Lionel Messi has finally won a trophy for Argentina. Never mind that it isn’t the World Cup. It is the Copa America, somewhat ridiculously considered the South American equivalent of the far more competitive Euro. It is an honour that Messi narrowly missed some years ago, and now has under his belt. This triumph occurred at the site of what might have been the most wrenching loss of his career, the final of the World Cup, to Germany in 2014. It also happened courtesy of Angel di María, whose absence might have cost them that far more coveted 2014 title. To watch Messi being tossed up in the air by his teammates, to read headlines about his having won his first trophy with Argentina, and to come across bizarre opinions, ranging from 280 characters to 1000 words, about Messi having “finally” proven he is the GOAT—Greatest of All Time—is to observe a mockery of Messi’s career.
Lionel Messi has been on the international stage for about half his life. He has won every honour one could win, except for the World Cup—although, ironically, he was the top scorer and won the Golden Ball for best player in 2014.
Comparisons have often been made to Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. As men and as players, they couldn’t be further apart. You could hold Lionel Messi’s shirt and trip him through the entire length of a football field, and he will try his best not to fall so that he can see the ball into the goal. Cristiano Ronaldo would roll over in agony if an opponent so much as touched a spike of his hairdo.
Perhaps they are united in burden—they are often forced to single-handedly steer their teams to victory. But even so, Messi has always been blamed for not doing enough (perhaps thanks to the Argentine team living on its past glory as one of the world’s superpowers), whereas Ronaldo remains a tragic hero, a lone warrior in a bedraggled army.
The Copa America is considered Messi’s redemption. Why does someone who is arguably the best of his generation have to redeem himself? He has often been accused of giving his best to his club Barcelona and not to his national team. But he plays for a club that is sparkling with talent, where he is mentored and coached by some of the greatest in the game. He rarely fails to get support from his teammates at Barcelona. He cannot get away with playing the same game for his national side—he has been let down at crucial moments from teammates of a lesser calibre.
However, the hysteria over this trophy—the last international one Lionel Messi, who once retired in a tantrum, is likely to win—points to the importance we give trophies and records to judge the greatness of a player, as if it were a matter of quantity and not quality, as if it could be calculated by crunching numbers and ignoring context.
The GOAT debate until the turn of the millennium was between Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Maradona, both of whom won World Cups—although it might be said that if it were not for the infamous “Hand of God”, the latter was unlikely to have. Some other candidates for the GOAT title, who were undoubtedly the brightest stars of their era, have won it too—Zinedine Zidane and Brazil’s Ronaldo come immediately to mind. Several other stars never did—Italy’s Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio, Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta, and Spain’s Raul Gonzalez, for instance. And then there are those like Ryan Giggs, who never got to test their calibre on the world stage because of the countries that they represented.
It holds in every sport—we want greatness counted in titles. Which was why it was a relief for Kapil Dev to have won a World Cup fairly early in his career. Which is also why it was a relief for Sachin Tendulkar to have won the title, some time past the twilight of his career. Steve Waugh’s status as the captain of the greatest side in the world was cemented by the World Cup trophies Australia won. AB de Villiers, often spoken of as the most talented batsman cricket has produced, never won it and was moved to try and come out of retirement for one last shot. His contemporary and long-time teammate Dale Steyn lingered on without retiring in the hope he would lift the trophy, only to be ignominiously dropped.
And then there are the records, so important even in a team game. Sachin Tendulkar persisted for years after he was due to retire, riding on M S Dhoni’s hero worship and the fact that his credentials had given him carte blanche with the team management, just so he could have a pretty record to show. The four runs that cost Don Bradman an average of 100 runs would remain a regret and talking point for the next six decades of his very long life—never mind that 99.96 remains an unequalled feat. Even in a more genteel time, a time before limited overs cricket and a World Cup, personal records mattered.
As for individual sport, one only has to turn to tennis to see just how much store players themselves set by their records. Roger Federer persisted after going trophyless for several years, in order to secure his Grand-Slam record. Of the three men who have vied with each other for this title since 2010—Rafael Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic—the last appears the most likely to collect more Grand Slams. And the other two will probably play until their knees give out, hoping to edge past him.
We often forget how little talent has to do with wins. It is about holding one’s nerve, yes. But it is also about luck. It is also about the opposition. In a team game, it is also about the other one, or other five, or other ten, players. Which is why the idea of a GOAT is inherently fallacious. There can, if at all, be a GOOT—a Greatest Of One’s Time.
And then, too, we must think about how we measure greatness. Is it determined by the silverware one takes home, or does it have to do with one’s demeanour on the field and one’s instinct for the game?
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com