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The great debate: Is it fair to have just one GOAT in a sport?

FILE - Lionel Messi (R) and Cristiano Ronaldo (L) chat before taking their seats for The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP

FILE - Lionel Messi (R) and Cristiano Ronaldo (L) chat before taking their seats for The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP

Published Dec 18, 2021


Cape Town - Earlier in the week I was scrolling through the British rugby site ruck. and among the threads was headlined: The Greatest Rugby XV of all time.

Naturally, I clicked through. The side, the result of a 200 000 – strong BBC fan poll included three South Africans in 1995 World Cup – winning captain Francois Pienaar, 1995 World Cup winner Joost van der Westhuizen and the 2007 World Cup winner and Springbok try-scoring record holder Bryan Habana.

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It was Pienaar’s selection that surprised me the most, given just how many fantastic No 6 flankers have played the game.

Pienaar, at his peak, was an outstanding international player and among the best Test captains, but there are other No 6s I would have considered, with Schalk Burger and Siya Kolisi, just two of many options.

Pienaar, as a player and as a captain, polarised opinion in South Africa and Pienaar, named by the BBC as the best No 6 flanker to ever play the game, has once again divided opinion.

I’m not a believer in ’the greatest ever debate’. I don’t think you can compare eras and in professional sport there are simply so many exceptional players and athletes, that it seems almost criminal to limit the choice to just one.

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It also does a disservice to the thousands of brilliant players and athletes who every year perform at such an exceptional level.

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The debate of greatest ever, regardless of the sporting code, also means that there isn’t an appreciation of just what these players and athletes produce or have produced.

For example, Pele, Maradona or Messi?

For me it is a case of Pele, Maradona and Messi. Pele and Maradona were magnificent players and magicians on the ball. Messi is a magnificent player and a magician on the ball.

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Messi or Ronaldo?

Again, it should be Messi and Ronaldo. The two share 12 Ballons d’Or between them and have combined for 1 500 career goals and hundreds of goal assists.

But when the debate starts, as it does daily on social media, it becomes ugly and nasty and instead of players being celebrated, they are cussed and insulted.

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It says everything about society’s sports followers, where emotion and preference rule over logic and rational discussion.

I’ve written several articles on the genius of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, with all three having won 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles respectively.

The trio’s careers overlapped, although Djokovic was five years late to the party of Federer and Nadal. All three are great players and among the greatest to have ever played the sport.

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Statistically, you can try and make an argument for one over the other, but if you dissect each one’s career and when they won their titles, how they won their titles and who they beat to win these titles, you could and should make a case for each one of them to be crowned No 1, but why would you even want to make such a case?

Each one of them has reigned at a particular time and to have done so is a credit to each one’s ability.

Ditto Serena Williams and her dominance of the women’s game of tennis. But to rate her ahead or behind Margaret Court is wrong because it would be more an insult than a compliment to both players.

Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have both won seven F1 world championships. They are among the most celebrated drivers, but there were also many other drivers who could claim equal quality behind the wheel, if not as many titles.

Boxing is another where there is always debate about who is the greatest.

There can never be objectivity in making such selections, as it will all be based on emotion and preference. I like Messi more than Ronaldo, for example, but my mate won’t hear any other name mentioned than Ronaldo.

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One of my most enjoyable projects during lockdown, was a result of my son Oliver asking me which rugby players I rated the best over my three decades of writing rugby for a profession.

I asked him to qualify what he meant by ’best’ as I had reported on so many good Springbok and international players since South Africa’s return from sporting isolation in 1992.

“Which players made the biggest impact on you?” he asked. “If you had to pick a Springbok match-day 23 and World 23 to play this team, how would it look?’

And so, The Chosen 23, was born during lockdown, published as a series online and published as a book earlier this year.

What was clear from my selections was that there was no greatest one over the other.

Ultimately, I made my choice based on impact, memory of the occasion and on preference.

I assessed the players I had written and reported on from 1992 to 2020 and while I had to settle on one name, the book also extensively discussed the merits of so many players, specific to each position.

I found writing the series a wonderful trip down memory lane and it reinforced the privilege it has been to write about so many great players.

I have been blessed to write about Test rugby in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Argentina, USA, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand and I travelled the world to report on rugby.

My storytelling, just in terms of rugby, has always been about the hundreds of brilliant players, all of whom were great.

For me, it would be impossible to choose just one name, regardless of the sport.


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