If you have followed football long enough, chances are that you would have seen some of the gods in their element, you would have been in awe seeing greats at work. If you have followed the game long enough, you must have seen masters who danced with football at their feet, soldiers who stood as barricades before the goals and magical hands who dominated the sticks. Yet, for many reasons, many neither know nor remember them today. Many who do only have fleeting memories of these greats, despite their enormous talent, creativity and even records.
If you are one of the few who remember these men and the bygone era in vivid colours, chances are that you might find the current debate around GOATs quite tedious. You might even remember that a debate of this nature, even if not exactly of same texture, even if it was hardly about players of the same era, is not quite new. You might remember when pitching Maradona against Pelé was quite rife. You might remember the 80s and the flurry of greats from Brazil. You might remember Segun Odegbami, Dino Zoff, Rummenige, Roger Milla.
You might remember the 90s for Zidane, Ronaldo de Lima, Luis Figo, Gullit, Van Basten, Kluivert Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf. You might look back at a more recent era and remember Kaka, Ronaldinho, JayJay Okocha, Thierry Henry, Xavi, Iniesta, Kanu Nwankwo, Beckham and others. Of the many greats and gods I have had the privilege to see at play (work) over the years, one that I find (first found) most fascinating is Sócrates.
Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, popularlty known as Sócrates, was a Brazilian footballer, arguably, one of the most gifted Midfielders ever. For those who don’t know him, here is a chip off his Wikipedia entry: “Sócrates was an elegant, talented, and technical playmaker, known for his great through passes, precise long balls, link-up play, and his vision on the field, as well as his physical strength; he was also a two-footed player. While he was mainly known for his ability to orchestrate attacking plays, he was a prolific goal scorer himself, courtesy of his powerful and accurate shot with his right foot, and his ability to make attacking runs into the area from behind. He was also an accurate penalty taker, while his height, heading ability, and elevation allowed him to excel in the air.”
Indeed, he was everything as described here, standing high among a generation of players which included greats such as Zico, Falcao in a Brazilian team, bursting at the seams with talents, a team often regarded as the most talented Brazilian team ever. He captained the 1982 World Cup team and was a part of the 1986 team which lost on penalties to France in the quarter finals.
Beyond the tall frame, which might ordinarily have been regarded as not fit for football, Sócrates had a standing and carriage which clearly stood him out. That would be further reinforced by a beard and ever-present headband which made him stand out among the already distinguished Brazilian team of the 80s.
However, it was the realisation that here was a Medical Doctor playing professional football that got me intrigued. Though we already had our own Segun Odegbami and Adokiye Amesimaka in that same class, Sócrates was the first foreign footballer with that level of education I would be getting to know. I was intrigued. I just loved to watch him play. We got to watch Brazilian league. It was a joy to see him, either playing for his club, Corinthians or country, Brazil.
Sócrates captained the Brazilian team to the 1982 World Cup. That team which had as members Zico, Falcão, Toninho Cerezo and Éder, among other great players, is considered by many experts as one of the greatest Brazilian national teams ever. The 2-3 loss to Italy was such a painful shocker that had even us, distant fans, battling to recover for days. A team of talents that had been tipped for glory extinguished by a Paolo Rossi hat trick in a match described as one of the best football matches ever.
That Sócrates was Captain of that great team was a statement to the measure of the man. He won 66 caps playing for Brazil over 7 years, featured in two World Cups (82 and 86), scoring 22 goals for the country. He was named South American Footballer of the Year in 1983. He made the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players, which was compiled by Pelé in 2004. Even though Sócrates would be considered as a Football great, I doubt that many will contest that he didn’t quite fully fulfil potential. That he barely played outside Brazil, spending a lone season with Fiorentina, might, in part, be responsible for him not being as acknowledged as he truly deserves, even though many concede that he was one of the most outstanding Midfielders of his generation.
That speaks to the point I have repeatedly made that the time will never come where there will be unanimity on who the GOAT is, no matter what stats or records any individual might amass. A preponderance of opinion might favour one player or the other, but there will always be dissenting voices who will never cease to fish for records or stats, real or imagined, to support their position.
In 2013, World Soccer, one of the world’s most respected publications on Football released the “Greatest XI of All time”. The list based on the poll of 74 experts, which consisted of Journalists, TV pundits, current and former players and managers from around the world picked the following eleven:
Lev Yashin (URS)
Franz Beckenbauer (GER)
Bobby Moore (ENG)
Paolo Maldini (ITA)
Alfredo Di Stéfano (ARG)
Zinedine Zidane (FRA)
Diego Maradona (ARG)
Johan Cruyff (NED)
Lionel Messi (ARG)
Top 7 strikers:
1. Pelé (BRA)5675.68%
2. Lionel Messi (ARG)4662.16%
3. Ferenc Puskas (HUN)1114.86%
4. Ronaldo (BRA)912.16%
5. Marco van Basten (NED)56.76%
6. Gerd Müller (GER)45.41%
7. Oleh Blokhin (URS)22.70%
Top 7 Midfielders:
1. Diego Maradona (ARG)6486.49%
2. Johan Cruyff (NED)5878.38%
3. Zinedine Zidane (FRA)2837.84%
4. Alfredo DiStéfano (ARG)2432.43%
5. Michel Platini (FRA)1824.32%
6. Garrincha (BRA)1520.27%
7. George Best (NIR)1216.22%
On these lists are names that many will not recognise. But these are gods and greats of Football that many who are fixated on who should be regarded as the GOAT do not even know of. Cristiano Ronaldo was voted 9th on the list of top Midfielders, while Sócrates was 14th.
Undoubtedly, these are great Footballers. But a lot of things go into deciding on who qualifies as greats, gods or even the GOAT. Some would lean on stats and records, some would go for skills, while others will give priority to grit, dedication, team-spirit or even context or significance of achievements. At the end of the day, there will never be unanimity. Not even the FIFA list of 100 as compiled by Pelé was received without discontent and disagreement.
For those of us who seriously follow Tennis or even Motorsports, which is more of an individual than a team sport, we have long had to live with highly intense rivalry among individuals and an unending debate about who is the GOAT. As Federer smashed records and set new ones, the question of him being the GOAT was becoming one that was beyond being debated. But as Nadal began to win more and more, questions began to emerge. Do we stay with stats, records and slams? Do we bring in the style of play? Do we consider head-to-head records? Then, Djokovic came into the picture, further complicating things. Who is the GOAT? The debate in Formula1 has been toxic for years now. Nothing will ever make some acknowledge the place of Lewis Hamilton in the sport.
We have had greats. We have had gods. We will always have new greats and new gods emerge. While some believe we already have the GOAT, some will rather have us choose per era or generation. Even with that, can we ever achieve consensus? Do we even need to have a consensus?