On being the Best

In a recent interview with journalist Andy Mitten the great Xavi Hernandez was asked if Lionel Messi was the “best ever”. Xavi is a true football anorak, he tends not to give glib answers, he’s been one of the greatest midfielders in arguably the greatest club and international sides ever, so his responses should be given a certain gravitas. He replied to Mitten that:

Yes [Messi is the best ever]. Pele and [Diego] Maradona both made a huge difference, but football has evolved. The players are better than they were, the game is better. Physically, tactically, technically and psychologically, football is better than ever. And Messi stands out as the best at the best time in the history of football.

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Succinctly put. It’s easy to see the logic of Xavi’s arguement, he even name-checks Pele and Maradona, those players who would traditionally vie for the title of the “best ever”. Messi does indeed play at a level, a pace and at a tactical evolve that would be alien to Pelé or even Maradona. If we had access to a time machine and dropped either of these two historical greats into the current Barcelona side then it is likely that we would see what Xavi is talking about. The frenetic pace of elite level football, the amount of ground that would have to be covered, the tactics and shape, the diet and conditioning, even the very rules of the game would be unfamiliar to the Pelé of 1970 or the Maradona of 1986, so of course the 2015 Messi would appear the better player.

To be clear there is a very strong argument that Lionel Messi is indeed the best player in the history of the game. His attacking versatility, his scarcely believable goal scoring rate, the collection of winners medals that he has accumulated through a glittering club career are all testament to this. The one mark in the debit column against Messi that is usually stated is that despite his amazing achievements with Barcelona he has yet to win a senior international tournament with Argentina while both Pele and Maradona were instrumental in winning the World Cup for Brazil and Argentina respectively.

For much of the global history of football the international game was considered the very highest standard of excellence and Pele and Maradona are rightly recognised for their success at this level. However in recent years with the growing dominance of elite European leagues, and an upper echelon of super-wealthy elite clubs within these leagues this has begun to change. It is now arguable that even the best sides at a World Cup would be overall inferior to the matchday squad of better Champions League sides. The expansion in player scouting to truly global proportions, as well as football’s growth in popularity and professionalism (there are now estimated to be more than 265 million active players worldwide according to FIFA) has meant that competitiveness for places and the breath of playing talent available to elite clubs is far beyond anything in the earlier history of the sport.

The hot-housing and accumulation of talent within clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, means that the elite levels of European club football are the ultimate proving grounds for individual footballing excellence. So surely Messi, having now won four Champions League titles, has achieved as much at such a high standard as any other player who could lay a claim to being the Best?

This would all point to fact that Xavi is right in his choice of Messi as the greatest ever player, that the pace of the modern game and its tactical advancement would mean that players of earlier generations would look like something from that Harry Enfield sketch of black and white era football buffoons. But I feel that this is somewhat unfair, the modern game has become obsessed with the 24 hour football news cycle and a couple of events have suggested that we find it difficult as modern football fans to appreciate footballing achievement if its historical context pre-dates the 1990’s.

Two recent events apart from the Xavi’s quote above have brought this into focus for me. Jamie Vardy’s consecutive goalscoring record and the tenth anniversary of George’s Best’s death. In Vardy’s case he has claimed a very significant landmark, he now has the record for most consecutive goals in the history of the Premier League with  goals in 11 consecutive games. That is to say a record since the rebrand of top flight English football in 1992. This is still a significant achievement, he’s done something that Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alan Shearer or Theirry Henry never managed, and of course we like to view history in bite size chunks, there is no harm in that. Prior to the Premier League there was often mention as I recall of “post-war” records because that’s just how we like to process the passing of time. Credit should be reserved for the likes of Sky Sports who have consistently highlighted that the overall record still belongs to Jimmy Dunne who scored 18 goals over 12 consecutive games in the 1931-32 season.

Little footage remains of Dunne and it’s only Vardy’s recent record breaking feats that have brought him back into the footballing consciousness. Even in Ireland where Dunne was our record goalscorer for 27 years (until this was broken by Noel Cantwell) few are really aware of his feats on a football pitch and Dunne is seldom ever mentioned in greatest Irish XI’s or such like.

Such polls are always fickle, in fact a recent poll by the FAI to select the greatest Irish team in the last 50 years didn’t even include Johnny Giles! And it can’t be said that John lacks any media profile.

FAI XI
The best Irish team of the last 50 years as chosen by Irish football fans. No room for John Giles.

The other landmark in recent days was the tenth anniversary of the death of George Best. Manchester United fans were commemorated Best with banners and chants at Old Trafford and there were many comparisons drawn between the swashbuckling playing style of Best, Law and Charlton with the more prosaic football on offer from Louis van Gaal’s charges.

Best is often cited as the first of a new generation of footballers, one of the first “modern” players. Best made his first team debut in 1963, the year the first Beatles album came out, and the year that poet Philip Larkin claimed “Sexual intercourse began”. That’s the problem with the past, we can only view it in retrospect so of course it appears that Best’s life and career were always on a pre-destined course. So it seems to us he was always the handsome Belfast-boy who was destined to become the “fifth Beatle” , the supremely talented player who was doomed to live fast and burn out young.

But did it have to be that way? Returning to Xavi’s point about Lionel Messi being the best ever, does the comparison with Pelé and Maradona work the other way. Yes they might appear off the pace if they were magically transported into the modern game but then that could be said of any discipline; Jessie Owens would lose to Usain Bolt in a sprint,  in the arts the master practitioners of past would be out of their depth if thrown into a modern milieu, imagine asking Alfred Hitchcock or Cecil B. DeMille to direct a modern Hollywood blockbuster, on digital, with the current demands of a global film industry, they’d be overwhelmed but it doesn’t mean they are not great directors.

What if Best and Pelé were born later? What if Maradona had been born in 1990 not 1960? Players with their control, technique and vision would always thrive, they’d be better protected now from the darker arts of opposing defenders, and they could avail of the most modern training techniques, tactical instruction, diets and so on. Best was at the forefront of the tortuous birth of the modern celebrity sportsman, today Best would have been better understood, the level of public scrutiny to which he was suggested would now be commonplace and both player and his club better able to deal with these extremes. Similarly the excesses of his personal life are better understood, today there would be a far better chance of Best firstly being better protected from the rigours of celebrity and secondly to have better supports available if he did begin to develop a dependency on alcohol. While it might be cynical it is in the best interests of hyper-wealthy football clubs to protect their stars as best they can.

Similarly with Maradona or Pelé, the modern club structures would have meant that Maradona would have been unlikely to move from Barcelona to Napoli (while Napoli are top of Serie A at the time of writing they were struggling when Diego arrived in 1984) due to the wealth gap between even the top clubs in Serie A and the small elite band of hyper-wealthy sides. Perhaps he would never have fallen in with the Camorra, perhaps his drug habit, which had begun towards the end of his time at Barcelona would never have developed as it did. Pelé might likely have followed a similar route to current Brazilian international and fellow Santos alumni Neymar Jr. staying only in Brazil to his early 20s before a lucrative move to Europe.

The greatest players probably should only be judged on their individual eras as one of the greatest facets of football is that while it remains quite close to the original rules of the 1860’s that made it “the simplest game” it is also constantly changing, progressing and reacting. Football would be both instantly recognisable to a time traveller from the past and bewilderingly different.

Messi is unique in world football at present and has a strong claim to being one of the greatest players of all time but our standards for greatness change as time progresses. Just as it would be folly for a football fan in 30 years time to write off Messi’s achievements because of the victories of some as yet unborn player, so to is it our folly to underestimate the accomplishments of those who have gone before.

 

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