G.O.A.T. Watchers

The GOAT – Greatest Of All Time – is a term bandied about far too easily nowadays. It may well be tempting to say Lionel Messi winning his sixth Ballon d’Or makes him an inevitable candidate for that title, but the fact he received it for 2019 points to how little that trophy has always meant. It used to be that the Ballon d’Or was voted for by journalists and experts around Europe, but since combining with the often-ridiculed FIFA Player of the Year Award – which is assigned by coaches all over the globe who barely watch any European football at all – it has ensured we have no truly reliable trophy for individual excellence.

Is it given to the player who is the most talented, or the one who truly made his mark that year? If it’s the latter, then Messi and for that matter Cristiano Ronaldo should’ve been behind Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker, who won the Champions League and came very close to ending Liverpool’s decades-long Premier League drought. It would’ve been nice for once to see a defender or goalkeeper rewarded, as they contribute just as much, if not more, than the strikers. If you want to know why the Ballon d’Or is a waste of time, remember Paolo Maldini never won it.

Messi did very little in the Copa America, confirming his struggle to deliver for Argentina, while Barcelona flopped once more in Europe. At least Cristiano Ronaldo could say he took Portugal to the Nations League, although considering he didn’t play in the qualifiers for that final tournament, he can’t entirely take the credit for that either. It won’t stop him trying, obviously.

Messi’s humility is one of the reasons why people love him so much. Perhaps it is also why he so rarely makes the difference in the big tournament games for club and country. Arrogance in a forward can be precious resource. Just look at Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

He left MLS the way he arrived, by declaring himself a genius, belittling everyone around him and acting as if the entire League ought to be grateful he bothered giving them a mere glimpse of his greatness. It’s verging on self-parody now and there is always a mischievous glint in his eye when he refers to himself in the third person. This spectacular arrogance is also what makes him the player that he is. Nobody but Zlatan would even think of a volley from halfway up the pitch, let alone get it into the net. Zlatan does Zlatan things precisely because he is Zlatan. And we are happy to sit back and enjoy the show, for that’s what this is, a firework display of pomposity.

Of course, the key with being spectacularly arrogant is the ability to back that up with actions. Ibrahimovic can stand with arms outstretched waiting for the adulation because he just scored with a mixture of football skills and taekwondo acrobatics. He can talk as if he’s the biggest draw in Major League Soccer because he is, or rather was.

Diego Armando Maradona – my personal GOAT – had a similar approach to life and the sport. He had the raw skill of Messi but the arrogance of Ibrahimovic and it was that presumptuousness that allowed him to dribble past four players to score in a World Cup, or get shots in from improbable angles before anyone had even thought of it as an option. If these men weren’t so passionately self-promoting, they wouldn’t have been able to even dream of doing such things.

Can Cristiano Ronaldo genuinely back up his arrogance? Refusing to even turn up for two years in a row to see someone else win the Ballon d’Or is incredibly churlish from CR7. He won the Scudetto with a Juventus side that was already dominant in Italy and wasn’t even top scorer in that Division, let alone the Champions League. He has extraordinary career statistics, but now that his fitness levels are declining a little with age, he is having less of an impact. It doesn’t help that his presence in the Juve system means leaving out either Paulo Dybala or Gonzalo Higuain, both of whom are having better seasons so far than the former Real Madrid star.

Someone with Messi’s talent and Cristiano Ronaldo’s unshakeable belief in himself would be the perfect player. Why do we have to choose between the two? Can we not just enjoy the fact we have both to watch and argue about simultaneously? Then again, that’s part of the fun of football, that there is no objective way of deciding the best player. Statistics can only take you so far, as they are in different teams, leagues, nations and roles. Let the GOAT games continue.

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