The greatest player ever. Who is he? Or she? It’s a question that has been the subject of fierce debate ever since members of the Chinese Han Dynasty looked at that medium-sized spherical object just lying about unused on the dusty floor and said ’I bet we could make a game out of that.’
Billions of people have played the game since its creation, and yet only one can claim to be the best at any one time. But it’s a difficult question to answer, considering that there are thousands of creditable nominees, most of whom will never have played each other – making direct comparisons difficult. For instance, Zinedine Zidane lit up the world with his almost otherworldly control and technique, making an utterly essential contribution to the success of Real Madrid and France in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was certainly the best midfielder in the world for a time, and thus surely deserves a place in the pantheon of footballing greats. But how would he have coped had he been playing in the 1970s, against incredible teams like the Brazil 1970 squad or the Dutch proponents of Total Football?
So how do we approach this? How do we compare players who played in different positions, for different teams, at different times? The obvious course of action is to compare the stats – number of goals scored, number of goals created, etc. Based on the number of goals scored in a season, the greatest players of all time are Dixie Dean (67 goals for Everton in the 1927-28 season), Archibald McPherson Stark (67 goals for Bethlehem Steel in 1924-25), and Ferenc Deak (66 goals for Hungarian side Szentlorinc in 1945-46).
Who, I hear you ask? Of those three, only Dean’s name registers as recognisable to the average fan. But there is an inherent flaw in this system: these goals were scored against differing defences, each offering a different level of resistance. Ali Daei is a legend of Asian football, scoring well over a hundred international goals for Iran. That makes him comfortably the highest scoring international of all time – but does that make him better than Ferenc Puskas, who scored a paltry 84 in 83 appearances for Hungary? Daei’s goals were mainly scored against lesser footballing nations like Laos and Lebanon, hardly titans of the game.
I’m running out of methods by now. How about the player who has had the most influence on the game and the way it is played? But to do this is to ignore the many great players and teams who achieved incredible success without completely revolutionising the game, while putting extra emphasis on the men and women who broke down boundaries concerning race, gender etc.
How about the player who will be remembered for the longest? This, too, is flawed, as many players achieve fame through actions that are notorious rather than admirable. Perhaps the player who achieved the most success in their career? This is flawed (surprise, surprise) as it favours those who were a part of dominant teams and eschews those who played for lesser clubs and countries.
My conclusion (and reason for writing this article) is that opinions on footballers are highly subjective. A Liverpool fan will rank Steven Gerrard much more highly than, say, a Manchester United fan, while those outside Carlisle United are unlikely to have even heard of, let alone recognise the contribution of Jimmy Glass to the club.
But surely there must be one. One man (or woman) who has contributed more to the game than any other. One player whose very existence has been more welcome than any other’s. For those reasons, one name stands out above all others. And it’s hardly surprising.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento is a true legend of the sport. Of any sport. Of anything. In a playing career spanning almost twenty years, he scored 589 goals for Santos and 77 for Brazil, playing an integral part at least three or four of the greatest teams of all time. He is the only player ever to obtain three World Cup winner’s medals, in 1958, 1962 and 1970. And even at the very peak of his career, when he had reached superstardom, he was still the perfect gentleman, steering clear of the scandals and controversies that are so common amongst the ultra-famous. Even now, 35 years after the conclusion of his playing career, he is still an influential ambassador for the sport. Dodgy Viagra advert aside, he’s got a spotless record.
So, that’s over a thousand senior goals, three World Cups, the figurehead of the best team ever – a truly electrifying player.
But could he do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke?