Who's The "Best Ever"? Who Can Really Say?

And so it’s that time of the year again when newspapers, websites and magazines from all over the world highlight what they believe to have been the best and worst moments in football in 2010, looking at events both on and off the pitch. In this country, the majority of the “worst” moments have been deemed to be concerned with the morally bankrupt, money grabbing ways of the players today and the underhanded, corrupt and sinister dealings of FIFA, with the plaudits for the “best” moments being handed out mainly to Lionel Messi and his teams inspiring 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in November. I couldn’t agree more.

And so it’s that time of the year again when newspapers, websites and magazines from all over the world highlight what they believe to have been the best and worst moments in football in 2010, looking at events both on and off the pitch. In this country, the majority of the “worst” moments have been deemed to be concerned with the morally bankrupt, money grabbing ways of the players today and the underhanded, corrupt and sinister dealings of FIFA, with the plaudits for the “best” moments being handed out mainly to Lionel Messi and his teams inspiring 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in November. I couldn’t agree more.

Regarding Mr Messi though, I’ve noted that, despite the lad being at the tender age of just 23, there have been calls from fans from all over the world to inaugurate him into the Pantheon of Greats alongside the likes of Maradona and Pele, the biggest duopoly in the world since Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Journalist after journalist seems to be bombarded with questions regarding who they believe to be the best players of all time, and more importantly, in what specific order they would rank them.

Perhaps it’s a symptom of the modern “information” age, this desire to classify, list and rank anything and everything that can be, whether it be films, actors, musicians or footballers. On TV the other night they even had the 100 greatest toys of all time. People seem to demand clarification on which the best are at something and in what order, so that they can consume such information and therefore reassure themselves that they can be considered an expert on a certain field. Unfortunately, stating that Di Stefano was better than Eusebio, despite having never seen either play, doesn’t make you an expert on football.

I went through this stage when I was about 15, when for Christmas my football mad Grandma bought me an encyclopaedia on the greatest players to ever grace the beautiful game. After reading about such historical players, with the likes of Maradona, Pele, Di Stefano, Cruyff and Puskas getting significant coverage, I decided that I must create a list, from one to twenty, of the best players of all time, in order. What this list looked like in the end I can’t remember, but it was soon pointed out to me how ridiculous it is for me to make judgements on players that I’ve never even seen.

I did gain a lot of interesting and useful knowledge in this time; I think ignorance is one of the biggest crimes that a person can commit, especially when they can’t admit to it, and I also believe that it’s better to know about the great players of the past than the mediocre players of the present. There’s no better way of understanding the present that understanding how we got there in the first place.

But this isn’t the main problem with such “Greatest Players of All Time” lists. As Gab Marcotti pointed out in a recent article of his in The Times, measuring the greatness of players is not an easy task. He draws an analogy with poetry, the near entirety of which I must copy and paste below.

 “The film Dead Poets Society includes a classic scene in which Robin Williams’s character, John Keating, dismisses one Dr J. Evans Pritchard PhD and his attempt to plot the “greatness” of various poets on a graph, using “importance” and “perfection” as his parameters.

Williams’s character exposes it as an absurd exercise for a number of reasons, but most of all that poetry is about the emotion and intellectual stimulus that it foments in an individual. Everything else is secondary. Great poetry can and does speak to “the masses”, but each component of “the masses” experiences it individually. With one exception: when you’re told that something is great so often and by so many people, you come to believe that it is great, despite the fact that you have not experienced that greatness directly, in your own reading of the poem.

The age-old debates over “great footballers” follow a similar framework. Here, too, people attempt to frame “greatness” using supposedly objective terms. Pelé, being part of three World Cup-winning squads and scoring 1,280 goals; or Diego Maradona, leading Napoli to the Double and scoring two of the greatest World Cup goals on the way to leading an understrength Argentina to the 1986 title.

But, as with poetry, it lapses into futility. Pelé had the good fortune to be born Brazilian; had he been born in Bolivia, would his World Cup record have been the same? As for the brilliance of individual goals, to what degree does that constitute greatness when Saeed al-Owairan — fine footballer, but hardly among the best — scores one of the World Cup’s greatest, against Belgium in 1994?

At least with poetry we have an untouched, objective record on which to judge greatness: the poems themselves. With football, we don’t even have that. There are virtually no comprehensive visual records of entire matches of anything that happened before the mid-1980s, which means that everyone before that is judged on fragments or contemporary accounts. Go on YouTube and you can see highlights of Sir Stanley Matthews. Watch closely. You could probably make a highlights reel of Darren Huckerby or Chris Brunt that would be more impressive.

And so, to judge past greatness, we rely on a mixture of accounts at the time, CVs and shared memories. The first two need to be taken with a truckload of salt. Career achievements tell only a part of the story and numbers are influenced by the standard of opposition faced. Contemporary accounts are modulated by the writers’ experience and knowledge base: how much football from around the world had those people who declared Duncan Edwards a “colossus” seen? I mention Edwards; I could just as easily mention Franz Binder or José Nasazzi.
 
With these examples, you go back to the issue of being told what is great, as in our poetry example above. Few of us saw Pelé play, even fewer in the flesh and fewer still over a long enough period of time to assess him objectively. For the vast majority, Pelé is great because history tells us he is. Maradona may be a slightly different case, but in a few years, he’ll be in the same boat.
 Does this mean we should dispense with those “Greatest Ever” lists once and for all? Not necessarily, although we should be cognisant of their limitations. And perhaps we should base ourselves on the collective emotional response to great footballers, rather than pretending we have objective criteria

 Perhaps that’s what football — indeed, sporting — greatness is about: the ability to resonate, to touch emotionally and stimulate intellectually, long after one’s time has passed. Like great poetry, you can’t strip it down to its individual parts and plot it on a graph because it’s not about the work, it’s about the response to it.”

 I was watching “Football’s Greatest” on Sky Sports the other day, and the player in question was Alfredo Di Stefano. Bobby Charlton declared Di Stefano to be, in his opinion, the greatest player of all time. By which criteria Mr Charlton judged this, however, he did not say.

 If someone asks me who the greatest player of all time is, I say, “I don’t know.” Bobby Charlton reckons it’s Di Stefano, my Dad reckons it’s Maradona, I think luck plays a large role in the making or breaking of a true legend. A flop now may have been a sensation in the 1950’s and vice versa, due to variations and evolution in the nature of the game, certain ages demanded certain types of player.

 But in my lifetime (23, nearly 24 years) I do consider Zinedine Zidane to be the best player I’ve ever seen, mainly because of his consistency in performing at such a high standard for so long. Ronaldinho could have been the best, Ronaldo de Lima should have been the best, and Messi looks like he’s going to be the best. I understand though that people value different criteria more, and opinions are going to vary massively.

 I also spend a lot of time pondering and debating with mates about who is the best United player of our lifetimes. In terms of the ability to “resonate, to touch emotionally and stimulate intellectually”, as Gab Marcotti put it, without doubt it’s Eric Cantona. Something inside me thinks it’s Paul Scholes, because of the consistency, another part says Roy Keane, again, because of the consistency, but I think my brain knows that, on a pure ability level, it is probably Cristiano Ronaldo.

 But I’m not going to make any attempt to rank these players in a strict order and declare that ranking absolute, not even if a mass public vote on the issue were made. If anything, I’d value the vote of some experts over the vote of a large proportion of the public. Ill-informed people, despite having a right to express their opinion, do not have the right for that opinion to be taken seriously. They will only skew the results because, as Gab Marcotti put it, they will believe that someone is great because they’re told they are by so many people, creating a type of social contagion. In 20 years time, if a vote is made by the public in this country, David Beckham will make the top 10 players of all time, take my word.

And so the next time someone asks you who the greatest player of all time is, just think, how do you define greatest, and is it really your place to say?

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