I PLAYED against Pele. I marvelled at Maradona. I’ve been mesmerised by Messi.
If the little guy lifts the World Cup on Sunday, it will be a great way to top off an amazing career.
But it won’t stop the arguments about whether he is better than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Let alone where he stands in the all-time debate.
I find it tough and I’ve had more experience than most of some of the greats and what they meant in the game.
A few times at West Ham we came up against his Santos team, then I played in America when he was at the New York Cosmos.
He had everything. He was so strong, as well as everything else.
All those things you see modern players doing everywhere on TV or social media — Pele probably did them first.
Maradona was incredible. To turn a team, Napoli, around like he did and win two Serie A titles was an amazing achievement. Then, of course, he led Argentina to World Cup glory in Mexico in 1986.
You also have to remember that Pele was kicked from pillar to post. Teams would go out and try to absolutely finish him. He was fouled out of the 1966 World Cup.
It was pretty much the same for Maradona. There’s that stat about when Argentina played Italy in the 1982 World Cup and Claudio Gentile is supposed to have fouled him 23 times. And he only got a yellow card.
People have still steamed into Ronaldo and Messi but nothing like the way that those two were targeted and hurt in their day.
That’s a big reason why it’s hard and unfair to make comparisons across the years.
I was playing in the England youth set-up at the same time Johan Cruyff was coming through in Holland, so we all knew about him from an early age.
He was a fantastic talent, the best player in that Total Football side. But what’s also amazing about him is what he did after playing. He changed the game so much as a coach, too.
George Best was a rival and friend. He was also a genius. He never had the chance to show it in a World Cup, which tells against him in these kind of conversations.
And he had a short career at the top level compared to Pele, Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo.
I have to say there’s no one that jumps out at me at this World Cup and says he’s going to take over from Messi and Ronaldo when they retire.
People talk about Kylian Mbappe. He has great ability, no doubt about that. But he’s out of the game too much. Sometimes you don’t see him for ten or 15 minutes.
He played in flashes against England but not so well to make you go, “Oh, my god”.
Kyle Walker did a good job on him but it would have been harder to do that to the others.
You couldn’t mark Messi out of the game. He would always be involved. Maradona, Pele the same. Messi, when he picks the ball up and runs with it, it’s like it’s tied to his laces.
It’s incredible. His passes, and one-twos — I love it and always have done over the years watching Spanish football on TV when he was playing for Barcelona.
Messi has had an amazing World Cup. Everyone thought he was finished. After their opening-game defeat against Saudi Arabia, everyone thought Argentina were finished.
I’m glad they’ve proved people wrong.
Partly because the football romantic in me likes the idea of Messi going out in style.
But I also have to admit to having a little bet before the tournament — Argentina to win it and Messi to be top goalscorer.
Both are looking quite strong, so I’ve definitely got an interest in today’s final.
Just don’t ask me to put money on who’s the best player of all time — that race will never end.
WE CAN PHIL IT COMING
THIS World Cup was a big chance missed for England. But it will come again!
Because we have a fantastic group of young players. I think we had the best squad in the tournament.
Surely we will find a way of winning a tournament. We can’t keep being unlucky.
I still think we can be a bit bolder in our selection.
We did play well against France so it’s hard to criticise.
But it would be great to find room for a No 10, whether it’s Foden or whoever. We’re still a bit negative.
Gareth must look at it and think, ‘Hang on, I’ve got a real chance here’.
If it was an ageing squad, ‘I’m not going to do anything with this lot, there’s only one way from here and that’s down’, then…
But it’s not. He has a real opportunity to win something. The Euros are in 18 months.
I’d be surprised if he moved on. People ask who could take over if he goes. But remember Gareth didn’t come into the job with an amazing record as a club manager.
If he stays, great. If he doesn’t, whoever gets the job has a great chance to be successful.
Only one manager has won two World Cups — and that was before even I was born.
Didier Deschamps is already in that very small group of those who have been world champ as both player and coach.
Now he could join an even more exclusive club with Vittorio Pozzo, Italy boss in 1934 and ’38.
When you look at the players France are missing, it’s a great achievement. Not bad for someone Eric Cantona once dismissed as “a water carrier”.
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