Having won the last major title missing from his list, Messi is reshuffling the cards in this debate which has been stirring the world of football for thirty years.
Here are some comparative elements to try to answer this difficult question.
Triple crown against 1986 and 2022 champions
With three titles (1958, 1962, 1970) in four World Cups, Pelé's record remains unmatched.
He was barely 17 when he guided the "Seleçao" to their first crown (youngest world champion in history) with 6 goals including two in the final.
In 1962, he was injured in the second match.
But in 1970, it's the consecration: Pelé is at the top of his game in a legendary team.
Maradona, ignored for the 1978 World Cup won by Argentina at home then disappointing in 1982, is sparkling during the Mexican "Mundial" in 1986: he wins it "all by himself", so charismatic is the captain of Argentina and decisive, especially during the quarter-final against England marked by the "goal of the century" scored solo and the famous "hand of God", the two sides of the "maradonian" gesture.
Argentinian Lionel Messi (g) and Brazilians Pelé and Neymar during the Ballon d'Or ceremony on January 9, 2012 in Zürich © Franck FIFE / AFP/Archives
In 1990, he lost the final and burst into tears.
In 1994, the story turned sour: tested positive for ephedrine, he was excluded from the World Cup.
World champion on December 18, Messi has finally come full circle.
His record is now the most complete with a World Cup (2022), a Copa America (2021), four Champions Leagues, a multitude of championships and national cups … and seven Ballons d'Or.
"Messi won his first World Cup, as his trajectory deserved," Pelé had also greeted from his hospital room on Instagram, with a nod to Maradona, who died in 2020: "Diego is certainly smiling. "
#10 against #10
The three players have made N°10 mythical.
The "King" played in a position close to that of a "nine and a half", leaning to the left, during a very prolific era in goals, hence his staggering total of 1281 goals in 1363 matches, clubs and " Seleçao" combined (record including friendly matches and approved by Fifa).
He now shares the top scorer in the Brazil team (77 goals in 92 caps) with Neymar.
Maradona, he evolved more behind, in the axis or on the left side but was very free, like a very offensive playmaker.
Hence less impressive goal statistics than Pelé (346 in 680 matches), but such a significant influence accompanied by countless assists.
By piling up the goals (793 in 1003 professional matches), Messi can look his two elders in the eye.
Aligned most often in attack support but also sometimes in false 9, the "Pulga" can also boast of a great success in free kicks, penalties and assists.
Pelé during the World Cup final against Italy, June 21, 1970 in Mexico © STAFF / AFP / Archives
Characters at the antipodes
Pelé always presented a slick image and played for just two clubs, Santos (1956-74) and Cosmos New York (1975-77).
Maradona (six club experiences) is sulfur, with his shock statements, his controversial gestures on the pitch, from his red card at the 1982 World Cup to his "hand of God" at the 1986 World Cup, and his extra trouble -athletes, between cocaine and doping.
The Brazilian, who was a minister in his country, is close to the institutions, and shed tears of emotion when Fifa presented him with an honorary Ballon d'Or in 2014. The Argentinian, with controversial friendships with the leaders Cuba or Venezuela, has on the contrary long been in conflict with Fifa since its suspension in the middle of the 1994 World Cup.
Argentinian world champions Lionel Messi (g) in 2022 in Doha and Diego Maradona in 1986 in Mexico City © Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP/Archives
The wise child side of Messi brings him closer to Pelé.
The little Argentinian has long been loyal to his training club, FC Barcelona, before a resounding transfer to PSG in 2021. But neither this choice for the money of a club financed by Qatar, nor his troubles with the Spanish tax authorities, nor did his criticism of refereeing at the 2022 World Cup seem to tarnish his image.
Brazilian against Argentinians, questions of ego
+ The best is me +: Pelé and Maradona have continued to claim the title of supreme player, in a rivalry that traditionally opposes their countries, South American giants.
It is above all the volcanic Maradona who tickles his elder, by considering for example that his place is "in the museum" and by mocking his submission to the powers in place.
The placid Pelé replies that the prize list is authentic (three World Cups to one) but also that his younger brother, by his drug use, is "not an example" for the youth.
Like wise old men, they buried the hatchet in 2016.
Perhaps for fear of offending the Argentine fans of Maradona, Messi has never explicitly positioned himself in this debate aimed at designating the best player in history.
But he is now the only one still alive.
© 2022 AFP