I have been watching a few debate shows lately which left me more enraged than intrigued. I have come to realise that this entire GOAT debate is flawed in many aspects. Now consider the fact when you expand the horizon of this debate and stretch it across multiple sports. How can you try to put someone on a pedestal which lacks a fundamentally strong basement? It might make for an entertaining sound bite but in the end, is as stupid and illogical as comparing apples and oranges. A table that hosts all the greatest players ever cannot possibly have a single head, too much humility, attitude, intimidation and greatness for that.
Tom Brady recently won his 7th Super Bowl at the age of 43 against a heavy favourite Kansas City Chiefs with an unexpected winning margin. Great, good for him. Adds more point in is favour as the greatest NFL player ever. But how do we compare it to the likes of Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar, Tiger Woods and all the other players in this category? Isn’t it unfair to everyone in certain regards? You could never compare Jordan’s 3-peat or dominance with Serena’s longevity and titles. Messi’s goals and impact on his team are similar to Tendulkar’s contribution to his team. And these are just a handful who comes to mind, the list is really long.
It’s a bandwagon effect where we latch on to someone’s recent contribution and forget about the past eras and the players who did it before. Let’s take football, for example, we have spent countless hours as a generation having our picks over Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. They have been exceptional in every sense, but that doesn’t mean the history of football end with these two. One can make a valid argument for Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Iniesta, Brazilian Ronaldo, Ramos, Casillas, Buffon which will hold true for multiple reasons. For instance, as the technology, infrastructure facilities progressed producing fitter and stronger athletes, the game and players have also gone softer. Also, how do you measure goalkeepers, midfielders, defenders and scorers on the same scale? It’s just that we find more joy in watching the ball go past the goalkeeper than a tactile defence and hence it boils down to our argument.
It holds true across every sport. Basketball — Jordan, Russell, Oscar, Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic Bird, LeBron, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, Curry, KG. Everyone saw The Last Dance and jumped on the hype train. I understand championships matter, but across eras and teams situation differ. Jordan is synonymous with the global rise in basketball and NBA’s success but it isn’t Chamberlain or Russell’s fault if you didn’t watch the old tape. I don’t see anyone with 11 rings or someone score 100 points in a game. A better argument would be to choose the greatest players by playing position and generation. But let’s just stick to that only. Anything beyond that is just a wrong indulgence, my friend.
When it comes to cricket, it has slowly become a batsmen favourite game. Who wouldn’t love to see boundaries and sixes compared to a maiden over? No wonder T20 has become the most popular format in this sport. Yet, you still have pundits and former players picking Bradman and Richards over Tendulkar, Ponting, Lara, Dravid. Cricket as a sport is similar to the NFL in terms of its global reach with limited teams participating. Bowlers never get their due credit compared to batsmen in this game. A bowler with 500 plus wickets would not be as revered amongst the fans as a batsman with 10k runs. It’s just my opinion. Warne, Muralitharan, Kumble, Akram, McGrath, Anderson, Walsh, Ambrose, weren’t they nightmare for the batsmen at their peak. Hence always make a case for the best playing XI rather than the best player.
When it comes to Tennis — we just forget everything besides Federer and Nadal. Okay, but none of them has 24 titles like Margaret Court or none of them won a grand slam being pregnant like Serena Williams or none of them won all the slams in the same year with Olympic gold medal like Steffi Graf. Even Djokovic has better chances to pass Fedal up for the number of major titles. I am not belittling these two legends but also making sure we don’t end up doing it to the others before them. It’s always natural to end up leaning towards a male player than his female counterpart. The popularity, TV ratings and viewership are the major contributing factors. But it should not underrate any female superstars in this sport.
Individual sports make a better argument for the greatest player as individual control every aspect of the game. Yet I wouldn’t trust Federer to drive a ball through the covers as much as I would have Kohli hit 4 aces in a row. Golf, Snooker, Chess, F1 have a limited reach and popularity compared to the other sports but the ardent supporters would not leave their legends out of this conversation. Tiger Woods has been a generational talent but still trails Nicklaus in all-time wins including majors. With Boxing and MMA, we have athletes like Ali, Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mayweather, Khabib, Jon Jones, Silva and many more. Even though Woods has got those muscles, he won’t step in a ring with Floyd and so would Floyd not be as brilliant with a putter on a golf course.
Ronnie has been the most talented player to ever hold the cue yet he never dominated the Crucible like Hendry or has the defensive prowess of Higgins. Chess doesn’t require you to pass a fitness test like an athlete but requires mental strength of the highest standards. Kasparov, Fischer, Anand, Carlsen, Tal, Polgar, Spassky, Nakamura can all break you down mentally on so many levels. Michael Schumacher created records that no one could have surpassed in their wildest dreams. Yet a few years down the line we have Lewis Hamilton the one of his kind, who now finds himself in uncharted territories with all these records in his rearview mirror. We have Olympians like Phelps, Bolt, Jesse Owens, Thorpe, Kipchoge, Johnson who do not produce moments of brilliance on regular intervals like others but at the biggest and grandest stage of all. Something which has allured and desolated even some of the players on this list.
How have we then reached this argument? All these watercooler and cafeteria talks cannot possibly list down all the players to make this list. And coming back to my original point, there’s a nostalgia associated with every player and team who we latch on to. The moments of greatness from these players unknowingly become a part of our subconscious making them our favourites. This debate challenges the very fabric of that memory which we hate as an individual and get on to petty arguments to satisfy our ego. We have occasions where our favourites come out on top and we could not stop boasting about it but then there are a few where we also try to avoid the crowd to avoid embarrassment. But never will we ever find these players themselves putting them on the top of this list. Such debates make for great TV entertainment and drama and nothing else. Even with all the greatest inventions in the history of mankind and the introduction of several analytics and statistics, we will never be able to reach a consensus on this debate. The eyeball test should be sufficient to tell us that enough with the BS, just enjoy these players while we can, for there are plenty more to come and go. As I have always said, sports is the true winner in this debate.