern era goat because of his play style and physical stature. Ronaldo is the embodiment of more modern soccer, a guy that has worked relentlessly to maximize his gifts. More of a scorer, he dominated with rare physical ability more than anything.

Messi feels far more like a naturally gifted dribbler and creator, and maybe more of a throwback style of player than Ronaldo was. Making impossible dribbling runs and a far better set piece taker.

Such an interesting contrast because Messi and Ronaldo are very dissimilar as players, yet both have been arguably the best two players of the last decade. I think Messi statistically speaking might be the superior player, and I think he gets the sentimental, underdog nod from most people as opposed to CR7, who’s a little more brazen, a little more prone to ripping his shirt off and flexing his abs after goals.
 

coremiller

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On Messi vs. Ronaldo, there really isn't a strong argument for Ronaldo. Messi is just as good a goalscorer as Ronaldo, if not better, while ALSO being the world's best creative midfielder at the same time. Messi is basically what you get if combined Ronaldo and someone like Xavi or Kevin de Bruyne into one player. That should be impossible, and it's what makes Messi truly sui generis. There have been other powerful, fast, dribbling wide forwards with a great shot who scored a lot -- Ronaldo is better than, say, Gareth Bale or even Thierry Henry (a hugely underrated player historically in these discussions) but the prototype isn't that different; there has never been anything like Messi, except maybe Maradona.

Maaaybe there's an argument that, because Ronaldo's game is a little less ball-dominant (he doesn't need to be on the ball so much in midfield), Ronaldo combines better with other elite-level players, so he can raise the ceiling of an already-elite team a little more? But Messi can dominate games in a much more complete way than anything Ronaldo could do.
 

tmracht

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Whoops wrong click didn't mean Maradona.

Anywho my top 5:

Messi
Beckenbauer
Cruyff
Maradona
Pele

I just don't think there is a better all around player than Beckenbauer, but Messi is (recency bias) the most transcendent player offensively I've seen (highlights or live). Beckenbauer did it all, score/defend/leadership/winner everything you could want in a player.
 

InstaFace

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On Messi vs. Ronaldo, there really isn't a strong argument for Ronaldo. Messi is just as good a goalscorer as Ronaldo, if not better, while ALSO being the world's best creative midfielder at the same time. Messi is basically what you get if combined Ronaldo and someone like Xavi or Kevin de Bruyne into one player. That should be impossible, and it's what makes Messi truly sui generis. There have been other powerful, fast, dribbling wide forwards with a great shot who scored a lot -- Ronaldo is better than, say, Gareth Bale or even Thierry Henry (a hugely underrated player historically in these discussions) but the prototype isn't that different; there has never been anything like Messi, except maybe Maradona.

Maaaybe there's an argument that, because Ronaldo's game is a little less ball-dominant (he doesn't need to be on the ball so much in midfield), Ronaldo combines better with other elite-level players, so he can raise the ceiling of an already-elite team a little more? But Messi can dominate games in a much more complete way than anything Ronaldo could do.
Yeah what struck me about Messi vs Ronaldo even before I knew anything much about top club soccer was just in comparing the highlights each of them generated. Ronaldo's scoring seemed so opportunistic, and dependent on service. He's always great at converting headers, or crosses into the box, clearly doing everything strikers are supposed to do but just better / higher-percentage at it. But you look at Messi, and he's doing eye-popping things that shouldn't even be possible against professional opposition. He has that rare, god-given, Pedro-esque quality of just making these world-class defenders and midfielders look like absolute clowns. It's like Bruce Lee charging into a crowd of armed villains and leaving them all writhing on the ground in various stages of broken, that's what it felt like to me watching plenty of highlights of his first decade in the big leagues. So like, yeah, he gets a lot of his goals on distance set pieces, just like Ronaldo (and Ronaldo also takes 100% of the penalty shots for his teams, boosting his totals). He has curlers, he has pull-backs, he even has some headers. But he's also got a long, glorious highlight reel of plays that basically nobody else in the world can make except as a once-in-a-career freak play. That few players would even attempt.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5Uxg5LlNZQ


View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waETo-ZWCRw


...and that's just the self-created opportunities. The times he spots some crazy angle or run and hits a teammate or makes himself available for a pass in a way that confounds the defense are just innumerable - even if some don't turn into goals, they turn into high-percentage chances.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pJTQ9yW5O8


View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvPQeRDtLfA


And yeah, in set pieces, he's very comparable to Ronaldo, even arguably a little inferior. But aside from the dribbling, what's remarkable about him is the sheer precision of his balls, he tries so many things that require such a perfectly placed ball that it would be a very low-percentage play for anyone else. But not him.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rigv1mMkTsc


More "rare assists only Messi can do": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lgeq-IuqQJo

As someone who's studied a little martial arts, I'm always paying attention to balance and center-of-gravity in sports, and in that regard Messi just jumps off the screen at you as someone who can juke you out of your shoes. His low center-of-gravity, subtle shoulder-fakes, and ability to touch the ball at any point with any part of his foot, make him absolutely impossible to track and force into space, much less get the ball off of him, most of the time.



That's not some schlub from Eibar, that's in-his-prime Jerome Boateng of Bayern getting taken for a spin, and then chipping Manuel Neuer, both of them recent World Cup champs. Their footwork is world-class, but Messi's is in a class by itself. It's like how Gronk used to draw, not just double-teams, but sometimes triple-teams, because the defense was just praying Brady wouldn't get the ball to him in space. You can close out most players and make them give it up or cut down their angle to something unmanageable, but you can't "manage" an attacking players who's both thinking and changing direction at twice your speed.

Oh, also, he doesn't go down when he's fouled, he fights through it rather than takes the foul. That's one of the first things that made me admire him, because it makes him so different. He repeatedly says, fuck your foul, I own you, I don't need some goddamn charity. It's just incredibly badass, when you put him against all the world-class floppers he plays against (and with).

Basically, because of his close-control abilities, low center-of-gravity, willingness to take on opponents, passing vision and passing touch, he does stuff that is just several levels beyond anyone. De Bruyne has his moments, but compared to him, the game appears to be in slow-motion for Leo Messi. I've rarely seen anything like it in any sport.
 
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dirtynine

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Slow zoom out to reveal this poll floating inside a snow globe that Zlatan is holding.

(Real answer: Messi)
 

InstaFace

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The only thing that Ronaldo is superior to Messi in regards to set pieces is driving the ball directly into the wall.
Look, give CR7 his due, the guy kicks the ball harder than anyone not named Zlatan (and maybe including Zlatan these days). He can score direct from distances few would even think about trying, even Messi, whether it's a set piece or open play. The soccer equivalent of a "rising fastball".

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDUepyWe5Ac


The ball's just getting there faster, there's no particular trickery to it other than sometimes the element of surprise. It's part of what makes him world-class... it's just not enough to compare him to Messi. And that's no insult.
 

SoxFanInCali

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It took him 43 attempts to score from a free kick for Juventus (he finally did last month). Before that, he hadn't scored a free kick in a league game since 2017.

Yes, he's got some highlight ones, but for every one of those there are dozens of them put right into the wall or over the bar.
 

coremiller

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I think that Messi gets more credit than Ronaldo for being the modern era goat because of his play style and physical stature. Ronaldo is the embodiment of more modern soccer, a guy that has worked relentlessly to maximize his gifts. More of a scorer, he dominated with rare physical ability more than anything.

Messi feels far more like a naturally gifted dribbler and creator, and maybe more of a throwback style of player than Ronaldo was. Making impossible dribbling runs and a far better set piece taker.

Such an interesting contrast because Messi and Ronaldo are very dissimilar as players, yet both have been arguably the best two players of the last decade. I think Messi statistically speaking might be the superior player, and I think he gets the sentimental, underdog nod from most people as opposed to CR7, who’s a little more brazen, a little more prone to ripping his shirt off and flexing his abs after goals.
I don't think this take gives Messi nearly enough credit for the hard work he's put into improving over his career. A good example is his free kicks -- early in Messi's career he didn't even take free kicks for Barcelona, and when he started to do so he didn't score them at a particularly exceptional rate. He's now easily the best free-kick taker in the world, averaging about 7 goals per season from free kicks over the last five years.

Instaface, I don't think it's so much that Messi does assists that only Messi can do. There are many other brilliant passers who create similar genius assists. It's just that none of those other brilliant passers also score 30+ goals per season. Similarly, there have been other brilliant low center-of-gravity dribblers who drop into midfield and use their dribbling and appreciation of spacing to work the ball into dangerous attacking areas (Eden Hazard in his good Chelsea seasons being a prime example here), but again none of them do this while also being the league's leading goalscorer while also creating the genius assists. What makes Messi unique is that he can do everything.
 

nolasoxfan

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Pele
Maradona
Beckenbauer
Messi
Cruyff

I like my GOATs to have won something. That said, there is no denying Messi and Ronaldo’s talents.

Edit: I don’t think Zidane is worthy of even a top 10 list. My personal bias.
Edit 2: I am removing Ronaldo from my top 5 and bringing up Cruyff.
 

InstaFace

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Instaface, I don't think it's so much that Messi does assists that only Messi can do. There are many other brilliant passers who create similar genius assists. It's just that none of those other brilliant passers also score 30+ goals per season. Similarly, there have been other brilliant low center-of-gravity dribblers who drop into midfield and use their dribbling and appreciation of spacing to work the ball into dangerous attacking areas (Eden Hazard in his good Chelsea seasons being a prime example here), but again none of them do this while also being the league's leading goalscorer while also creating the genius assists. What makes Messi unique is that he can do everything.
Agreed in part, Messi's prime value is his versatility. But I do think his close control puts even Eden Hazard to shame, and not least because Messi will do it from anywhere on the field, including right down the middle.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZP-G6xjmOA


Look at the frequency of touches. And I suppose there's plenty of similarity, yes:

View: https://twitter.com/CFCAC_/status/1299360047005421568


At his absolute best, Hazard vaguely reminds you of Messi with maybe just a little more top footspeed:

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIWqvf60NhM


View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZIpmR8BCcY


...but like, even in those, the ball isn't kept as close, he doesn't shift the defenders quite as much, and it looks just a little more weighted towards "defensive mistake / laziness" vs "offensive brilliance".

I dunno, I'm not sure there's a player whose dribbling I'd take over Messi, nor a player whose assists / passing I'd take over Messi, much less his finishing from anyplace in the box. Some can come close, some of the time and on some of the skills we're discussing. You can't win this argument by arguing-via-highlight. But over the course of watching him for years, I've come to appreciate how special he is in each of the respects, not just when put together as a whole.
 

Kliq

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As Coremiller notes, soccer is virtually impossible to compare across eras. Not only that, but comparing players from different positions is also basically impossible as well, you can't really compare Beckenbauer and Messi, just like how you really couldn't compare Jerry Rice and Tom Brady, or Walter Johnson and Ted Williams.

Soccer is a global game, and only until recently did certain leagues become big enough to really justify being truly international collections of talent. That means that for a majority of the game's existence, we had to basically guess and argue about the quality of competition and which type of homogeneous, domestic football league, was superior. That means that often times when looking at players pre-1990s, people focus on the World Cup and perhaps the Euros, because that is one of the only times we can be sure the best players played against the best competition. Of course, that is a very imperfect model, because if we focused on that in the modern game, people could be convinced that Miroslav Klose was better than Lionel Messi.

This differs greatly from American sports, where basically there is one league that is considered to be the world's best, and that league has existed in basically the same form since the sport reached the professional level. Even though the game has changed greatly, we can look at Honus Wagner 120 years ago, and easily point to his greatness, not only because we have statistics, but he played in the same baseball league, with the same general structure, with the same general teams, and the game hasn't changed so much that we can't appreciate greatness from more than a century ago. The same cannot be said for soccer, which due to being a global game, it does not have the same kind of standardized structure that we can use to universally measure players against.

In addition, even in the modern game it is hard to compare similar players across different leagues, because the talent level, schedule, and style of play all varies so much that it is hard to look at any meaningful statistics and declare one player superior to another.

Let's compare a collection of true No. 9 strikers over the past five seasons. Let's look at Harry Kane, Edison Cavani, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski and Gonzalo Higuain. All of them have been playing in different leagues, and their goal totals and effectiveness are all going to vary based on those leagues, so even though they all play the same position and all play in the same era, statistically it is very hard to compare them.

Compounding all of that is that soccer has relied so much on an artistic bent and outside of goals and assists, statistics really don't have a general practicality on player evaluations, with advanced metrics starting to creep in over the last few years, which could change things. So you are relying a lot on reputation, legend and glamorization of players to really sell their greatness. I don't think Zidane belongs in the conversation, but Zidane was so elegant with the ball and played in such a unique way that he is remembered for being better than he probably was. I'd rather watch Zidane highlights than Gerd Muller, but I'd argue Muller was a significantly better player.

So I don't have a true GOAT pick. I guess you could argue for Messi, who I actually find boring due to the robotic nature of his career. His longevity and playing in an era that had a closer uniform standard of quality will set him apart, although I'd actually probably rather have Ronaldo on my team, which doesn't necessarily make him the better player.

Cruyff, Puskas and Josef Bican are among the three most influential players in history (Bican maybe not in the same way, but he is probably the most historically underrated player in soccer history, which really covers some ground) and part of that is because of their respective national teams (which really reflect an overall domestic approach to soccer) were influential and really changed the game in a way that Pele, Messi, Maradona, Ronaldo, etc. never did.

Certain players, mainly Ronaldo De Lima (Brazilian Ronaldo, aka Ronaldo Classico aka Ronaldo Fenomeno) have an argument to being the single greatest players at the height of their powers, but didn't have the longevity (Van Basten is a similar situation). Ronaldo's first season at Barcelona, before any of the injuries, is the true stuff of legend and really hasn't been equaled in a lot of ways. Ronaldo missed years with knee injuries, and was out of shape, and yet was still the best player in the world at times.

I voted for Alfredo Di Stefano because I wanted to be a little cheeky. Di Stefano, by playing in El Dorado and dominating, did play at a high level against an international cavalcade of the world's best players, despite playing in an era when that was basically impossible, outside of El Dorado. He also was probably the most versatile player in history, playing the game in a way that doesn't exist today. Someone mentioned Pele as being a player who pioneered South American players being taken seriously, but that isn't true at all. Di Stefano, when he went to Real Madrid and turned them into the juggernaut of Europe, was really the trendsetter in that regard. He probably isn't the true GOAT because Messi is better than him by virtue of being a modern player, but Di Stefano deserves recognition.

There is a great YouTube channel, HITC Sevens, who does a great breakdown on historical evaluations and the impact of past soccer players and developments that have shaped the game today.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERKluSLFHOo
 

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MDLzera
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And if we're going to talk Pele, we might as well try to dredge up what grainy, often black-and-white highlights exist of him.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wDb9Q5Bl-8


View: https://youtu.be/RwmrwHwxiKc?t=278

(striped jersey = Santos, solid shirt = Selecao, probably)

You'd have to say, style wise:

- Similar whimsical, playful improvisation to solve an attacking problem
- Oftentimes that Messi / Hazard quality of close-control and frequent touches, with the strength to win a lot of foot-vs-foot standing tackles
- Did a lot of juggling that you just don't see much of today, the short chips to get around a defender
- The defending is, we must acknowledge, frequently poor by today's standards, but a lot of this is still against international competition where the film was better / more-frequent.
 

Vinho Tinto

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There are little things when you watch old clips that stand out like the not passing back on the opening kick off, but instead marching forward like an army. But the hack defenders who were allowed to risk breaking opponent's legs and the alarming number of players looking hungover stand out like sore thumb. When you read stories of how players in the 60s-80s lived, it's actually shocking more of the bench players didn't join their managers in smoking butts during the matches.

I firmly believe we are seeing the greatest players and teams of all time. If I just go back to when I first started watching in 1994 and compare to what I see today - the quality of the product is night and day. It's so much faster and the tactics of the clubs are significantly more robust.

I'll never let go of Wenger getting so much credit for getting the Arsenal players to cut down on the amount of beer and cigarette smoke they consumed. It sounds obvious, but it was a major culture change for the club and league. And again, this was the mid 1990s. Forget what was considered training in the decades prior.

Messi is worthy of being the consensus choice for greatest player of all time. Forget Ronaldo, I really would take Zidane, Zlatan, or even Figo over virtually anyone else mentioned in this thread. I have a hard time overlooking how much better the modern player has to be physically and mentally. The one thing I will say for the historic players is that they had to play on horrible pitches and with balls that resembled stones once they were wet. To be able to produce and play in a manner that wowed crowds was very difficult. They deserve their status for growing the game, but they aren't within a mile of the modern players.
 
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Section30

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There is no reason to think that Pele wouldn't be just as good in the modern game. He scored 6 times in the world cup when he was 17 years old. Don't discount every players fitness from that era. As a matter of fact many players had adopted Sir Stanley Mathews training routine of eating correctly and distance running for endurance as they watched him play well into his late 40's. There is an old tape on Brazil's practice routines.One drill was sprinting 50 yards while jumping every five yards to head a soccer ball suspended 8ft off the ground.

In 1962 teams had started resorting to hack the opponent until he can't play tactics. In one clip on Pele I saw him make a pass, count 1, 2 then a defender jumped into his legs, from behind, both feet in the air.

As a counter point to older era players making it in modern soccer I don't see modern players surviving to have such gaudy numbers if they were contending with such defending tactics. Also I don't see them having as careers as long as modern players do based on the level of healthcare available to players.

Just imagine how much better Pele would have been with modern training and healthcare.
 

67YAZ

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It seems to me that most, if not all, of the factors about changing eras have a counterbalance.

Better nutrition & training? Much larger & better developed player pool benefiting from the same

Beating up on low-level domestic competition? Clustering of top talent at mega-clubs.

Better medical treatments & surgeries? Much more physically & mentally demanding game.

Vicious tackling? Sophisticated tactical systems built on scouting, video, & data analyses.

And so on. I take this to be a fun, lighthearted exercise to learn more and think newly about great players.

Was Zidane a luxury player or a man so feared that he effectively titlted every opposing defense towards him, opening room for his teammates to thrive?

The anecdote about seeing Pele’s scarred knees? Wow.

Ronaldo’s single season at Barca as maybe the GOAT campaign?

Learning that the Spanish FA originally ruled that Madrid & Barca had to alternate seasons with DiStefano before the regime applied pressure?!?!?!