regular-article-logo Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Revel in their greatness, must there be a G.O.A.T.?

From Ali to Maradona, being the ‘greatest’ not just about sporting highs

Devdan Mitra Calcutta Published 20.12.22, 04:33 AM
Diego Maradona after Argentina’s 1986 World Cup win.

Diego Maradona after Argentina’s 1986 World Cup win. Getty Images

“Every head must bow, every tongue must confess, this is the greatest of all time,” Mike Tyson, the former boxing heavyweight champion, once said about Muhammad Ali.

Ali, for many, was The Greatest. But he got that epithet not merely because he could float about the ring and sting like a bee. Ali became The Greatest because he was ready to stand up outside the ring and take a punch for a cause he believed in.


The epithet now has an acronym: G.O.A.T. Lionel Messi, after his World Cup-winning heroics in Qatar, is now the proud owner of that. The world of tennis is split between those who believe Rafael Nadal is the G.O.A.T. and those who think it has to be Roger Federer. Novak Djokovic? He has 21 grand slam titles, no mean achievement, but he has far too many detractors because of his stance on a motley of issues which do not conform to those with a fixed set of standards on what’s right and what’s not. Indians, without too many candidates to make a beeline for the G.O.A.T. crown, would like to give it to Sachin Tendulkar. Virat Kohli fans might ask why not him?

Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali. Getty Images

Messi, as he held aloft the World Cup on Sunday at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar, left Cristiano Ronaldo in his slipstream. Does he now sit alongside Pele and Diego Maradona, or above them?

William Rhoden, sports columnist for The New York Times, wrote of Ali in 2013: “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Admittedly, few have faced expectations on the scale Messi did in this World Cup. Pele was 17 and unknown when he burst onto the global stage in the 1958 World Cup. Maradona in 1986 had just had his best season for Napoli, but he wasn’t quite the worldwide household name that Messi is today.

But like Ali, Maradona, a genius with all human failings, was ready to take a punch outside his domain. Shortly before his death in November 2020, despite deteriorating health, he spoke directly to Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez about his concerns with the way the Covid-19 pandemic was being handled as it was ravaging the poor. “I feel very sorry when I see children who have nothing to eat. I know what it is to go hungry. My wish is to see Argentines happy, with work and eating every day,” he said, sending a message to Fernandez.

On the other hand, Neymar, the immensely talented Brazilian artiste with the ball who is yet to reach the level of a G.O.A.T., had spent weeks supporting Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy in the Brazilian elections. Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid in the country had been disastrous. Neymar’s support didn’t count for much though as Lula da Silva prevailed. Lula incidentally had received support from Maradona during his first stint as President from 2003-2010.

Football in Latin America is for many a passport to a better life. Many forgot their roots over time. Maradona never did as post-retirement, he became an advocate for social issues, even becoming a voice against US bullying of Latin America during the Bush years.

And unlike most sporting personalities, Maradona wasn’t afraid of taking on the football establishment. He branded Fifa a mafia long before its shenanigans became well-known. Maradona fought for the rights of players, asking uncomfortable questions to those in power.

Tendulkar, a cricket Bharat Ratna, has chosen not to comment on issues that are seen to be divisive in nature. Last year, he did, and found himself under attack from many after he reacted to Barbados-born pop star Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s remarks on the farmer protests.

Tendulkar took to Twitter to say that India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised and that “external forces can be spectators but not participants”, a line that seemingly parroted the Narendra Modi government’s stand.

Kohli had stood up for Mohammed Shami, the pacer who had been trolled and subjected to abuses for his religion after India’s defeat to Pakistan in the 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE. Kohli had called the trolls “pathetic” and “spineless”, epithets which did not go down well with some.

Epithets like G.O.A.T. are catchy but often ring hollow if dished out for everyone. Every generation would have its G.O.A.T. Let us instead marvel at the artistry of a Federer, the power of a Nadal, the craft of a Tendulkar or a Kohli, the poetry of a Messi or a Maradona. And be thankful that this was a generation lucky enough to see these magnificent athletes at the peak of their powers. All of them are great. G.O.A.T. does a disservice to all.

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