The often brilliant (but always very good) Joe Posnanski is holding a poll over on his blog, last night and today. I meandered over via twitter and had a look, and made my votes. I was happy to see several (association) football players on the list as well as the usual suspects in the major American sports and some basketball players. I don’t know much about basketball, except Jordan was the best ever and Dr. J was cool. I mean, he had to be, right?
Incidentally, this is what I love about twitter. I really enjoy Posnanski’s work, and I actually prefer to go through his personal blog, even though the exact same articles are often reposted on the Sports Illustrated website. He uses his twitter account well. Asking people to vote on a poll he is running that will inform a future article? This is exactly how twitter is supposed to work, and I love it. More of this type of usage of twitter, please. Contrary to the beliefs of some, it is far from over.
Anyway, I meandered over there and had a look, and immediately noticed something that, to be honest, I was half expecting. Lionel Messi and Ronaldo are on the list. I’m going to go ahead and assume that Cristiano Ronaldo is the player being mentioned and not the original Ronaldo. Personally, I prefer the Brazilian as a player but I don’t feel he could credibly be discussed as a potential nominee for the top five footballers of all time. So I’ll assume the poll is referencing the Portuguese genius cheat whiner winger centre forward.*
*Hey, this post started with a reference to Joe Posnanski so I get to use an asterisk and have a little note in italics. Cristiano Ronaldo is clearly a centre forward and has been for years. In fact, he’s a very good centre forward. Observe the crazy amount of goals that he scores. He was never a particularly good winger. His crossing was generally sub-par and his poor decision making crippled him at that position. Other than to make him seem even more amazing by assigning his already astonishing goals-per-game ratio to a position on the field that doesn’t necessarily score that many goals, there is no reason in 2012 to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo as a winger.
So, here’s my problem. Let’s take my issues with C. Ronaldo aside for a moment. Ok, let’s not. A quick summary: he has amazing physical gifts and a high level of skill on the ball but his complete failure to play as a member of a team coupled with his laughable failure to turn up in important games gives me considerable pause when looking to talk about him as a “great” player. Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Pele, Charlton, all of these players have given us timeless moments of unapproachable quality on the field. C. Ronaldo scored a sweet goal against North Korea once. Ok, and Fulham.
Messi is another kettle of fish entirely. He’s genuinely transcendent, a rare example of a player that can justifiably be discussed as one of the greatest ever while he is still in his prime. This is truly amazing. The Ballon D’Or has become his personal property, and is a legitimate award for the first time in years simply by being awarded to Messi consistently. Barring something terrible, there is nothing stopping Messi becoming one of the greatest players of all time. The only question mark remaining on his CV is the World Cup, and that will come with time. Our standards for the man are so high that he was widely criticized after his performance at the 2010 World Cup, for being merely human on a team that struggled to find its way under the direction of a mad genius. Unfortunately for Argentina, Maradona is a genius on the pitch, but simply mad in the dugout.
Thing is, and here’s the kicker (yuk yuk): I have to admit I’m being completely unfair. What if C. Ronaldo wises up with age, stops being a petulant fool and learns to pass the ball? What if a C. Ronaldo in his early 30s matured and learned to use his technical gifts more intelligently, rather than (as I am assuming will happen) become an also-ran with occasional moments at a mid-level team in Spain or Italy, having failed to cope with the decline of his physical gifts? What if an aging C. Ronaldo, playing in central midfield, leads a young Portugal side to a stirring showing in the 2018 World Cup? I’d have no choice but to reconsider.
I don’t think any of those things will happen, and as things stand I think C. Ronaldo will end up as an anomaly. More talented than the hype-driven Beckham, whose accomplishments in football already seem rather sparse after years of being hailed as one of the greatest midfielders in football, C. Ronaldo will still go down as a supremely talented athlete who scored an absolute ton of goals for a strong Real Madrid side but could never emerge from the diminutive shadow of Lionel Messi. Frankly, I would not even rate C. Ronaldo as the best player on his own team right now. Still, his career has a long way to go yet.
Messi is the exception then. For years now, these polls have been dominated by recent players. John Aldridge recently described Steven Gerrard as the greatest player in Liverpool’s history. Yeah… I love John Aldridge, but no. Eric Cantona has regularly appeared a little higher than he should on polls of greatest ever Manchester United players for over a decade. I know that we all have short memories and that this is even more true in professional sport, but come on. Can’t we just have a Baseball Hall of Fame style moratorium? I propose that we give players about five years after they retire from the game before we start mentioning them in “Best Of” polls. Get to it, Internet.
It’s terribly important of course, these informal polls voted on by anonymous fans. But hey, these are the things that bother me. Incidentally, my top five football players of all time?*
*The list is obviously extremely subjective. Names that I agonized over: Charlton, Gerd Muller, Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, Paul McGrath, Franco Baresi, John Barnes, Cruyff, Keane, Rush, Shearer, Batistuta, and many many more.