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11 January 2023

The problem with sport’s endless “greatest of all time” debates

Fans’ fixation on the concept of greatness has become an absurd identity politics.

By Jonathan Liew

What is the greatest food of all time? You might have a penchant for the lobster or the wagyu steak, the pizza or the luxury chocolate, or the humble and effortlessly versatile potato. Perhaps the greatest food of all time is a complex and textured effort such as the chowder or the paella, or one tied to a certain place or moment or memory. Alternatively, you might conclude at the outset that anointing a greatest food is an act of pure futile subjectivity, a matter of discrete personal taste, and thus an irredeemably stupid question to ask in the first place.

Sport, alas, is yet to attain this level of enlightenment. Perhaps this is simply the logical collateral of a business dedicated to assigning winners and losers, of placing this thing above that. There comes a point, surely, when awarding trophies and medals is an insufficient accolade on its own. And so arose the idea of the “greatest of all time” – the Goat – an enjoyable and long-standing pub debate that in recent years has been elevated to something more: a pressing concern, an obsession, in many ways the very currency of sport itself.

We saw this again in recent weeks with the death of Pelé on 29 December, juxtaposed with the triumph just 11 days earlier of Lionel Messi in the World Cup final between Argentina and France. Each occasion, historic and momentous in its own right, was somehow folded into a wider narrative of greatness, an affirmation or renewal of the idea that these men represented the pinnacle of footballing achievement. For some, Pelé will always be the greatest. For others, Messi has now surpassed him. Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Johan Cruyff will also have their adherents.

[See also: Gareth Southgate’s real legacy will be measured not in trophies but in happiness]

I’m less interested in the merits of this interminable debate than the meaning of the debate itself. Why do we still insist on comparing the likes of Pelé and Messi, footballers separated by half a century, by unquantifiable shifts in culture and science, as if this is a simple question with a simple answer? Why do millions of people partake in an exercise that demands a clear and inarguable winner and yet by definition can never produce one? Why do people feel so strongly about this? What even is greatness anyway? Why do we say “greatest” rather than “best”? When did sport become so thoroughly fixated on greatness: not simply in its own right, but to the exclusion of everything that came before and after it?

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This is not a phenomenon restricted to football. Cricket has Donald Bradman, Garfield Sobers and Shane Warne; golf has Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus; Formula 1 has Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio. Boxing fans will merrily debate the pound-for-pound worth of Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Robinson or Floyd Mayweather Jr. But perhaps no sport has surrendered so entirely to the Goat discourse as tennis, in which fans of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic spar on a daily basis about which of their men has the ultimate claim to greatness. To do so, of course, is to incur the wrath of Serena Williams fans, for whom arguing anything less than total supremacy is to mark oneself out as a sexist, and very possibly a racist.

It’s tempting to characterise all this as simply a marketplace of opinions, a cacophony of rival subjectivities all lawlessly shouting over each other in an attempt to attract business. After all, much of the essence of sport is in the exegesis: the stories we tell, the quarrels we have in the spaces between. But these are not your common or garden opinions. No weight of empirical evidence will ever sway Ronaldo or Nadal fans from the conviction that their man is simply the greatest – end of, no further questions. It is less an opinion than an entire belief system, a kind of identity politics. Clearly, this goes deeper.

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One of the books I read over Christmas was This Is Not Who I Am by Emily Bootle, formerly a sub-editor at this magazine. (One of her jobs was to edit this column, a source of no little embarrassment given she was both smarter than me and a much better writer.) In it she makes the compelling point that in the pressure cooker of social media, dramatised hyperbole serves a kind of performative function, akin to confession, a means of “proving the intensity of our inner world”. No longer are we allowed to simply like chowder or wagyu beef. You must be prepared to fight for it. It must be a hill you will die on.

And so for fans of Messi, Argentina’s World Cup win is simply a subplot in the story about Messi’s triumph over Ronaldo, over Maradona and Pelé, over history. Meanwhile, the death of Pelé serves as a platform for an entire generation of largely older fans to elevate their memories and their feelings as objectively more cherishable than those of any other generation. Tennis fans advocate for Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Williams not in the realistic hope of changing anybody’s mind, but to express an idea of who they are to the world.

The terms of this engagement must never be defined. For some, their affinity will be based in nationality or memory; for others in taste or sensibility. The important thing here is that the assertion of Goat-ness is not simply an argument, but the very point. It says: this is who I am, and this is how I want to be represented to the world. This is why the Goat debate can never truly be resolved. This is also why it can never truly end.

[See also: Why have so many of England’s golden generation failed as football managers?]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor