It’s hardly surprising to hear former football players waxing lyrical about the world’s greatest player, but that shouldn’t stop us from listening. As part of TIME International’s cover story on the 24-year-old phenom Lionel Messi, we heard from a host of soccer legends who were equally ebullient in their praise for the precocious Argentine superstar.
Messi, who plies his trade for the Spanish club Barcelona (he has already won pretty much every trophy on offer for the team) and represents his country (admittedly to far less acclaim), has just become the first player to win FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, the award given to the planet’s best player, three times in a row.
But just how good is he? “In terms of ability and his overall impact on the game and what’s he achieved so far, he would be the best I’ve ever seen,” says former Barcelona striker Gary Lineker, who was one of England’s finest ever goal scorers. The coach who signed him for Barça, fellow Englishman Terry Venables, tells TIME, “It’s just wonderful to see. You’ve got to pinch yourself sometimes, it’s really amazing what he does.”
Soccer pros and fans alike love nothing more than to rank players, past and present. It’s generally perceived that the top two players in history hail from South America: the brilliant Brazilian Pelé and the more tragic figure of Messi’s fellow Argentine Diego Maradona, who single-handedly (at times literally if you recall his “hand of God” goal) won the World Cup in 1986. Maradona’s international teammate, Ossie Ardiles, believes that Messi has already eclipsed these two legends of the game. “I think he’s certainly the best player of his generation. And I definitely believe not only that but he’s the best player in the history of football.” Ardiles adds, “To be perfectly honest, I thought I would never encounter anybody in the same league because Diego was a genius.” But his justification for Messi being the more accomplished player is practical. “One of the reasons I think Messi is better than Maradona and Pelé is evolution. People before say Pelé was running 5,000, 6,000 meters. Now they are running 9,000 meters. Now players eat better, train better, the pitches are better. So this is why I believe Messi is the very best ever.”
The Maradona comparisons are arguably going to hound Messi through his career, which, as long as he remains uninjured, has many years to run. “They’re both diminutive with unbelievably brilliant left feet that can manipulate the ball as if it were a hand, that can beat people, that can score goals, that can change games,” notes Lineker. “But I think looking at the two of them, I think Messi, at the same stage of his career as Maradona, has probably achieved more. He’s won everything, he’s unbelievably consistent, which he has an edge over Maradona. He’s frighteningly disciplined.”
For Venables: “Messi is like an Oliver Twist character, picking a pocket or two, the Artful Dodger, where he’s just sort of slipping around, looking like a little lad in the playground. He’s not really taking it seriously, and he makes you smile every time he gets the ball. And when he does some of these things, I have to laugh because it’s not possible what he does. It’s wonderful to watch.”
But to get the only remaining monkey off his back, Messi will be expected to win a World Cup for Argentina. “I think it’s a reflection of the nature of football these days that club football dominates everything, and Messi has dominated the Champions League,” says Gavin Hamilton, editor of World Soccer magazine, but “internationally, the World Cup is still important, and I think we accept it as the only place there’s a level playing field where the players compete against each other on a global scale.” Ardiles, who won a World Cup on home soil in 1978, thinks Messi “would give up all the medals he has right now for a World Cup medal,” whereas Venables concedes that “at the moment Argentina can’t do everything, and the gift that he has isn’t enough to win it on his own.” Hamilton is of the opinion that “the record books have to record him as a World Cup winner for him to be accepted as the greatest player of all time,” before pointing out that “the next World Cup in Brazil could be a perfect stage for him.” We’ll all be watching.