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There is nothing so heated, and some might say so pointless, as a debate about who is the best. So forget comparing contemporary rivals, let’s compare different eras of football’s greatest players.
Here are what I consider to be the greatest footballers that ever graced a football pitch. From the outset, three, maybe even four, of my selections might be generally agreed upon, but that is the wonder of sport: opinions will always differ, no matter the same set of facts and visuals used to compare.
I have listed the players in chronological order, given I do not consider the following five players can be truly ordered in terms of greatness.
The original superstar. At least, the footballer still talked about as the greatest, from the longest time ago.
Occasionally known as ‘Edson Arantes do Nascimento’, but only to those with time to waste, Pele’s three World Cup victories possibly says it all.
Keep in mind, if not for the utterly brutal tackling that greeted Pele in the 1966 World Cup, it’s more than likely he would have had four victories.
There’s nobody else laying claim to that, and this is before club championships like European and various other continental cups began to be truly considered as a great achievement.
Get onto YouTube and watch some grainy footage of an 18-year-old wunderkind scoring goals in the 1958 World Cup with a skill that still leaves you breathless, no matter what is said about generations being better than some, Pele’s skills still make you gasp.
The greatest testament to Pele’s greatness? Well, interestingly, one of Pele’s greatest highlights is of him dummying a keeper when seeking to meet a cross into the goalmouth. Pele then runs past the goalkeeper to retrieve the ball that has passed by both players due to Pele’s trickery. However, from an insanely wide angle, Pele still misses an open goal.
There are not many players who will make a highlight out of not scoring.
Again, a no-brainer, though personally my ‘least’ (if that is the word) favourite of the bunch.
Forget the hand of God and the drug controversies. Watch the footballer.
Watch the skill and amazement he created in the ‘other’ goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, universally considered the greatest goal ever scored in a World Cup.
Maradona won a World Cup and made the final in 1990, unlucky to go down in the final courtesy of a Jurgen Klinsmann double-twist dive with pike that ultimately left Argentina a man down.
Napoli did little prior to Maradona’s arrival, they haven’t really done much since.
Want to know what they achieved while he played for them? They won championships. Two of them.
And come 1994, having exhibited his skills on Australian shores to help his country qualify, he still had it, albeit while playing in a eyeball popping, drug-induced haze.
Nevertheless, he is still one of the greats.
My favourite. Note: favourite, not necessarily the best.
I had not heard of Zidane prior to the 1998 World Cup final. I did not even realise he had been red carded and missed two group stage games during that tournament.
Funnily enough, that flash of ‘red’ would not be his most famous World Cup dismissal.
His two goals in the 1998 final potentially immediately cemented him as a great. Again, funnily enough, nor would they be his most famous headers in a World Cup final.
But his skill and athleticism was breathtaking to hold. Some call football an art, some call it a science. Zidane was both.
The ball always seemed to be within his control both by calculation and magic. It is what made him the one-time most expensive player to lace a boot.
It is what was on show when he scored (in my opinion) the greatest goal ever scored in the 2002 Champions League final at Hamden Park against a gobsmacked Bayer Leverkusen.
It is also why he came back out of international retirement in 2006 and almost won a second World Cup.
Watch him against Spain, Brazil and Portugal in that tournament, at the ripe old age of 34, and you are reminded of the chemistry.
It is truly a shame that his ‘other’ header in a World Cup final that hobbled Marco Materazzi is what he is remembered for.
Truly, a magician and a scientist.
Time will ultimately hold Ronaldo as the greatest that ever played the game.
As a small example, think about how good Manchester United were with him, think about how not-so-good they are without him.
He is deservedly the highest paid player on the planet.
The internet is just so awash with the commercial aspect of his marketability, it is almost a shame it detracts from the skilful, magnificent footballer he has become.
The diving, the show-ponying, of course they detract from the player, though arguably they are not so prevalent in his current game.
It is a shame he thought he needed to play, in his early career, with unnecessary gamesmanship.
The way his feet seem to transcend time around the ball just boggles the mind. Watch him sprint an entire field, in Usain Bolt-esque time, to score against Arsenal.
Speaking of his goal-scoring, since he went to Real Madrid, his scoring rate is more than one goal every game. And he’s a winger.
His international career has stuttered. He has not won a World Cup. Probably never will.
Of course, he did recently step up to the plate as ‘the man’ in the home-and-away series with Sweden to get Portugal into Brazil 2014.
Read: Ronaldo 4, Sweden 2 (or, Ronaldo 4, Ibrahimovic 2, if you are so inclined).
Seriously, how lucky are we? Two of the greatest players that will play the game are playing at the same time.
And regularly playing against one another.
Of course, Messi is a freak. A man of his size, with the associated limited physical capabilities, should not be this good.
He should not dribble the ball from halfway and score goals of such individual brilliance that you are almost left believing you have watched computer manipulated footage.
But he does it. Sometimes, he does it five times a game.
It is not a case of mere politicking that resulted in him being crowned world player of the year four years in a row.
Like Ronaldo, there’s no World Cup, though you imagine Lionel has a better shot than Cristiano.
So why do I think Ronaldo is possibly better?
It is a personal thing, however, notably, Messi wins Spanish League titles and European championships for fun. Of course, it helps that he plays with Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Cesc Fabregas and has played with Ronaldinho and Theirry Henry.
Simply put, it’s easy to win stuff when you are a part of probably the greatest club side that will ever be assembled.
The complete and utter dismantling of Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final is still what I consider to be the single most dominant performance by a football club side in history. More so than Real’s 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1956.
In Cristiano’s case, I am surprised he does not suffer from chronic knee problems, having to carry around Real Madrid on a weekly basis.
Sure, they are Galacticos, but they do not play as a team on the level of Barca.
So, as to who of this royal group of five is the best, if I am honest, it is really a question you cannot properly answer.
Ronaldo and Messi are probably better than their predecessors, but that is going to be the case given the advancement in skills and physical fitness.
The question should not be who of them is the greatest, but how would each fare in their respective eras.
That is my opinion. The top five greatest footballers ever.
It has been a blessing to watch them play, and I remain thankful that video was created in time to capture the breathtaking skill of all of them.