After his team had been knocked out of the UEFA Champions League by Barcelona, Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola took a moment to comment on the player most responsible for his defeat: Lionel Messi.

Guardiola said of the player who twice helped him win the Champions League with Barcelona:

“He is the best player of all time. I compare him with Pelé. I am so happy to see this football. He is back, he is there where I had the privilege to train him. He is definitely back at his best.” [Guardian]

Compared to Pele. Now we really are getting into new territory with Messi and the best player debate, as I suggested in a previous post.

Guardiola may be somewhat biased since he is a former manager of the player but on the other hand he is now managing another team and has been able to experience first-hand just how hard it is to beat a team with Messi on it. So if Pep says that Messi can be compared to Pele, that really changes the conversation for me. I’d really like to be able to add Messi to our Best Ever poll – which Pele currently leads by the way – but I still feel that current fans will be more likely to vote for current stars and that would unbalance the poll. I don’t know if you can properly poll this question: Messi vs Pele. One thing that might work though is to talk to veteran soccer people like Guardiola and get some kind of consensus that way.

One way or the other, one thing that is becoming more true is that the Messi-Cristiano debate now occupies a level lower than the one which pits Messi vs Pele – who for most of the world has been known as the best player ever, forever.

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Hard to imagine after all that he has accomplished and demonstrated over his career but Lionel Messi seems to have broken through to a new, higher and perhaps ultimate level.

And this just months after his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded the 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or.

There are two performances that have made this happen. And two corroborating  comments from the two best managers in the world make the new Messi discussion a compelling one.

First there was the Champions League performance vs Manchester City on March 18th where Messi played a first-half of flight, nutmegs and untouchability that could have been a scene from a science fiction film where these days anything is possible. In the stand for that display was his former manager and long-time Barcelona season ticket holder, Pep Guardiola – who couldn’t hide his awe.

Then there was the most recent Champions League performance vs Guardiola’s Bayern Munich on May 6th where Messi waited until the 76th minute to begin his masterpiece of two goals, one assist and a 3-0 first-leg victory. His second goal which made a verb out of Jerome Boateng (v. boateng. To boateng: to fall like a tree after being dribbled) will be talked about for ages.

Guardiola had said before the match that it was impossible to stop Messi:

“You can’t stop him. If he is what he is, if he plays as he can, you can’t stop him. You can’t defend against talent of that magnitude. Teams have tried a thousand ways of stopping him, and it makes no difference,” he said. “We have to make sure he does not get the ball, close his way to goal. But there is no defensive system that can stop him, and no coach either.” (Guardian)

And days later another great manager – Jose Mourinho – admitted the same thing:

“People think in the wrong way,” Mourinho said. “One thing is a team. Another thing is a team with Messi. It is a different story. He [made] a Champions League final with [Frank] Rijkaard. He played a Champions League with Guardiola. He [if it goes as expected] is playing a Champions League final with Luis Enrique.

“So, when people analyse teams, you have to remember that this boy makes everything different. He makes everything different.

“I think this guy makes the gap by himself. You have doubts that [Manchester] City with Messi can win the Champions League? Or Arsenal with Messi can win the Champions League? Or Chelsea with Messi can win the Champions League? Or Man United with Messi can win the Champions League? Don’t you think? I think.

“I am saying that a team with that boy is a different team, is a different story.” (ESPN)

In my years following the game I’ve never heard such high praise for a player. It is clear we are now not just talking about the Best Player in the World but we have now crossed over into a dimension where we are considering if Messi is in fact the best player to ever have played the game. Best Player Ever. Yes. Better than Maradona. Better than Pele. Many big soccer people have been saying this for a few years but I have not been willing to – until now.

And it’s amazing that we are doing so mere months after Cristiano’s coronation.

So what does this mean for Cristiano?

Well, we have always tried to be balanced here at Best Player in the World and even joined in confirming Cristiano’s status in January. And we have followed the back and forth, the trophies, the goal-scoring records, the highlight reel performances that have had fans of the world saying: Messi is the best now; Cristiano is the best now; Messi; Cristiano; Messi…

Back and forth it has gone, for a span of years that has seen the two players win the last 6 Ballons.

In that January post we did wonder though:

“How good would Messi have to be this year to eclipse the incredible Cristiano for the 2015 Ballon d’Or?”

Well already in May of 2015 we have our answer.

And I think that now finally Cristiano has no answer to Messi’s magic. Yes magic – that is the difference between the two players, I think.

Cristiano is great. One of the greatest, most talented players of all-time. A body, a skill-set and a winning mentality that is the epitome of the modern footballer.

But Messi is even more than that. Even greater than the optimal, modern footballer. He goes beyond the modern and enters into the supernatural.

He is the kind of player that comes around rarely, if ever.

Lionel Messi – Best Player in the World and Best Player Ever.

Ponder that for a while, think about what Pep and Jose have said, reflect on the talents of Pele and Maradona and others – and ask yourself if it just might be true.

Occasionally we get asked to open up our “Best Ever” poll and add the name of Messi, even though he is a long way off from retiring. It is our policy to not include active players in this poll as it would not be a fair treatment of great players who are no longer on the modern media and Internet radar. Adding Messi – or Cristiano – would turn the poll upside down. History really should judge. And while people are currently debating the question of “best ever”, we’ll have to wait many years still to get a proper read. But for now I suspect that even then Messi could end up on top.

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karlsson

Here’s what Bobby Orr says about Erik Karlsson:

“I want to say one thing about the coach and whoever is allowing him to do this and I’ve been saying this forever: You get a guy who can skate like that, let him go, for god’s sakes. He’ll get caught. I got caught. The players understand how he plays. They accept it. He’s fast enough to get back a lot of times. You have kids coming along where [the coach says] shoot the puck up the glass and shoot it in.

The coach is letting [Karlsson] do it and since they’ve allowed him to do it, this kid has been unbelievable. But, let him do it. That’s how he is most effective. Is he gonna make mistakes? Yup. Is he gonna get caught? Yup. But the pluses are going to outweigh the minuses. There are probably some coaches who wouldn’t let him go like he does. They let me go. They let Coffey go. I couldn’t imagine playing any other way and I can’t imagine young Erik playing any other way, either.”

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Gretzkys Tears Cover

The individual name is so prominent, you would think that Gretzky’s Tears was an autobiography that focuses strictly on the career and achievements of one of the greatest hockey players and athletes of all-time. However, author Stephen Brunt is after much more than capturing the life of a player. Brunt is after the zeitgeist. He’s after what happened to an entire sport and an entire country when the unthinkable happened: the best player in the world, just coming off his fourth Stanley Cup with Canada’s Edmonton Oilers, was traded to a team and place, Los Angeles, that was more associated with sun and movie stars, than it was with ice and winning.

Brunt’s magical book, hinges on that moment in the summer of ’88 at the press conference announcing the biggest trade in hockey history, Wayne Gretzky read his prepared speech and then broke down and cried. In Canadian sporting terms, there have been few moments like it. It would have to rank up there with moments like the Paul Henderson goal and the Ben Johnson 100-metre run. Thinking back to that moment now, over 25 years later, it is remarkable to me how clearly how I remember where I was in that moment. The moment had that deep an effect on many Canadians.

Around this seismic hockey trade, Brunt builds a story premised on shady businessmen (Peter Pocklington, Bruce McNall), American usurpation of things Canadian, a sport awkwardly trying to grow beyond its roots and into a modern, global world and the loss of innocence.

For me, there is another essential moment in the Gretzky story, one that Brunt calls, “The Last Perfect Moment”. It is the moment after Gretzky wins his final Cup with the Oilers and the team spontaneously gathers at centre-ice for a team picture.

Brunt devotes an entire chapter to it, building up brilliantly to the moment where clicking cameras will immortalize one of the greatest hockey teams of all-time – just as they are about to be broken apart. He takes us to the broadcast booth, where commentator Harry Neale unwittingly says: “I’ll bet you that (General Manager) Glen Sather makes one or two changes before next season. And you might see this again. It’s going to be tough to dethrone the Edmonton Oilers.” Little did Neale know that the wheels were already in motion to send the team’s greatest player to L.A. It would’ve have seemed ludicrous, for as Brunt says, “Why would you mess with this perfect creation?”

Perfect it was, that Oilers team. As perfect as perfect gets in the ever-chaning world of sports. It is quite possible that if that relatively young team had stayed together, they could have doubled their Cup total and gone down in history with the very best. But it was not meant to be. While the Oilers’s core talent and leadership was strong enough to win one more Cup two years later, without Gretzky, 1988 was the essentially the end of a magical era.

And Brunt wonderfully captures the glittering last picture of that perfect team:

“…in that instant a tradition is born: the players gather round the Cup for a photo opportunity at the captain’s behest, and are joined by the coaches and their assistants, the trainers, the clubhouse boy Joey Moss…Finally the owner slides into the happy mob scene, front and centre, right behind the silverware. It looks like an old-time team photo, the players more sprawled than posed, and the joy of the moment is self-evident.”

Of course we all know that in life nothing last forever and that perfection is rare and if attained, fleeting. The Oilers were the picture of perfection for longer than many great teams. And Wayne Gretzky would find that out himself. Brunt makes a point of examining not just Gretzky’s post-Oiler attempts at glory as a player with the L.A. Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers but also the Great One’s forays into coaching and management: Gretzky had a losing record in 5 seasons as coach (and part owner) of the Phoenix Coyotes; and while as Executive Director he led Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Olympic Games, his 2006 team did not medal. Some great success. Some depressing failure. Nothing close to that perfect Edmonton team.

In the end, Wayne Gretzky, the individual genius, becomes in the capable hands of Stephen Brunt, a prism through which to examine teams, owners and an entire league; he becomes a route to understanding collective experience – from the perspective of the fans in Edmonton who rode that big wave, to those in L.A. who caught the end of it and for all of Canada; and he becomes a symbol of how things get built and then get taken apart.

On the cover of Brunt’s book is an individual picture of Gretzky in a Kings jersey but the picture that really captures everything that matters to us – the beauty, the complexity, the joy – is the team picture stuffed into the middle and the heart of this great book.

Buy it. As of this writing it is over 25 years since The Trade, but the lessons are eternal and the tears of sadness – and joy – are well worth experiencing.

*A similar version of this post originally appeared on TeamPicture.com.

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