Over the last decade many footballing conversations have begun with this question; then escalated into heated debates, fist fights, and promises never to like or share each other’s social media posts again. That’s because two names have been made to tower over the rest in the world of football.
And this issue now has been taken to nauseous proportions with sporting media running amok, perhaps primarily because there is nothing else to talk about in this lockdown period. Scores of footballing pundits seem to post their take on the same every other day, and the madness among fans continues unabated online.
Don’t get me wrong, there can be little dispute about the position of these two esteemed gentlemen in the pantheon of football greats. But I think there is a lot more that contributes to their untouchable status than just footballing prowess. Also, I strongly believe this conversation has not necessarily helped the game. Allow me to elaborate.
The ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time) even in individual sports is a contentious issue. Is Roger Federer truly greater than Pete Sampras? Could Garry Kasparov checkmate Emaneul Lasker? What might happen if Tiger Woods teed off against Jack Nicklaus in a match made possible by time travel?
Even in individual sport, it is difficult to discount the era in which players strutted their wares, and how much that had an impact on things especially statistics.
Team sport of course is far more complicated.
There is the massive factor of who the team mates around them were. In that aspect both Messi and Ronaldo have had the advantage of being part of some of the most strongly assembled teams of all time; albeit at club level. It could even be argued that thanks to the colossal influence of the two mega brands behind these two players; they were always in the spotlight. Then there is the factor of the rules these days being far kinder to attacking players, than they were in days gone.
Perhaps a generation of players missed out on the Ballon D’or because of the perennial spotlight on these two. Think Xavi, Iniesta, Neuer, Pirlo, Ribery, Robben and recently Virgil van Dijk.
The impact on the ground has been even more detrimental.
In countries like India, where football is for once beginning to gain a pan national acceptance, the example of these two (no fault of theirs) has made football a more individual game than it ever has been before.
Perhaps this also coincides with the emergence of a ‘me’ generation, a lot completely obsessed with themselves. But the words one hears, standing outside coaching facilities, sometimes make one turn away and smile.
“Why is my child always playing defender?”
“I had a bad game, did not score today”
“I won’t pass to her; all she thinks of is scoring and getting the praise”
Football used to be the ultimate team game. But far beyond, it was an avenue for character building; an aspect of prime importance to even those who were casually kicking ball. It taught you to share. It taught you to help out a team mate in trouble. Football taught you to win and lose together. It taught you to take one for the team.
It was truly one of life’s great teachers.
I have the lurking suspicion that ‘this GOAT thing’, will take us back to the drawing board. And that would be sadder than the cable connection going off just when Ronaldo and Messi are about to square off on the pitch.
Vinay Kanchan is the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’ & ‘The Madness Starts at 9’. He is the patron saint of Juhu Beach United, a footballing movement which celebrates the ‘unfit, out of breath working person of today’.