How do you define greatness?

Some people define it through success. In sports, that means championships.

But, greatness in championships is a narrow definition. It denies the physical gifts and talents that people are born with. It denies the blood, sweat and tears that they have poured into perfecting those gifts and talents.

Quite simply, it denies the very essence of sports.


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I know greatness when I see it.

Many have greatness on their mind right now because of the passing of Muhammad Ali. He called himself “The Greatest” and, more often than not, he backed it up. His greatness in the ring was on display long before he held the title of champion.

Reggie White had greatness embedded in his relentless pursuit of the quarterback and utter destruction of offensive linemen. His greatness was on display long before he held the title of champion.

The smile, the fearlessness, the swing - Ken Griffey Jr had greatness oozing from him. There was no center field he could not tame; no stadium that could contain him. His greatness on the diamond was on display long before…well…he didn’t win a championship…

So he must not be great, right? He must not be one of the greatest ever to play baseball, right? I mean, if your definition of greatness is championships, then Griffey didn’t have it, right?

I know greatness when I see it.

Ali, White and yes, Griffey were great. Greatness was in them and on full display in their competitive endeavors. Which brings me to the athlete who is, quite simply, the greatest footballer on the planet right now.

Lionel Messi.


Argentina is one of the world’s greatest football/fútbol/soccer powers. Their long, rich history in the world’s game is highlighted by their two World Cup titles, the most recent of which happened 30 years ago. That 1986 tournament is remembered for the “Hand of God".

Diego Maradona, with a little help from “God” scored a goal against England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. There was no linesman near the goal, no goal-line technology. There was only the main referee, who ruled it a goal. It was the first of two goals for Maradona in that game, en route to their 2-1 victory.

Maradona would eventually lead Argentina to the title, but it was that game, with the Falkland Island War defeat to Britain as the backdrop, that helped elevate Maradona’s greatness to the rest of the world. He is considered the greatest Argentinian footballer ever in many circles.

That is the shadow that Lionel Messi lives in. The shadow of “God’s hand”, if you will. For all the greatness that Messi has, some in Argentina define it by World Cup titles, of which he has none.

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(Photo Credit: USA Today)

Maradona 1, Messi 0

Jordan 6, LeBron 3

Montana 4, Brady 4

Margaret Court 24, Steffi Graf 22, Serena Williams 21

Name a sport and you’ll find an argument about who is the greatest. Jordan or LeBron? Montana or Brady? The answer in any sport depends on how you define greatness. 

Defining “The greatest” doesn’t matter to me. Defining greatness does. I know it when I see it.

Jordan was great. LeBron is great. Montana was great. Brady is great. They did things on their respective fields of play that made you slap your friend five times and say, WHA… HOW… DID YOU SEE… NAWwwwww… COLD-BLOODED… or OOOOOOOOOOOooooooo!

They made you take notice. But so did athletes like Griffey.

As does Lionel Messi.


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La Pulga (Little Flea) was born in Rosario, Argentina 29 years ago today. Greatness was evident early on in Leo as he moved from his Argentinian home to Barcelona at the age of 13.

I look at my youngest son right now (he’s 14) and I couldn’t imagine him moving away to another country. I couldn’t imagine my son growing up in an academy that would teach him how to excel at his craft. That doesn't even account for helping him navigate the teenage years.

But that was Messi’s life. Leave the comfort of family and friends to move to (arguably) one of the greatest fútbol clubs in the world. How? Why?

Greatness was in him.


Messi’s gifts and talents grew in Barcelona. As did his legend.

When Messi takes the field, magic happens. Whether it’s a “dribble-drive” (yeah, basketball-term applies here too) run down the field or a chip shot over the defense to a teammate for a goal, Messi makes things happen that make you slap your friend five times and say, WHA… HOW… DID YOU SEE… NAWwwwww… COLD-BLOODED… or OOOOOOOOOOOooooooo!

It is as if the ball is tethered to his feet. No matter how hard the defense tries, there is no stopping Messi on the pitch. Many of the greatest defenders in the world have tried and failed. And not just once either. Messi’s magic feet have scored goals all over the world.

Think Steph Curry making a pregame shot from the tunnel, or a Miguel Cabrera moonshot home run out of Comerica Park. Now multiply that times 100, and you have the magic that is Messi.


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The Great One was just that. Great. What he did on the ice is the stuff of legend. 

In January of this year, The Score wrote about the five Gretzky records that will never be broken. Among them was his record of 92 goals in a season. Messi holds the season record with 50 in La Liga play (91 goals in a calendar year of play).

Messi just set the Argentinian record for most goals scored at 55 with his golazo against the U.S.

Just as Gretzky was more than a goal-scorer, so is Messi. Gretzky holds the NHL record for assists with 1,963. Messi is the all-time La Liga leader with 127.

Similar players. Similar greatness. For both self and team.

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(Photo Credit: USA Today)

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I know greatness when I see it.

Messi is greatness defined.

But, for those who define it by championships….

The FIFA World Cup may be the pinnacle for country, but the Champions League is the pinnacle for European club football (the best level of football in the world).

With FC Barcelona’s senior level club, he has been a part of four Champions League titles and numerous other tournament titles.

With Argentina, he has helped them win a youth-level FIFA championship and an Olympic gold medal.

Champions League titles, youth world championship and a gold medal. Records for goals...and assists.

The records of a Gretzky. The skills of a Brady. The championships of a Jordan.

All in the feet...and mind of Messi.

Vamos La Pulga!