Greatest player ever? Messi? Try Pele or Di Stefano

As expected, Lionel Messi won his fifth FIFA Ballon d'Or as the best player in the world in voting by national team coaches and captains and journalists. The most any other player has won is three awards, mostly recently by Cristiano Ronaldo (2008, 2013, 2014).

The others won three awards when the Ballon d'Or was known as the European Player of the Year: Johan Cruyff (1971, 1973, 1974), Michel Platini (1983, 1984, 1985) and Marco van Basten (1988, 1989, 1992). (Zinedine Zidane won the Ballon d'Or and FIFA Player of the Year in 1998 and FIFA Player of the Year awards in 2000 and 2003.)

Does that make Messi the greatest player of all time? Before him, such South American greats as Pele, Diego Maradona, Garrincha and Romario were excluded from consideration for the Ballon d'Or.

From its inception in 1956 to 1994, the Ballon d'Or ("Golden Ball"), launched and organized by the Paris magazine France Football, was picked by European journalists and awarded to a European player.

(The Real Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano, who was born and raised in Argentina and won in 1957 and 1959, qualified as a European because he played briefly for Spain. Same thing for "Italian" Omar Sivori, the winner in 1961.)

Beginning in 1995, the rules were modified, and all players playing in Europe were eligible for the Ballon d'Or. Indeed, the 1995 winner was AC Milan forward (and part-time Staten Island resident) George Weah of Liberia.

In 2007, the rules were again changed, and the Ballon d'Or was open to any player. The voting was also changed to include non-European journalists from countries that had played in the World Cup.

Since 2010, the award has been known as the FIFA Ballon d'Or, reflecting the merger of the Ballon d'Or and FIFA Player of the Year awards, not without the protest of the three former editors in chief of France Football who had organized the voting since 1955 and objected to France Football's publishers "selling out" to FIFA.

Indeed, the first vote for the unified award backed up some of the concerns as Wesley Sneijder, first in the media voting, finished only fourth overall behind Messi in 2010, and Messi's Barcelona teammates, Andres Iniesta and Xavi when national team captains and coaches were factored in.

But is Messi indeed the greatest player ever ahead of the greats from the past? In celebration of 60 years of the Ballon d'Or, France Football published a special edition and looked at all the years when non-Europeans were excluded and determined whether the voting would have been the same if the award was open to everyone. The results? Pele would have won seven Ballon d'Or awards in the 12 years that would have been produced a different winner.

Ballon d'Or, The Remake:
1958 Pele (Kopa)
1959 Pele (Di Stefano)
1960 Pele (Suarez)
1961 Pele (Sivori)
1962 Garrincha (Masopust)
1963 Pele (Yashin)
1964 Pele (Law)
1970 Pele (Mueller)
1978 Kempes (Keegan)
1986 Maradona (Belanov)
1990 Maradona (Matthaeus)
1994 Romario (Stoitchkov)

France Football also asked Jacques Ferran, who was its editor in chief in 1956 and organized the first voting, mostly of its European correspondents, who he'd pick among the players who have won the award, and Ferran, now 95, picked Di Stefano, Cruyff and Platini, 1-2-3, over Messi.

His argument? Di Stefano was more important to his club, the great Real Madrid of the 1950s and early 1960s, than than Messi is to Barcelona, and neither was a factor on the national team level.

"Everything went through him," Ferran explained of Real Madrid's tactics that were built around Di Stefano. "I never saw that, except with Pele and perhaps for a short time Cruyff at his peak."

2015 U.S. Votes:
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann: 1. Messi 2. Neymar 3. Cristiano Ronaldo.
Captain Michael Bradley: 1. Messi 2. Ronaldo 3. Suarez.
Media Paul Kennedy: 1. Messi. 2. Cristiano Ronaldo 3. Neymar.

17 comments about "Greatest player ever? Messi? Try Pele or Di Stefano".
  1. Nicholas Adams, January 11, 2016 at 8 p.m.


  2. beautiful game, January 11, 2016 at 8:11 p.m.

    Mr. Ferran is correct. But in todays style of team play and pressure football Messi deserves his crown for excellence. Either way, all football icons should be judged by the time capsule in which era they played. How anyone can elevate Pele, Messi, and the rest of the greats in the same breath does not give proper respect that each one of them deserves. Yet, IMHO, Maradona's greatness falls short for being a cheat.

  3. Gonzalo Munevar, January 11, 2016 at 8:47 p.m.

    The article is about people's opinions in the end. But those opinions are right. I saw Pele play and I have seen Messi play. Messi is a great player, but there is no comparison. Pele was clearly superior in every aspect of the game. And Maradona dominated games in ways that Messi doesn't. Indeed, whole tournaments. That is why Argentina won the World Cup in 1986. Will Argentina ever win anything with Messi?

  4. Jose Castillo replied, January 12, 2016 at 12:05 a.m.

    When would Messi win anything with his national team? Never...Messi is a club player and that's it, take him outside of his club Barcelona and his like a fish out of the water...just saying.

  5. charles davenport, January 12, 2016 at 7:42 a.m.

    George Best?

  6. john celeste, January 12, 2016 at 8:01 a.m.

    The disparaging comments about Messi must be from prejudiced fans that don't take into consideration today's tactical defenses, amount of games played weekly with little recovery time, the athleticism needed to perform at the highest level. I have been a soccer player, youth coach, referee a commissioner on the USSF and treasurer of the NJSYSA and I have watched in person all the players mentioned. Messi brought a bunch of prima donnas to the world cup final that any decent forward would have made Argentina the champion but not Higuain and Arguelo or Di Maria on that occasion. Argentina was not a T E A M

  7. beautiful game, January 12, 2016 at 9:43 a.m.

    GM, Maradona is a cheat, great player; but without cheating no WC 1986 for Argentina.

    JC, u are absolutely correct. The Argentine supporting cast in 2014 fell well short of expectations.

  8. Mateo Leach replied, January 12, 2016 at 12:16 p.m.

    So any intentional violation of the rules makes a person a cheat? That makes every soccer player a cheat, as intentional fouls are committed all the time.

  9. cisco martinez, January 12, 2016 at 11:58 a.m.

    I w Nowozeniuk, Maradona by far was the best players in the world, would you consider Henry a cheat for the goal against Ireland? Why don't you blame the referee for NOT doing his job? As for Messi, he needs to win a World Cup to be considered one of the best ever; are there a lot of players that never played in a World Cup that were considered the best? Absolutely, George Weah, George Best, etc. However, Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Cruyff all either won the World Cup or were considered in the upper echelon of world soccer.

  10. Vince Leone, January 12, 2016 at 12:15 p.m.

    At the club level, Pele did not play against the level of competition and organized defense that Messi does. Messi's closest competition is Maradona, but I vote for Leo. I think he is more unpredictable and definitely a better team player.

  11. cisco martinez, January 12, 2016 at 2:05 p.m.

    Another argument FOR MARADONA is that he turned Napoli into a Champions League title and also won the Scudetto with a well below average team, has Messi or Ronaldo done that? Maradona also single-handedly won the 1986 games on his own, that's not according to me, Messi said "Even if I played for a million years, I’d never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway. He’s the greatest there’s ever been." Platini said, "Diego was capable of things no one else could match. The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange." Mourinho suggested that no one could do what Maradona did.

  12. Wooden Ships, January 12, 2016 at 5:03 p.m.

    Not really possible to declare the best, IMO. Somebody above was correct in the assessment of style of play, alignments, etc. If we are talking skilled-technical, change of pace and direction with the ball seemingly attached to the boot, for me, hands down its Leo. The competition week in and week out is unsurpassed. Nothing against the others, as I even trained with Pele, but none possess the magic with the ball that he does. IMO. Also, if we are talking about the most talented or best, I don't agree that you have to win the Workd Cup. It's not a solo sport. DM was deadly but not as skilled as Leo. He was more Romario like. Messi is unlike anyone before.

  13. cisco martinez, January 12, 2016 at 7:12 p.m.

    Wooden Ships, do you think Messi could play for Swansea and turn them into Premier league champions, win the champions league, and a World Cup? If Messi does this then yes he is the best, however to one up you, I worked with a former San Jose Earthquakes player whom played with George Best, against Pele, and saw Maradona live and he said Maradona was the best he's ever seen.

  14. Wooden Ships replied, January 12, 2016 at 8:29 p.m.

    It's okay to one up me Cisco, its opinion as we know. I've only seen and played with one, but just having seen footage/film many times over of all of them, for me Messi is gifted with the most ability. He even defies a traditional numerical position. Believe me, I would love to give the nod to those of my era, but I can't.

  15. stewart hayes, January 13, 2016 at 10:23 a.m.

    All of the comments make good points. If Messi played in the 60's he would never have gotten past the second defender. While Diego is up there high on the list his 'hand of god goal' disqualifies him for any top spot. I would easily vote for Pele due to his multiple world cup appearances and total goals scored. He also like his peers before played at a time when the artists were not protected as they certainly are today which allows the great Messi to demonstrate his skill in a way earlier players could not even if they had the capacity to do so.

  16. Vince Leone replied, January 13, 2016 at 2:33 p.m.

    Messi would have been fouled more in earlier eras, but he is also incredible at evading tackles while keeping the ball.

  17. beautiful game, January 13, 2016 at 5:59 p.m.

    All the greats had supporting casts who delivered at the World Cup. Who delivered for Argentina in 2014?

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