It is all too common to hear any sportsman being called “great” nowadays. But, by definition, “Great” is a word that should be rationed, because otherwise it loses all meaning. It is like saying that everyone in a group is better than everyone else in the group, a clear logical impossibility. Perhaps sports journalists need to be told that they can refer to a maximum of 3 players as great in their career. They would then probably ‘hoard’ their ‘great’s and use them sparingly. The world would be a better place for that.
So, how would you distinguish a great from a merely extraordinary? We at Sportz Cosmos would propose a very simple metric – anyone who breaks a continuum would qualify into a short-list. And then we re-evaluate. We realize that this ‘simple’ metric is vague, so let us elaborate by picking Messi, undoubtedly a great footballer, as an example.
Say we list all attributes for an attacking footballer – vision, control, speed, ability to beat defenders, finishing ability, etc. Then, we calculate the average for the top 100 players in the world in this category. There would be players who would score say 1.1 times the average on a great many of these categories. These are the ones that are outstanding athletes.
Defined differently, an excellent player is someone who is better than merely good players on all/most metrics. Cristiano Ronaldo is one such player. He would probably score 1.2 times the average on many of the categories. But since we have only very few ‘greats’ available with us, we need more than this.
We need guys who break this definition. In other words, guys who routinely do something that cannot be placed into this linear framework.
What do we mean by this? Messi’s ability to head the ball might be only say 0.8 times that of the rest of the guys’, but some angles and dribbles that Messi sees are not available to the rest. They simply cannot see these. The only other players in recent years with an eye for such a dream angle are Zidane and Kaka (at his best). Kaka ‘knew’ that pass to Crespo in the 2005 Champions League final about 2 seconds sooner than everyone else in the world. And then of course, he had the skill to execute it, which is beyond even many fantastic players. (In case you are not sure what we are talking about, it is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUksQSAicrc)
We have seen Rivaldo and Ronaldinho on occasions have this vague ‘goal’ view that is not open to others. Ronaldinho scored a goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that even the goal keeper did not realize was a goal till the ball went in. Rivaldo scored a bicycle kick in the dying minutes of a Barca-Valencia match that in many ways set up the Ronaldinho-Messi era. (Barcelona HAD to defeat Valencia to qualify for Champions.League or face serious financial difficulties. Rivaldo scored 2 goals only to see Valencia score two themselves. Then with very little time left on the clock, Cocu tossed one up in the vicinity more in hope than expectation, Rivaldo manufactured the bicycle kick that no one else saw coming).
But a great player is not merely one that generates this in one season. No, such are the lofty standards of greatness that even something so incredible doesn’t qualify a player as great. A great is someone from whom we come to expect this, to expect the unexpected so to say, season after season. In other words, there is a certain delicious combination of unpredictability and inevitability of these moments when a great player is around. This is why Kaka, Dinho, Redondo do not qualify for this tag and Zidane and Messi do.
The scary part is that this je ne sais quoi has become part of Messi’s routine for 4 years in a row now. He is not an excellent player in form. This is his level. This is why it is very unfortunate for his contemporaries like Ronaldo. At a time where the top athletes are all frightfully well trained, being 20% better than most of the others is immense. It is just unfortunate that he is a contemporary of Messi.
For Messi’s ability is not “just”1.2 times the ability of the others in all categories. It includes categories that others cannot see, new categories unto themselves. The brilliant players are those that achieve excellence within the frontiers of the game, the great ones those that redefine the frontiers. This is exactly what Messi does and what makes him great beyond any argument.