What makes a football legend?

In When Saturday Comes, the point was raised that Messi, whilst a star, is not quite yet a legend. To explain this fact, it is pointed that people who are considered legends, like Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, redefined their sports and thus achieved this status. It was not the records, it was that untangible quality that makes people stare in awe.

Even though I do agree with the conclusion, I believe the article fails to be convincing. The first reason is the comparison of a player from a team sport which fields 11 players on each side, with players from sports of 1 vs 1, 6 vs 6, 1 vs 1 and 5 vs 5, respectively. The main point of the comparison is that the more players on the field you have, the less likely it is to influence the outcome of a single match, let alone one season or a career. That means that boxing, hockey, golf and basketball are more likely to have players who could redefine the sport and mark one era simply because of the influence of numbers: they had less players to dominate at any given moment.

Taken from this point of view, it begs the question: who would be, under that fuzzy definition, the real legends of football (soccer for those americans unfortunate enough to read these lines)? Well, Maradona and Pelé would be the obvious answers. Who else? Puskas, di Stefano, Cruiff, Beckenbauer, Sindelaar, Yashin? These were undoubtably greats, but were they legends in the sense that they redefined the game? Well, in some cases, the answer is obviously yes, but is is also easy to point other players who redefined it even more despite being somewhat lesser players. For Pelé, read Zagallo, the man who transported almost single-handedly the game from the 4-2-4 to 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 (Alf Ramsey’s 1966 England did much in this sense as well). For Puskas, read Hidegkuti, the man who played the completely revolutionary withdrawn forward role to such perfection that he brought the WM to an unnofficial end. Could they fall under the definition of “legends”? Certainly so, in some quarters or in their own countries, but probably not globally in the history of the game.

Then how to establish this definition? Well, what makes Pelé a great and a legend? In 1970, he played in what was arguably the best national team of all times, a side as ruthless as it was artistic. In 1962, he spent most of the time injured and saw Garrincha destroy side after side and take most of the plaudits. In 1966 he was injured and Brazil were kicked out (literally) of the tournament by very good sides who also aimed at stiffle their quality. In 1958 though, at just 17, he inscribed his name in history books through taking the whole tournament by surprise and scoring some emblematic goals (the most celebrated of which was the 3-1 in the final). Of course, his goals (over one thousand of them by his own reckoning) and a stable and uncontroversial career (as opposed to that of the equally brilliant Garrincha) meant he managed to create his own legend, something very much aided by the emergence of global television and his willingness to appear in movies to further his own image.

That was one side of things. What about Maradona, the man that came to challenge Pelé for the title of “the greatest”? Well, this was a different proposition. Maradona won only one world cup, but differently from Pelé, he dominated it in a way never before seen and playing for an Argentina team that was decidedly average. Furthermore, he imposed not only his football, but also his own will and personality, as exemplified by his “hand of God” comment. On the way to the title, he also scored some emblematic of goals (actually, the most emblematic of them all, followed by an almost equally ridiculously good one against Belgium). Finally, once marked ruthlessly in the final, he created constantly spaces for his teammates by dragging opponents out of position and then made the brilliant pass for the decisive goal. The World Cup in 1986 pretty much encapsulated Maradona’s career (minus the drugs): unbelievably brilliant player playing for an average team and carrying his teammates by pure force of genius and will. The absence of more major tournaments or more individual records become, under this light, unimportant. His term of comparison, in WSC’s article, would naturally be Muhammad Ali.

How does Messi measure up to this then? Well, truth be told, he does not. Not yet. He is far too young and his career has still far too long to go. He may still fall down some celebrity drain and his genius may come to be seen as a light that shone intensely for four seasons and then disappeared. It also looked like Ronaldinho could have challenged the greats, for a couple of seasons at Barcelona, but then parties, the weight of celebrity and his own willingness to leave overcame the determination to suceed and stay at the top level of football. The lack of a World Cup trophy should not be an impediment to Messi’s ascention to the list of legends, because that trophy is not as important as before. It used to be the only chance to see the best players in the world (Pelé is hardly remembered for his Santos career outside South America), but the ascention of global television and YouTube mean that such tournaments are no longer necessary for global recognition.

However, Messi’s bane may also be the lack of a tournament defining performance. Either the carrying an average Barcelona to the Spanish or European title or being the dominating player of the tournament in a Copa America or World Cup that Argentina wins. These are his only paths to legend status. He may break every record in existence and that will not be assured, as it will always be mentioned along the words “yes, but he played with Iniesta and Xavi/Fabregas/Thiago“.

Legend status is not achieved by gods, it is achieved by demigods. As much as Zeus was the most powerful god in Olympus, it is Heracles who achieved the immortality level. It is only the spark of failure that brings certainty of transcendency. Without humanity, this is impossible. And we still need to see Messi’s humanity and frailty before passing judgement on his legend.

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