By Ahmed Nada, @GizaGooner
Class. A term often used, in football, to describe one’s ability relative to others around them. We often hear that players are of a different class whenever they perform certain acts, some going as far as being labelled as ‘world-class’: the class a fraction below legendary status in football. Does it truly exist? Is it fair, or even ethical to have a pre-conceived notion of a player’s ability based solely on a concept?
Prior to my personal dissection of this terminology, I must provide full disclosure that I am ideologically opposed to the notion of a caste or class system in order to separate people, particularly as a human’s potential abilities are near-infinite, regardless of physical prowess, – Thomas Müller, for example, does not boast a particularly impressive physique, yet is quite proficient – and with that, I shall attempt to be as impartial as humanly possible, though I will most likely become a footballing Gandhi and dismantle it accordingly.
Throughout football, moments have dazzled fans worldwide, created a cult of wonder and amazement with every touch of the ball; – the ‘circular wizardess’, as it’s called in my homeland – a select few who command the respect, admiration, and fear of their opposition. From household names such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, et alis, to the virtually unknown masters of the game, such as Ferenc Puskás, Lev Yashin, and Abedi Ayew…
However, what is it that separates these greats, the undisputed legends of the game, – known or unknown – from those who displayed individual moments of brilliance once or twice within their playing careers? Consistency? Accomplishments? Ability? Let’s view each argument individually, as these arguments are the basis of the fundamental idea of player classification.
Consistency is key, is it not? You may agree that this is the case at the onset of this argument, and it may seem like a given… Just as it is a given that Olivier Giroud is on a higher class than Sergio Agüero. Taken aback? You should be: consistency is the difference between these two strikers, as the Frenchman scores roughly 15-20 goals across an entire season, while the Argentine is perpetually injured before going on to score 20 of his own in a rapid, yet short-lived haul. One could argue that consistency is a trait even the venerable Ronaldinho lacked, as he ‘oozed class’ throughout a period of three to four years, before fading away; the reasons of which are irrelevant within this argument.
A lack of consistency is not the death of a legend, as players such as Ronaldinho or Marco van Basten can attest. Accomplishments are the true bar, then, are they not? Not quite, either, as such a classification would disqualify the likes of Steven Gerrard, as the maligned Nicky Butt boasts more Premiership titles than the Liverpool legend. Accomplishments are highly subjective: our very own Arsène Wenger would undoubtedly be the most successful manager in Premier League history had he not been a certain fellow knight’s contemporary, while Cristiano Ronaldo – owner of a single La Liga title – would have earned several more titles with his concurrent Spanish comrades, had he not had the misfortune of being within the same league as a soaring Barcelona.
It is, after all, unfair to declare a player – or person in general – a failure, or less than another, for not achieving as much: circumstances are erratic, and are not egalitarian, nor are they meritocratic in many cases; Pavel Nedved, Gianluigi Buffon, David Trezeguet, et al, were relegated, it does not place them within the same bracket as, say, Cardiff City’s players – no offence, Cardiff. What does is their ability, no? The defining factor of any individual within any field: their ability to perform their job, and perform it well; exceptionally well, in this case.
As mentioned earlier, I am not a subscriber to the concept of differing inherent abilities; nurture, not nature. The aforementioned Cristiano Ronaldo was born with a heart condition, which has not prevented him from achieving legendary status with all but a deluded few who cannot peer past their factionalised lenses. As mentioned earlier, a player’s physique is not a defining factor, it is their will to succeed. Ian Wright, for example, was an exemplary player well into his thirties, physically and mentally, as he was mentally capable of adapting, playing, and succeeding; a trait all legends have, or have had at a point in time; albeit to varying degrees – I’m looking at you, Ronaldinho.
It is the willingness to succeed, and the ability to compromise oneself to do so that allows a player to transcend mortality, and ascend into the pantheon of greats. It’s not to say other players are not as willing to succeed, it is to say that the level of preparedness to risk their lives and careers in order to dazzle, succeed, or even flatter to deceive is rare, and is what creates these players’ legacies. A player’s ability is not eternal, as the likes of Fernando Torres and Radamel Falcao have shown us; that does not disqualify them from entry into said pantheon, however, just as it did not disqualify the equally-mercurial Ronaldinho. (– I seem to hate him, but I truly don’t)
In reality, ‘world class’ is a term we use to refer to nothing more than the players we personally view as being great within our lifetimes; living legends. In essence, it is part of humans’ endless factionalisation and competitiveness; another way something or another is superior to whatever else. A player’s legendary status, however, is not fundamentally about the success of a player’s career, nor about their form, consistency, or overall statistical contribution to football: it is about the effect they’ve had on peoples’ lives.
What truly separates Lionel Messi from Diego Maradona, for example, is not their accomplishments; Messi’s statistics are far from perfect, and as stated, timing is everything, so what does? Simply put, Messi and Ronaldo are viewed as the ‘greatest ever’ players currently simple because they are the greatest many have seen, themselves. I may mount my lofty, statistically-infused horse and claim that Ferenc Puskás was the greatest player in my own opinion, but he has not engrained himself into my life as even Aaron Ramsey has: a player’s status, class, et cetera is subjective to the person judging their worth.
Fundamentally, a player’s job – regardless of commercialization – is to provide special, memorable moments for the fans, the spectators: us. Their job is complete once they’ve done the seemingly impossible, or have cemented themselves into our minds. The likes of Mesut Özil and Marco Reus will be viewed as legends in hindsight for their ability and contributions, as well as the moments they’ve provided; in a similar sense, Danny Welbeck will be seen in the same light by many for his contributions.
A player who scores five thousand goals will be as memorable as one who scores a single volley in his career to break a deadlock and win a game, because they are forever enshrined upon a throne of gold in our hearts and minds. There is no such thing as world class: any player can become a legend in their own right, because after all, the word itself refers to the iconic nature of something, naught more, nor less.
Ahmed Nada is a blogger of Full90Gooner. Follow him at @GizaGooner