What actually constitutes a legend in football?

Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona

Regardless of whether Lionel Messi does indeed lift his fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or as expected in January, his achievements within the game have already afforded him legendary status.

Indeed, it feels almost seldom that even the briefest of Messi-based conversations, can go without catalyzing a debate over where he ranks amongst the pantheon of greats. At only 25, such has been the legacy of the Argentine’s eight years for Barcelona, many already feel comfortable titling Messi as a ‘legend’.

It seems bizarre in that the word legend, especially within footballing terms, exudes connotations of age, experience and sustained glory. When we think legends of the game, we think Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff. Yet surely if we judge Messi on sheer, natural ability alone – not even including the seemingly infinite list of medals and personal achievements – he ranks alongside the aforementioned trio?

For some reading that, it will instantly have you scrambling for the comment box, ready to berate the author for a sense of naivety or perhaps, extensive hyperbole. Perhaps this is the joy of it; there is no stonewall, universally agreed definition for what constitutes a footballing legend.

But is it just pure, God-given, technical talent, that can afford you legendary billing?

It seems interesting, even within this very article, that the name of Edison Arantes do Nascimento, or to use his more common term, Pele, crops up within the copy. His three World Cup wins, over 1000 attributable goals and numerous athlete/player of the century awards, usually tend to see him wheeled out as the benchmark of footballing legend. The player of which all other pretenders shall be marked up against.

Yet how many of us have actually seen him play? Of course, we are all very aware of his achievements in the game, we’ve all seen videos and highlights of his World Cup best bits and many of us wouldn’t think of entering a legends debate without Pele in our verbal locker. But honestly, how relevant, is he to many of us today?

This isn’t to say for a minute that his genuine ability and his achievements within the game aren’t worthy of arguably being titled ‘the best player to have played the game’. But the test of time is there for all of us to see. It’s been 41 years since he played his final match for Brazil. Much of his archive of best bits resides in the grainy format of black and white. And we’re still here talking about him.

Furthermore, although everyone from Alfredo Di Stefano to Johan Cruyff have been quoted as naming Pele as the best ever, the man also has a touch of the cult hero’s about him. He finished his career in the “nexus of soccer and showbiz” that was the New York Cosmos. He appeared alongside Sly Stallone in Escape to Victory. He even once dated a 17-year-old Brazilian model who was 23 years his junior. Pele had character.

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Again, Diego Maradona is a man who’d also occupy man people’s first pick as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, legend to have ever played the game. But alongside single handedly marching Argentina to World Cup victory, he was dogged by a variety of other issues. But despite a cocaine problem, an alleged relationship with the Neapolitan mafia and cheating (see Hand of God for further reading), his legend remains undiminished. Has his sheer ability simply overruled all of the above, or has it in fact added to his legend?

This isn’t to say that Lionel Messi needs to produce an illegitimate child to enhance his legendary credentials or that dabbling in the odd and uncouth represents commendable behavior. But it certainly doesn’t count against you.

Furthermore, does bundles of silverware necessarily guarantee you a higher ranking in the listing of legends? Clarence Seedorf has won the Champions League four times with three different clubs, five league titles in three different leagues and 20 medals all in all. But will we still be talking about him in an esteemed  glorious capacity as one of the greats to have played the game in 30 years time?

Francisco Gento won 12 La Liga titles and six European Cups for Real Madrid in a haul that Messi himself may never be able to replicate. But how often is Gento mentioned when you’re talking about the real legends of the game? Is he honestly in the forefront of your mind when your’re flinging names off the list of the football’s greats?

Indeed, even on a more localized scale confined to the English game, Manchester United and Aston Villa defender Paul McGrath, never won a league title or any form of European silverware in his career. Yet on these, shores, despite the injuries and off-field problems that dogged his career, he is spoken of in legendary terms.

Of course, McGrath had the most important trait in that he was an absolutely outstanding football. But again, he had character; that little bit of je ne sais quoi. He didn’t stay at one club for his entire career, he didn’t kiss any badges and he didn’t land a big haul of trophies, bar some success in the domestic cups. He’s obviously not on the level of the Pele’s and Maradona’s of this world. But in some respects, is he not still a legend? He’s standing the test of time that some of his more silverware-laden peers certainly haven’t.

And perhaps it is that test more than any other, which constitutes whether a player can truly be described as a legend. It’s how you’re remembered by not just your own fans, but those of other teams. Where the bias of club and nationality is shelved – transcended by the genius and respect that the player in question demands.

It’s not just about natural talent and technical gifts. Of course, they’re both qualities that the true greats have in abundance, but perhaps it’s about more than that. Not just trophies and personal accolades, but winning the hearts and winning the respect of fans.

Be it through showing courage in the face of adversity or standing up and taking responsibility on the biggest stages of all, the legends of the game have always had more about them than just sheer ability. And consequently, they’ve always stood the test of time, too – which is perhaps the biggest barometer of all in the cultivation of a footballing legend.

What do you think makes a legend in football? Tell me what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and give me your take on it. 


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