Ronaldo, Messi, Pele: The GOAT debate is unending, and shouldn’t matter

You could like Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi, or live by the art of Cruyff or the royalty of Pele. Football’s journey over time makes it impossible to compare eras.
Ronaldo
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury

The “greatest of all time” debate is an ever raging, inextricable brouhaha—plagued by hyperbole and a rainbow of cognitive biases. Nowadays, anyone can have an opinion, even if that means getting drowned among millions out in the social media diaspora. Websites publish opinions of former legends, even if they are solid nonsense. In fact, we’ve reached the point where Lionel Messi posing with live goats on the cover of a magazine is considered normal, and Ronaldo’s goatee is interpreted as a statement in the debate.

“There are always exaggerations. Why must we go from the best to the worst? For the sale of newspapers it’s important, but I am not going to go there. Di Stefano was exceptional, Pelé was exceptional. I see the [“greatest of all time”] debate as a childish game.”

— Johan Cruyff in an interview he gave for AS, 2015

The quartet, Pelé, Diego Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo, have now formed the armature for the debate. They are, however, all very different from each other, glued together only by their isolated cloak of dexterity. Compare them or discover a grammatical sentence from a bowl of Alfabeto, don’t know which task is easier.

Common denominator in all the lists, that try to complete this ocean-boiling feat of making sense of the debate, is the willingness to find different factors that should turn the list as objective as possible: length of career, goals scored, titles attained, matches played as captain and permanence of contribution to sport. Some even question the definition of ‘greatness’. But as Simon Kuper said in an interview with Open, “you can only compare the best of an era”. Times, they keep changing.

Pelé: Quantity over quality, idea bigger than its object

To start this 3400-word-long rambling with Pelé, feels as natural as a yawn does to tired people. You see, for nearly half a century, the Brazilian national treasure was deemed the greatest ever to kick a ball around the green pastures. To call him the greatest, was a matter of course. “O Rei do Futebol,” they named him.

When France Football asked the first 34 Ballon d’Or winners to join in on the “greatest of all time” debate, 17 out of 30 participants named Pelé’s four rememberable letters on a first place, with only three choosing to side with Maradona.

It’s the sheer volume of goals scored and World Cups won that convinces the public of his hypnotizing brilliance.

I have scored 1283 goals in my life,” is a familiar statement, often heard from the mouth of the great Brazilian.1 “People always ask me: ‘When is the new Pelé going to be born?’ Never. My father and mother have closed the factory. When Messi’s scored 1,283 goals like me, when he’s won three World Cups, we’ll talk about it,” the man himself declared in an interview with Le Monde, back in 2012. However, it is worth pointing out that out of Pelé’s 1,284 goals, 506 experienced their birth in friendlies (Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation).

This tally includes goals he scored for Sixth Coast Guard in military competition.

Of course he managed to bag a bunch of goals in official competitions too, but even them deserve to be reevaluated if nothing else. As shown by Emilio Castaño and Vladimir Kolos, Pelé’s list of career goals in official matches covers 11 strikes from the amateurish Brazilian Armed Forces League and an 8-goal-haul against Botafogo Ribeirão Preto. Because why not. There’s also a cascade of 5-goal-showings, not to mention hat tricks, against odd local sides, which is a far cry from the policy that was/is plied by the likes of Ronaldo and Messi, seeing that especially Ronaldo prefers to stay in the comfort of his home during relatively meaningless away games—even if the opponent comes from the premier division.

So no, Pelé shouldn’t show off his unnatural goal tally. But I have to admit, it’s not his fault he attained so many. When 15 years old Pelé debuted for Santos, on 7 September 1956, the exuberant side of Santos needed just one goal from the inspiring teenager, while freewheeling to a 7–1 friendly victory over Corinthians de Santo André. Teams’ resources were very different from one another back then, with a select few clubs racking up high scores and big margins, squeezing the juice out of sloppy standards. In an era where tactics were near-non-existent and naive, a team like Os Santásticos were understandably electro swinging their way through South America.

Palpation of the world behind Pelé’s words is necessity seeing that he has goals to his name—goals that we’ll never find footage of. They are just numbers on white sheets, preserved only in the minds of those who witnessed him live. O Rei is here to remind us of the game’s celestial past, with his picture being exterminated by nostalgia, his work and his myth ran up a tad too much. He is what we want him to be, and more importantly, what he wants him to be. A mere reflection of our imagination.

But just like Pelé exploited the prevalent circumstances of his time, Messi and Ronaldo have done the same with their era.

There is something new under the Sun

The year was 1990—the world had just seen one of the dullest World Cups in the history of World Cups, perhaps unsurprisingly on the Italian soil. With a record low 2.2 goals per game, FIFA felt like it was time to offer shelter for those movements that are meant to generate goals. But if one prefers to say things as they are, it was time to lure goals back into the game in order to keep the audience hooked. Several rule changes followed, with the prominent one being the revised offside rule.

Five years after the particular World Cup, FIFA allowed ‘inactive players’ to be in an offside position. An offside player were to be flagged only if they were “gaining an advantage by being in that position”. Simple, yet devastating, move by the overlords.

Like scavenging hyaenas, Messi and Ronaldo have been there to feast on the carcass.

By prowling effectively through empty spaces of value, the former is constantly aware of his surroundings, and most of the time the gain in space is implemented in front of the ball. Time after time, Messi has found himself in an inactive offside position, joining the move in the second or third phase in an onside position. Going unmarked wasn’t this easy in the previous decade.

Però the undersigned won’t ever bother to analyze how Ronaldo has exploited the particular law change, considering that he is even finer off-the-ball mover than La Pulga. This is just another example of Ronaldo’s ability to learn and transform. He’s a machine who adapts to his surroundings, and takes advantage of the changes that have taken place inside the modern game. Another one being unpredictable, synthetic footballs which have allowed him to score Puskás winners and the best free-kicks Alex Ferguson has seen in the Premier League. In the days of Pelé and Maradona, asking your feet to launch those strikes would have been out of the question. That would have been too much.

And then there is the omnipresent protection plied by the referees. Once again, exploited by Cristiano. Now that human sport units are more protected than they were in the past, Ronaldo has developed into an efficient diver, capitalizing on the deceiving professional dive whenever possible. Seeing that one cannot feel the force behind alleged contact, Ronaldo acts as if he’s forcing his way through the challenge, simultaneously making the situation almost impossible for defender not to foul him. As a result, Ronaldo has a proven track record of world-class faking. In the past, these things unfolded differently.

At the 1966 World Cup, the officials actually elected to call fewer fouls. “It was as if the referees had swallowed their whistles,” Pelé wrote in his memoir, Why Soccer Matters.

That year, Pelé resembled a gazelle being hunted and hacked down by fierce Europeans, attempting to level the field. This, unearthly, treatment was done in a tournament that saw only 0.7 bookings per game, and Pelé himself vowed to watch the upcoming World Cups from the stands.

And lest we forget the sheer barbarism that was portrayed by Claudio Gentile at the 1982 World Cup. “Every time I tried to receive the ball he’d be snapping at my ankles. I could hardly move or turn around and he didn’t even get sent off. It wasn’t Gentile’s fault, that’s his job. It was the ref’s,” Maradona briefly recalled in his own autobiography. He was talking about a man who would rip Zico’s shirt in half in the following game.

And some fourteen months later Maradona had his left ankle shattered by Andoni Goikoetxea.

Like The Telegraph’s chief football writer Sam Wallace put it, “a modern-day Goikoetxea snapping the ankle of Messi would most likely require police protection for the rest of his life”. Allegedly, Maradona endured the entire 1986 World Cup, and dragged the mediocre Argentina side to the world championship, with a metal pin holding the pieces of his ankle together. A tip on top of a mountain of ankle-swelling, shin-bending incidents.

Luckily, however, all two-footed challenges, tackles from behind and professional fouls are now due to experience the fate of the back-pass.

Overall, the evolution of association football has seen the beautiful game become an ideal habitat for Messi–Ronaldo-axle. In their prime years, like the beavers of Tierra del Fuego, Messi and Ronaldo revelled unthreatened, did what they pleased, purely focussing on goalscoring in what was comically lopsided La Liga. It is grotesque, when you come to think of it. To have tailor-made squads around you, against Spanish sides who have to operate with notoriously scarce resources.

Even though I oppose the idea of the European Super League (ESL), with American-type management structure, it could potentially put an end to this unbridgeable dilemma.

You see, footballing landscape was quite different in the days of Maradona and Pelé. From 1984 to 1991, “El Pibe de Oro” wrestled against the greatest of all individuals in Serie A—week in and week out. Paulo Roberto Falcão (1980–85) at Roma, Michel Platini at Juventus (1982–87). Zico (1983–85) at Udinese, Preben Elkjær (1984–88) at Verona, Ruud Gullit (1984–94); Marco van Basten (1987–93) and Frank Rijkaard (1988–93) at AC Milan and Lothar Matthäus (1988–92) at Inter. Before Maradona joined Napoli, they had finished 9th and 12th in the two preceding seasons, respectively.

Hence, it would be an act of folly to talk about Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona or Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid in same breath as Maradona’s Partenopei. It’s like comparing Seinfeld with Two and a Half Men. The latter is a controversial, occasionally clever, one substance-filled man’s show, but not unforgettable like the former. Pelé, on the other hand, used to focus on exhibition games with Santos.

It is true, however, that neither Pelé nor Maradona had the continuity that Messi and Ronaldo have. Neither of them had to play as many competitive games as the modern duo have had for a decade straight. All the same, the World Cup has distorted the criterion in decision making to Pelé’s and Maradona’s favour. Even though it is now an indisputable fact that Champions League offers football of loftier quality, World Cup is still this iconic and folkloric event that drags its viewers to be totally absorbed in the moment.

But, make no mistake, it is not a reflection of equality and fairness.

Pub-dwellers who, after dumping a few beers down for courage, insist that the status of a legend must be earned by winning something with your nation forget the luxury whereof Pelé got to enjoy. They forget that in 1958, it was Didi, who masterminded the Seleção’s triumph. “The world’s greatest player,” as per Real Madrid. They forget that in 1962, Brazil won the World Cup without Pelé’s contribution, with his deputy, Amarildo, scoring a game-winning brace against Spain in the next game following his injury. Imagine if Paulo Dybala had inspired Argentina’s hypothetical triumph in Russia, in the bygone summer—with Messi sitting in the stands.

Just like it is naive to compare the super clubs of today to the Napoli side of the 1980s, it is unfair to compare the greatest-ever World Cup team (Brazil 1970) to that of modern Portugal or Argentina, to national teams who failed to show that they were more than just their captains in the summer of ‘18.

After all, Messi and Ronaldo can only do so much for their respective national teams. With Ronaldo in their ranks, Portugal have featured in four World Cups. The figure being one more than what they could amass during the first 72 years. Moreover, Messi is a World Cup Golden Ball winner, and they have both broken World Championship records.. As I pointed out some months ago, one of them was separated from a World Cup final by a blatant professional fall, whilst the other missed out on gold due to Gonzalo Higuaín’s failures and Mario Götze’s moment of Götze.

“I think certain goalkeepers from my era would probably struggle with the way the game is today. But it is like anything, you try to compare teams from ten or 20 years ago and it is impossible. There are more, high-quality goalkeepers now.”

— Peter Schmeichel for FIFA.com

The game’s development has not only been beneficial for Messi and Ronaldo.

It is natural for margins to become increasingly thinner at the very top, as time travels towards the eastern end of its line. Now we have Ekkono methods, Footbonauts, GrassMasters, drones, packing datas et cetera. When Qatar national under-19 team (Aspire Academy) travelled to Netherlands for a camp of nine days long, the team had 26 players and 17 staff members in their ranks. That’s 0.65 staff members per every single (not yet professional) player. We now have more specialists at our disposal than ever before (Liverpool hired a ‘throw-in’ coach this summer); and they can employ their expertise and complete their tasks without having to compromise for schedules. They can, together with other specialists, compose special, bespoke programmes for individuals and collectives.

We’ve moved forward with such impetus that managers such as Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho are struggling to keep up, clinging to the side of the conveyor belt. A gamut of philosophies have already moved from A to B and hence, top players have to be tactically shrewder than ever before. Besides, they are being monitored with an unprecedented preciseness, meaning that their ability to adapt and burgeon more often than not is pivotal if one prefers to avoid the trap of predictability.

In the past, opponents didn’t have the means required to face Pelé, etc.

Indeed, the current landscape of football is a reflection of our time. Back in 1955 and 1985, the world population stood at 2.8 and 4.9 billion people respectively. In 2006, however, the number of people who played football had already risen to 2.65 billion.

The pool of players of which to choose the valedictorians is vastly larger than it was in the previous century.

It could also be argued that fewer officiating errors and stricter rules has not only benefited Messi and Ronaldo, but Maradona as well. As we all know, the Argentinian cemented his everlasting legacy in the 1986 World Cup, but few are aware that prior to the tournament he was actually considered to be inferior to Platini. “I thought about it and, sure, [the “Hand of God”] wouldn’t have stood if technology had been around. And I’ll tell you something else: at the 1990 World Cup I used my hand to clear the ball off the line against the Soviet Union. We were lucky because the referee didn’t see it. You couldn’t use technology back then, but it’s a different story today,” Maradona admitted when speaking to FIFA.com. One can only wonder how the pages of history would look like, had VAR been around that time.

In other words, the legacy of unsportsmanlike Maradona would’ve been vastly different had he plied his trade in 2012. But then again, Messi received career-saving growth hormone treatment at Barcelona as a child. Something that wasn’t deemed possible in Argentina in the 1960s.

Irrationality

After comparing their numbers, counting their titles, disregarding their circumstantial differences and watching their finest big-game performances, it’s time to make that mind-numbing, yet irrelevant, choice. However, I’d argue that some of our most opinionated choices are comprised of feelings. Moments that made us turn red, and our body tremor. Moulded by things, to which our hopes are pinned. To approach the “greatest of all time” debate via purely pragmatic sense, is a paradox.

“I love Messi not as a counterpoint to Cristiano, but because in my view he’s the best of all time and the emotions he gives me are unique.”

— Antonio Cassano on Vanity Fair, 2018

One asserts that “’74–’75” is a song to eclipse all others. Not because it’s a prominent piece of high culture but because it reminds him, and his lonely mind, of a long-lost high school sweetheart. Another one persistently claims that short stories Fair Extension and “Pasternak” are the finest of the finest. Not because of they being culturally and historically significant or having universal themes, but because one believes that it is a right of nature to glut the soul with vengeance and depravity. The same applies to football as well.

One is a romantic, fascinated by the idea of unpolished genius and hence believes that Diego Maradona is player like no other. One is a hipster, picking Josef Bican or Duncan Edwards simply because no one else will. Third one does like we are taught to do and labels Pelé, the master of projecting an illusion of grandeur, the greatest of all time.

But it’s not just our personal preferences that dominate the shape of our opinions. A phenomenon called the reminiscence bump is also equally responsible for skewing the perception of ours. One of the effects of the reminiscence bumb is the tendency for older adults to unawarely gild the things that took place when they were adolescents and young adults.

In 2012, three psychologists, Steve Janssen, David Rubin and Martin Conway, set out to observe the its influence on football, by asking 600 plus participants to list the names whom they thought were the five greatest footballers of all time. An unprecedented 86 per cent of the answerers selected Johan Cruyff amongst the list of GOATs, while the national treasure of Brazil, Pelé, was named in 56 per cent of the Vs, with the divisive genius of Diego Maradona holding a third-highest 48 per cent. Perhaps it’s worth to point out that Cruyff had a little home advantage, seeing that the poll was presented in Dutch on the website of Amsterdam University.

Percentages aside, it’s the figures on who voted who that really arouse interest from the reminiscence bumb’s perspective. People born between 1946 and 1955 were inclined to prefer Pelé, whereas Cruyff was thoroughly celebrated amongst those born between 1956 and 1965. Answerers, who were 11–20-year-olds in 1986, unsurprisingly projected their childhood dreams onto Maradona most frequently.

Therefore, it can be said that a player, who excels in one’s late teens, resembles Cary Grant in his charm and Heracles in his abilities, the host of revels in the person’s heart. No highlight reel, no statistic can nor will change their mind.

Keeping this in mind, you are free to draw your own conclusions on why I’ll always insist that Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest there ever was and the greatest there ever will be. Why I now proclaim that Diego Maradona is the greatest Argentinian of all time, bar Lionel Messi and Alfredo Di Stéfano, the man who never got to try his luck at the World Cup.

You can call me a fool for saying what I just said about the manufactured, yet distant, genius of Ronaldo, but this is why the debate is so much fun, if not taken too seriously. We are allowed to cherish our individual favorites.

You are allowed to say that Marilyn Monroe is the greatest actress of all time, if you really believe she is. That just says more about you than it does about Marilyn.

[*1] I won’t delve into Pelé’s ridiculous and holed Donald Trump-esque self-hype. However, I do think it’s a bit unfair that Garrincha isn’t here, with us, to make his own case. In this light, the fact that he got screwed by a live goat (allegedly) seems a bit ironic.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.