One of the best things about history is that it so regularly submits itself for revision – and never more arrestingly than in Barcelona this week, when the damage to one ultimate superstar's reputation (yes, Lionel Messi's) was maybe balanced by the recall of the great strength of another whose playing career ended 28 years ago.
While Messi fought unsuccessfully to break down the extraordinary resistance of Chelsea at the Nou Camp, and new doubts about the recently unassailable belief that he is the greatest player of all time, Johan Cruyff prepared to mark his 65th birthday.
That was a lot of candles to blow out yesterday, but then the man who was known by an earlier generation of Barça fans as the Golden Dutchman maybe had another reason to push out his chest.
It was the conviction, impossible to swerve by anyone seeing both players at the top of their games, that if Messi is equipped with a stunning array of gifts, there is not much doubt that Cruyff would have been a more persistent threat to the security of Roberto Di Matteo's hastily reconstituted defence.
The difference is that while Messi weaves mesmerising spells at the heart of a gifted team drilled to play the game a certain, and generally ravishing, way, he has been much less awesome in changing its direction, and impetus, in the kind of impasse imposed by Chelsea on Tuesday, and Real Madrid three days earlier.
There is now talk of signs of weariness in the 24-year-old Argentine after the years of Barça plenty but there is another possibility ignored by the most fervent of his admirers. It is that while he owns the most beautiful talent, and that in certain circumstances he has proved unplayable, he may just lack a quality that was so often the signature of all his rivals at the top of the all-time list of great players.
This is – maybe, and of course time will tell soon enough – the ability to carry a team enduring a fall in both its confidence and its rhythm.
When Cruyff was Messi's age he was launching himself on a run of three straight European Cup wins with Ajax – and a World Cup campaign in 1974 which ended in defeat in a Munich final that many still believe was due not to any shortfall in Dutch, or Cruyff, brilliance but an overweening desire to make fools of Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany.
Cruyff's immense influence had its roots not so much in natural brilliance – though he enjoyed formidable levels of that – but an extraordinary intuition. There was a sense that Cruyff glided through a game, such was his facility, but the truth was that it was mostly about the depth of his thought, his implicit understanding of the dynamics of any game in which he found himself.
Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once complained that the Ajax who had scored five goals on a misty night in Amsterdam, with the young Cruyff heavily involved, was "the most defensive team we have ever faced". There is an element of truth in the remark that provoked so many titters.
Once Cruyff came to Wembley and produced a masterpiece, inspiring a 2-0 Dutch victory. Yet many witnesses swore that he never crossed the halfway line. He undermined England with the brilliance of his passing, his understanding of time and space.
The elevation of Messi in recent years has been inevitable and in many ways deserved. If his impact with Argentina has been limited thus far, his play at Barça has touched extraordinary levels. He has been both relentless and luminous, but then he has operated in a team which has been consistently shaped around his particular gifts of skill and timing.
His compatriot Diego Maradona led otherwise unexceptional Argentina and Napoli teams to, respectively, the World Cup and Serie A titles. Alfredo di Stefano was the very heartbeat of Real Madrid's first stranglehold on the European Cup – and at half-time in a friendly at Old Trafford, the young Nobby Stiles witnessed the great man deliver a withering dressing-down to a new Real player. It was Ferenc Puskas.
Then of course there was Pele, of whom it was said that he never did anything that wasn't expressly for the benefit of the team. Have such men been swept off the high road of football by Messi's sheer virtuosity? This week surely brought the need for a little more caution.
Messi remains the great hope of football in its purest expression. Cruyff, for all his birthday candles, surely remains in the race to be The Greatest.
- More about:
- Ajax Amsterdam
- Chelsea F.c.
- Franz Beckenbauer
- Liverpool FC
- Nou Camp
- Premier League
- Real Madrid
- Roberto Di Matteo