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Thursday, 20 October 2011

Can any player, including Messi, be considered 'the greatest'?

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Ah, the Champions League. Bringer of drama, stopper of dreamers, platform for Ray Wilkins to say ‘my word’ 50 hundred thousand times. And there are other things that are nearly always discussed, certainly when seeing the two dominant Spanish sides play. The great debate has moved from trying to decide who is better between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, to whether the latter could very well be the greatest of all time.

Unfortunately, and certainly in my eyes, there is no answer to that question. There is simply not one player who can be considered the greatest of all time.

I think we certainly have our own emotions invested in a particular player who we feel was the best. I was brought up on the notion that Maradona was simply the greatest manifestation of brilliance in existence; his low-centre of gravity, his dribbling skills, his curly mop of hair. But, looking back on him now, have we (or my parents) adhered to that view because of that goal he scored, or really slapped us and then scored, against us?

Do our memories, when seeing one of these footballers exhibit their talents, store them in a fond part of our brain where they can never be untouched and will always be remembered for their brilliance? Maradona scored that goal against us and we appreciate it almost as if it was one of our own.

I remember seeing Zidane play when I was a kid and was taken away by the elegance and the grace of a man who looked like the football equivalent of a great white shark. His talent was remarkable – an incredibly skilful player who almost seemed to show us, as if we needed telling, that football is truly a form of art.

Everything was grandiose about him – the temperament, the exquisite first touch, the quite ridiculous volley he scored in that Champions League final. And he won the two biggest competitions, the World Cup and the Champions League scoring in both finals.

But then, of course, Messi is something different in the way the ball is magnetically tied to his feet. I have yet to see a valid point (apart from his international inadequacies) for why he cannot be considered better than Maradona – already his goals to game ratio far outweighs Maradona’s and his domestic trophy haul is larger.

Or do we judge the player on his goals, statistics, trophies and attacking play? What about great playmakers or great sweepers who may have been more efficient or effective in their own position but just not as eye-catching? What about the astoundingly organised Beckenbauer? He was the backbone of the German national team for years and won the World Cup with them as well as many European cups with his club team.

There are so many aspects to consider – so many players. What about defenders? What about players who excelled whereas their national teammates were average which cut out any hopes of glory at the World Cup? What about players whose careers are cut short, like the blistering Marco Van Basten? So many questions, such flexibility when considering the greatest debate of them all.

Sometimes I feel we are wary of picking Messi as the greatest ever because of our respect for those that have passed before him. A reluctance, if you will, because it's seen as the passing of the torch from the players who lit up our eye-sockets when we were young - the players we see as kids are embedded into our minds and seeing them as inferior is almost dismissive of those joyous memories. What we've got to look forward to (or dread) when we become ancient, is telling yarns of how today's footballers aren't up to scratch. Even if modern footballer's may be better, we still valiantly defend those who are part of our enjoyable, youthful memories.

But then, would we really want to find out who was the best anyway? It makes those what-if situations, like Tyson/Ali, like Schumacher/Senna, Kieran Dyer/Lee Bowyer (ahem) even more tantalising. Take away any debate or opinion on who was the best and you lose the very crux of what makes the argument interesting in the first place. To attribute a final answer would be no fun at all. It would be too final in a game that offers subjectivity like no other.

And of course, there are differing training methods and football was a more aggressive, rawer sport years ago. Look back on old video clips and it is shocking to see the way defenders took lumps out of players who dared to be cute and waltzed past them. It’s fair to say defenders were not the fine-tuned footballers they are today. Tactics were used less frequently and it was played at a slower speed.

Don’t get me wrong, football wasn’t some prehistoric hoof and run game 50 years ago but, like any sport, it has grown larger and stronger, faster and more complex as the years have gone by. Would a team of Peles beat a team of Messis? They blossomed in different eras. It’s just too complex.

Because they all have their own individual faults, don't they? Pele is often considered to have been the greatest ever but never played in Europe, Cruyff's total football never actually won them the greatest prize of all. Zidane was part of a galacticos era that in all honesty failed to become the global behemoth it set out to be and Messi has been unable to single-handedly win a World Cup for his Argentinean side like the former talismanic South-American Maradona did.

Ultimately there are the greatest players from each time period - this period's player is most probably Messi. To pick one from all football history, however, would not only be reckless considering the game was a different beast, but dismissive of all the rest who are good enough to be mentioned in the same bracket.

Article by Jack Heaney

Do you agree with Jack? Do our memories get in the way when trying to decide who is the greatest player ever? Do you think the defensive brilliance of Bobby Moore for example should be lauded as highly as the creative imput of Maradona, Pele and Messi? Who would you say is the greatest player ever? Whatever your views, we'd love to hear from you.

Related Articles:

Chris Pettitt's Outside the Box: Our TV critic turns his venom on the Liverpool-United clash at Anfield and heaps praise on the commentary of Ray Wilkins

Gerrard and Van Persie are in, but who else has made it into our Team of the Week? Mitch Waddon selects his star players from the past weekend

Blackburn Rovers: Is there any way Steve Kean can win the fans over at Ewood Park?

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Colin Illingworth



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