Somehow football, as the Brazilians call it or soccer as the Americans call it, never found a fan following in India (except in West Bengal, Goa and Kerala) like it had in the rest of the world, even among the working class. The reasons behind that is a mystery to me, considering that this sport is capable of paying rewards that could exceed cricket and tennis by a long way. Not to mention that there is no dearth of choices when it comes to players.
There is a shocking degree of disinterest in the sport here. Even the popular media only covers The World Cup and The Euro Cup. That’s the only time when the sport gets wide coverage here. Therefore the only players who gain recognition here are the ones who play and shine in these two tournaments.
But as anyone who follows football will tell you, international matches (match between national teams) hardly account for five to ten percent of the matches that are played in a year or less. The rest 90 percent is club football, which is definitely more tough and challenging. For those of you who don’t know, the toughest football tournament is not the World Cup or the Euro Cup, but in fact the UEFA Champions League. Right from September to May, 32 of the best club teams in Europe battle it out every year since the tournament began in 1956.
The World Cup was started in the year 1930 in order to provide a prestigious tournament to top level players where they can compete with each other on a national level. Even the European Cup was started in 1960 with the same intent.
I would like to make it clear that I’m in no way belittling Pele, Maradona or international football. But before calling them the greatest footballers, one needs to take a few things into account.
Both Pele and Maradona were strikers.
A striker has possession of the ball for only five to six minutes of the entire 90 minutes or more of the match.
How well a striker plays and whether he scores or not is determined by the midfield. It is the midfielder who has possession of the ball for most of the time. It is him who decides the pace of the match.
Defenders are seldom superstars because stopping or saving goals does not look too glamorous to the crowd. It is hardly as spectacular and important as scoring goals. Sometimes it even requires more skill than scoring, and is more risky and replete with the challenge of getting booked.
No need to explain how unrewarding a goalkeeper’s role is. That’s why the likes of Kahn, Shilton, Yashin, Casillas, and Buffon will never get half the spotlight of their ten counterparts in the team.
So the game is much more about which team scores a goal and more importantly, who gets to be the one that scores it.
Defenders like Franz Beckenbauer, Carles Puyol, Paolo Maldini and Lillian Thuram (just to name a few) are worth their weight in precious stones. The technique with which they block goals is sometimes more pleasurable to watch than the goals being scored. Their tally of goals is hardly in double figures. So are they not great because they aren’t the goalscorers?
And what about the soul of football, midfielders like Zidane, Rivaldo, Charlton, Giggs, Cryuff, Di Stefano and Messi (the last three being able to play the roles of forwards as well)?
The number of goals scored by them is not eye boggling, but their role is the deciding factor.
The reason why Pele is known as the greatest footballer is because he has scored 1200 goals, the most goals till date. Maradona’s claim to fame was the spectacular Argentina triumph of the 1986 World Cup.
Pele can be given complete credit in international football for the 77 goals he scored in a hundred odd matches and not to mention that he played a great part in Brazil winning the 1958 and 1970 World cups.
But he played for Santos FC, in the Brazilian League, his entire career. The Brazilian League has gained popularity and recognition at the cost of substance and high scoring matches becoming the norm, with four or five goals in a game being commonplace. It was therefore easy to see how Pele and another Brazilian great Romario, who played for Vasco da Gama FC, got to a thousand goals.
Maradona by that comparison played in much tougher conditions. Starting with FC Barcelona and then Napoli, he then went on to play for Boca Juniors for the bulk of his career.
The conditions in European leagues are not liberal with high scoring. The conditions in EPL, Primera Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga, to name the top four, are very tough and there is hardly any open space for a goal to be squeezed in. 3-2, 2-2 are the normal score lines (or in case of Serie A, 1-0 ).
Hence, the greatest players to never play the World Cup, Alfredo di Stefano (who according to many is the best ever) and the tragic George Best playing for Spain and England respectively, stand out.
Their total tally of goals is not even half of those scored by Pele, but the conditions in which they scored them were and remain much more testing.
The best players always look forward to playing in Europe and not in any Latin American or Asian League. Any Argentinean would look forward to play in Barcelona instead of Boca Juniors and any Brazilian in AC Milan instead of Fluminese.
That’s where the biggest money and the best quality is.
That’s where contemporary players like Messi, Rivaldo,Raul, Zidane,Maldini etc. stand out as they have played their entire careers in much more testing conditions than any league in Latin America. It’s unfair that they be put below the past greats because somehow the present can’t be romanticized or glorified.
Messi has joined the all time greats by playing Barcelona, where he effortlessly skips between midfield and forward positions. Maradona, however, had a miserable two years in the same team.
The name of the great Gerd Muller who was the mainstay of the attack of Bayern Munich throughout the 1970s, and was instrumental in the then West Germany winning the World Cup in 1974, is not even mentioned in the same breath. Neither are Johann Cruff and Alfredo di Stefano, “total footballers” who could play in any position. Strange.
When deciding greatness, all aspects of the game have to be taken into account. It’s unfair to ignore club football over international football and vice versa.
The Indian media ignored club football till the end of the 1990s and never mentioned players who were never able to play the world cup, like Ryan Giggs or George Best, because Wales and Northern Ireland couldn’t produce ten other worthy players to play alongside them.
So in simple words, it’s not just the ones who score goals that are great, but also the ones who create them or stop them.
As Zidane once said “This is a team game. Individual glory here is worth nothing. You pass the ball to the next guy 99 out of 100 times”.