Maradona, Pele and Messi are arguably the best 3 football players of all time. But taking into consideration both their club and national team careers, Lionel Messi is arguably the better of the three.
Concerning goals scored in their club careers, Lionel Messi has scored 627 goals in 718 games (0.87 goal per game); Pele has scored 707 goals in 763 games (0.93 goal per game) and Maradona has scored 312 goals in 588 games (0.53 goal per game). Pele and Messi have clearly better statistics than Maradona. However, Messi has scored his goals in one of the best leagues in the world (La Liga), whereas Pele scored his goals in the Brazilian and American League with Santos and New York Cosmos, whose levels are much lower – especially in terms of defending standards.
With the national team, Pele scored 77 goals in 92 games (0.84 goal per game); Maradona 34 goals in 91 games (0.37 goal per game) and Messi 70 goals in 138 games (0.51 goal per game). In terms of offensive decisiveness with the national team, Pele is the best among the 3 but he played in an era where much more goals were scored and where defenses were less disciplined tactically.
In terms of team titles, Lionel Messi is on top with 36 titles won, followed by Pele with 28, and Maradona with 11. Messi should create a more important gap at the end of his career, as he still has 2 or 3 more years as a player.
In the most prestigious national teams’ competition, the World Cup, Pele scored 12 goals in 14 games (0.86 goal per game), Maradona 8 goals in 21 games (0.38 goal per game) and Messi 6 goals in 19 games (0.32 goal per game). Pele also won this competition 3 times, Maradona has won it only once, and Messi has never won it. But the successes of Pele and Maradona came during periods where the balance of power between South Americans and Europeans in the World Cup was much more balanced than in Messi’s era, during which Europeans have won all the World Cups. In Pele and Maradonna’s era the gap in quality of the goalkeepers, the defenders and the midfielders between Europe and South America wasn’t in favor of the European teams, as it’s been the case since the Bosman ruling of 1995. This fact is the main explanation for the great success Messi is witnessing with Barcelona and his failure in the national team while playing with relatively weak defensive players.
In terms of consistency both Messi and Pele are more superior to Maradona, who had a chaotic career with impressive highs by winning the World Cup in 1986, but also lows with, for example, a moderate success during his years with FC Barcelona. These three achieved the honor of playing in 4 different World Cups but Pele sustained an injury during the first round in 1962 and Maradona failed a doping test in the first round of the 1994 World Cup. Furthermore, and unless he retires before, Messi is still on track to play a 5th World cup in 2022. By doing so he would become the co-holder of the most participations in the event with 4 other players: Gianluigi Buffon, Rafael Marquez, Lothar Matthaus and Antonio Carbajal.
Messi has also the advantage of being able to play in 5 different positions in the pitch: right winger, left winger, advanced midfield, second striker and center forward. Pele and Maradona were limited in their careers to 2 positions : advanced midfield and second striker.
In the end, the weight of the club career, with an average of 50 games per season should be of bigger importance than the World Cup, that is played in 7 games once every 4 years. Messi’s performance with Barca is unprecedented in club football and makes him the greatest player of all time for the titles won and the goals scored with the team.