The so-called ‘GOAT’ debate in sport is no new phenomenon. For as long as there has been competitive sport, spectators have always argued over who is the best. As much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, life is a game with very specific winners and losers, and sport imitates life.
In ancient Greece, the famous Olympian Leonidas of Rhodes thrilled his audiences by taking first place in the stadion diaulos race (400 metres) and hoplitodromos (the same but wearing armour) twelve separate times, over the course of a decade. No GOAT debate there, I suppose. A multitude of modern sports have a much more competitive race for the ‘GOAT’ (Greatest of All Time) title.
Tennis has experienced one of the most persistent of these debates, with the Big Three of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer dominating men’s singles for an unprecedented amount of time. This is another aspect of the modern GOAT debate which separates it from the past, and arguably intensifies the discourse. The echo chamber of social media ensures that a greater and more global array of opinions can be heard. That, and the longevity allowed by modern sport science has permitted top athletes to reign for longer than ever before. It is in this environment that the fiercest of all modern GOAT debates emerged: that of Messi and Ronaldo.
Football (or soccer if I must) is not necessarily a sport you would expect to have a GOAT debate. Although football has always had its star players — the Maradonas and the Peles — this is also the most tribalistic sport of all. Club loyalty and affiliation usually transcends loyalty to a particular player, except in very specific cases.
The modern globalised brand of the sport, however, has paved the way for a different and quintessentially modern football fan. No longer is every football fan attached to a certain team, usually local to them. Football is no longer a purely European or South American game, continents with massive pre-existing infrastructure and traditions, with a club to support just down the road. Nowadays, football or soccer has fans all over the world, from Asia to North America. And many of these fans, while also having club loyalties, are deeply attached to a specific player. The GOAT debate between Messi and Ronaldo, possibly the two most dominant players in history, has become the perfect entry point for the casual football fan.
This is a debate which I, as a huge football fan myself, have grown rather sick of. I must admit, I have no personal preference for Messi and Ronaldo. The stratospheric superstar heights of football, occupied by Lionel and Cristiano, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are completely adrift from my personal experience of the sport. I grew up in the Midlands of England, where the pre-eminent debate is not between Messi or Ronaldo but Birmingham City or Aston Villa (Birmingham is blue, by the way).
But, on a purely aesthetic level, I have always preferred Messi as a football player. This is by no means a rare or remarkable opinion, but Messi represents the ideal of football as a consummately beautiful team game, ideals which the sport rarely lives up to. He is not only a player of unparalleled individual skill, dribbling with ease and scoring goals by the bucket-load, but unlike Ronaldo, he is unashamed to pass the ball. I will not be so naive as to suggest Messi is ego-less, but he certainly seems to have a smaller one than Ronaldo. So if someone ever asks, “Who is the GOAT of football”, I have always sighed, and grumbled, “Messi I suppose…”.
You can imagine my satisfaction watching the final of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, then. For all the controversies surrounding the tournament, which were disappointingly overshadowed by the power of the spectacle on show (as Qatar no doubt predicted), the World Cup final was very probably the best ever. It had goals, drama, goals and more goals. It had Argentina, one of the most popular and romanticised national teams, buoyed but its exuberant fans and ‘GOAT player’ traditions. And it also supplied a very satisfying full-stop to that ever incessant debate.
The contrast between Messi and Ronaldo could not have been stronger at Qatar 2022. On the one side you had Ronaldo, embroiled in Manchester United-related controversies which culminated in a one-on-one interview with Piers Morgan (a sure sign of an objectively bad person). On the other you had Messi, scoring magnificent goals, making world class defenders look foolish, and generally conducting his business with passion and surface-level humility.
In one of the most tasteless tantrums ever, Ronaldo stormed off crying after Portugal’s defeat to Morocco, undermining the incredible achievement of the first African team reaching the World Cup semi-finals. Imagine thinking you’re bigger than a literal continent. Imagine. And then there was Messi: y’know, winning the tournament. On a personal and professional level, there couldn’t have been a clearer victor.
But this was, after all, just one tournament. Why should one tournament end the GOAT debate, which has raged on for over a decade? Well, because it wasn't just any old tournament. It was the World Cup. The perennial highlight of the football calendar. The biggest of them all. The symbolism and prestige of the World Cup for individual players is overwhelming. Most of the best players in history have won a World Cup, so we arbitrarily use victory in this competition as a measure of greatness.
Of course, if you look deeper, it’s an objectively terrible measure of greatness, considering that many exceptional players won’t even qualify for the World Cup on the basis of their nationality. Erling Haaland, the most dominant striker in the Premier League this season, didn’t play at the World Cup simply because he’s Norwegian. Does that make him worse than Alexis Mac Allister, the Brighton midfielder who happened to play for Argentina in the final? Of course not.
So yes, using the World Cup as a measure of greatness is ultimately ludicrous. But hey, it doesn’t bother me! Messi has won the argument to most casual observers, and in my opinion, anything which shuts down the football GOAT debate is the real GOAT. Now I can go back to watching Birmingham City play Forest Green Rovers in the FA Cup Third Round. Isn’t football a thrill
Images: Hossein Zohrevand via WikiMedia Commons