Men, Goats and Golden Calves
The artist illustration for this Sunday, from Jacopo Ziliotto, is the football School of Athens, by Raffaello, that resides just outside the Sistine Chapel. It depicts a congregation of the top philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists from Ancient Greece.
Jacopo has substituted-in, our Pantheon of footballers, candidates for the GOAT.
Legend for the legends.
Back row left to right.
Pirlo, Duncan Edwards, Modric, Totti, Beckenbauer (with sling), Zidane, Messi (in Barca strip observing Diego with the hand of God, not quite yet there). Valentino Mazzola, Pelé next to Maradona as the central figures. Henry, Cruyff, Puskas, Giuseppe Meazza, Di Stefano, Ronaldo Fenomeno, Van Basten.
Mbappe, Maldini, Platini, CR7, Neymar, Baggio, Best, Zigoni (the veronese Best)
Art should be discovered slowly, and the small elements of detail here, in omaggio to the original work, are truly extraordinary. I find CR7, as Heraclitus, simply genius. Emotional in the extreme, in its art.
P.S.: You’ll find a full description of the artist at the bottom of the article.
I don’t mind if you stop here and forget about the article… just enjoy the illustration. I am so proud of this.
Men, Goats and Golden Calves.
Back in 1959, Sinatra was asked about his peers:
Ella Fitzgerald is the only performer, with whom I’ve ever worked, who made me nervous. Because I try to work up to what she does.
If you asked anyone today about the GOAT (greatest of all time) female vocalist, how many votes is Ella getting? Where is she in the league table of Aretha, Whitney, Mariah, Karen Carpenter, Mina, Ariana Grande?
So why, in God’s name, do so many people get really twisted up over Messi/CR7, far less bringing Diego and Pelé into the conversation? This hot air is all you hear during a World Cup, especially when one of the titans, O Rei, is imminently leaving us.
Here is my pretentious answer to the above question:
People need to believe in something.
Since they’ve now made the choice to relegate God to irrelevance, and pity, they are short of deities. Consequently, in today’s secular world, they find surrogate idols to promote, defend and idolise. With unbecoming zeal. This isn’t new. The Book of Exodus reminds us that in the first moments of doubt about Moses and his promises, the minute he went up Mount Sinai, his ‘followers’ dropped God like a dead meme for a freshly minted golden Aberdeen Angus!
Humans ultimately are a rather predictable and unimpressive lot, if truth be told.
GOAT emoji? Golden calf? What’s the difference?
Enough of theology, let’s talk football.
In these days, as Edson Arantes do Nascimento sees the 4th official board come up with his number, we are told, in meme form, that “whatever your favourite player has done, Pelé did if first.”
Maybe so, but the right answer to give when someone asks you about the GOAT is:“ It’s him, FOR ME”
Because there can be no objectivity in this question. It’s personal, largely depending on who was around in your formative years.
If you think about it, our preferences and passions in life are formed in a period where we ourselves enter our Age of Reason; I call it the bolshy teen years. (P.S. Thomas Paine didn’t believe in golden calves either).
In football terms, we start forming our opinions at around 10. And rarely will these memories of players and games at that time ever be superseded. When they say “it’s all about opinions”, almost exclusively, you will find that our opinions, our football credo, will have been formed by our own moment in time.
This is frustrating when you hear kids talk about, say, Ariana and CR7, with bombast, when you know their education is incomplete, in the most basic knowledge of the history. They will deflect this by consigning our generation’s views to boomer OG nostalgia. They make a grave error. But I can’t change that. Recognition of the central importance of history, and its study, comes mostly, if at all, in later years.
But it is what it is. We are where we are. People will prioritise and overvalue idols from their own era, personalities who have dominated their timelines and memes. Or, in Pelé’s case, their first taste of colour TV. Yes, we are all guilty if we look.
Goats or golden calves?
So, the debate about goats and golden calves, with a one name answer, is pointless. It really is.
The conversation itself, however, isn’t, especially during a World Cup. It’s practically de rigueur. Where else are you going to exhale your hot air?
For me, remember it’s always “for me”, there have been various candidates for GOAT.
They are split into the buckets of:
- Those I historically know about, but who never affected me.
I never saw them, if truth be told. I put in here Giuseppe Meazza, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas.
No material TV footage either.
- Those who significantly touched my years of childhood fandom.
Pelé, Cruyff, Beckenbauer.
- Those who I saw with mature understanding and competent eyes.
Maradona, Platini, Zidane, Ronaldo Fenomeno, Maldini, Messi, CR7.
- Those who have meant something special.
Say Totti, of whom I wrote a few times. See here.
- Those who could have, but were robbed.
Football has suffered two horrendous air crashes that ripped away the greatest clubs of their generations. Torino in 1949, and United 10 years later. Whilst Valentino Mazzola was arguably at career end, already 30, Duncan Edwards wasn’t. The history of all this, of World Cups won and lost, of GOATS, would have been written rather differently. Never forget that!
How should you then judge a footballer, especially a candidate for GOAT?
Football is NOT an individual sport, and it is more tribal than most others. So it cannot, FOR ME, be judged solely on technique, skills and stats. The more important characteristics are influence, charisma and leadership. You are leading 11 men and a tribe. Ergo, one can’t allow oneself to fret in isolation about how many goals you’ve scored.
My candidates for golden calf, in chronological order:
Won two World Cups pre war. Hugely influenced the specific brand of the unique Italian school of calcio.
But in an era where World cups were incomplete in participants, and European club football was embryonic, this isn’t enough.
Alfredo Di Stefano
Noted by many in this list as the “most complete of players”.
If we are talking Greek philosophers, Di Stefano is considered by many of the candidates themselves, as Socrates. The first one.
He basically created the club and brand of Real Madrid.
Dominated European club football, scoring in 5 consecutive European Cup finals.
Twice Golden Ball winner.
Injury et al kept him out of all World cups, and that’s not banal I’m afraid. See George Best.
The symbol of the Mighty Magyars, who gave the English “masters” their first wakeup call in the 50s.
Led the Hungarian movement, which would be the main point in his favour.
Football’s first international superstar, and hero of Real Madrid, with Di Stefano. Not enough though.
We know the Palmares. The three World Cups, the record goals. He never played in Europe and that’s objectively a limitation.
Pelé’s claim as GOAT builds on these magnificent achievements, benefiting also from the mystique of that yellow shirt, which appeared only once every four years, like some kind of rare flower. With Pelé, the principle of scarcity applies. There just wasn’t a lot of exposure to live TV football in the 60s. So, in 1970, those grainy, yet vivid, colours from Mexico were, and grew in myth. I was 6 in 1970.
Pelé’s World Cup, even with a massive Italian contribution (Italia Germania 4-3), an amazing England team in all white, with Banks, all passed me by. I don’t remember watching it live. As I don’t remember my own club Celtic’s second European Cup final that same year. I wasn’t yet aware.
Four years later in Germany, with Brazil in Scotland’s group, I knew all about Pelé.
His myth was tangible and touchable. “We are playing Brazil”.
Simply a glorious footballer. World class in midfield and as a defender. Two arms or one.
Led the domination of Bayern Munich domestically and in Europe in the mid 70s, and won the World Cup in 1974.
One of few to also manage a World Cup winning team, Germany 1990. Ballon D’or in 1972. Not sure what more you can ask of a career.
As a defender, he doesn’t have the sizzle reels of the others.
But for medals, influence, leadership and charisma, Kaizer Franz is as good as it gets.
Here we start with the previously mentioned cognitive bias of the formative years.
I saw this Dutchman, with Ajax, operate against my own Celtic team, at a pace that was objectively, new. Magical.
Celtic for five years was in the top three European teams. No soft touches. In the early 70s we met Ajax at the top of the tree.
Cruyff however was operating on a x2 podcast mode. It was electrifying. Like that first minute run in Munich in the final in 74, we hadn’t seen players like that. Light, elegant, quicksilver, and technical. JC14 genuinely moved the game on.
He won the Ballon D’ Or three times in 71/73/74. He was also super cool, smoked, and was an interesting curious, handsome man. Football’s easy-rider. He went to Barcelona and had huge success as a player.
But, more fundamentally, he installed at the Catalan club the “philosophy”, the DNA, the cantera.
As a manager, as I see it, he is football’s Plato, he IS Barcelona, he IS Manchester City, and in terms of “influence on the game”, Cruyff is the GOAT. Yet, he cruelly deprived us of more World Cup appearances, and hence never won it.
Diego Armando Maradona
Difficult to know where to start. At this point, we have the YouTube compilations to help us.
Arrived in the late 70s, first at Boca, at Barcelona and then Napoli. Was such a devastating player that he was hacked to pieces, on bad pitches, and with little protection from referees. I believe that physically, he was already at 70% when he arrived at Napoli.
He played most of his career with cortisone shots. The early videos from Boca and pre the butcher of Seville, are simply other-worldly.
In terms of skills, he is right up there with Messi, especially when pitches and protection differentials are factored in.
In terms of charisma and leadership he is streets ahead. No-one would have made Napoli two times champions in that SerieA.
He won a World Cup singled handed in 1986.
All with the physical and mental pressures of a most turbulent private life. Playing against Baresi and Maldini in the afternoon, supper with Genni Savastano. You try it! Of all of these from the School of Athens, football flowed freer in the veins and in the soul of Diego.
His heart was alive with the love of the game, and his “cazzimma”, to use a word from his beloved Naples, was unrivalled.
Some artists are cold in their excellence, say our Raffaello himself. Too perfect.
But Diego was redhot, mad, like an angry Michelangelo. He inspired and was a true leader of men and tribes.
Too many of the truly greats, around Serie A in that period, think this of Diego for it to be romantic revisionism.
Whoever came across him up close…knows. Especially the great great players of his era.
Could only be French. La Grande France. Elegant et beau. Classy, superior. French football was pretty dead before Platini.
He took it forward in the 80s to the very top. Massive charisma. He led Juventus so well, that even to old hard-to-please cynics like Gianni Agnelli, he was Dieu. Didn’t win a world cup when he could have in 82 and 86. But those years were his, with three consecutive Ballon D’or in 83/84/85. Le Roi must however get marked down for his nonsense whilst with Blatter’s FIFA.
Another Frenchman, if really with North African blood. Mentioned because, in terms of influence, he opened up French and European football to multi-culturalism and globalization. That’s big influence. Simply sublime technical talent for a large man, but also decisive. Heavy goals.
Won France’s first World Cup in 98, at home, and led both Juventus and Real Madrid to endless titles.
As a coach, won three Champions Leagues in a row. Like Kaiser Franz, there isn’t much more to ask.
Won all the major awards at the end of the 90s.
Ronaldo O Fenomeno
Despite having had a stellar career, winning at the top club level and a World Cup in 2002, and being considered the greatest No9 ever, there is always the need to use the conditional tense with him.
Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. If not for injuries.
The Bobby Robson reaction in Barcelona? Injuries eliminate him from the GOAT race, leaving his role in this game as a flex for Cristiano.
The Portuguese Ronaldo isn’t just not the GOAT, he isn’t even the best with that surname. Boom, boom!
Like other defenders and goalies, he starts with a handicap. Played from 16yo for AC Milan, in one of the greatest club sides ever.
Exemplary defender and captain. Clean as a whistle, bello come il sole. Played like a gent.
Everyone knows that he would also have been a world class striker. A complete footballer.
Unluckily never won anything with Italy. Probably in every serious football fan’s all-time team. Just impeccable.
In the age of social media, why waste time with facts and figures?
In terms of showreels, Messi wins. As far as technical abilities are concerned, it’s him or Maradona.
As said before, Messi isn’t close on leadership and charisma. This Qatar World Cup has IMHO seen a maturing of Messi the proud leader, but he isn’t quite there yet. On a football field, however, as a single player, he is probably the most skilled and effective the game has ever seen.
In the pro column, maximized his talent with iron dedication and will to win.
Has scored as many goals and won as many Ballon D’or as Messi, more or less.
A big match player, scoring goals when they were needed. Turns up. Winning machine.
As negatives, playing a team sport, he is utterly selfish, and spoiled. Not a team player. He has not won a World Cup.
By the time, this goes out, Pelé may be dead. This will skew things. Rightly so.
The greatest of all time top 5, FOR ME, including the requirements of charisma, leadership, and influence are:
(you need to have a world cup in your medals)
(if he wins this one, maybe it changes)
I said…..FOR ME
In this closing clip, to bookend Jacopo’s magnificent School of Athens, we see humanity’s closest simile.
Jacopo Ziliotto rendition of his illustration (ENG version at the end)
Setting: School of Athens.
At the centre, needless to say, Pelé and Maradona: the latter captured in his most emblematic gesture of being decisive, brilliant. Oh God! … that game, the Falklands war, the most beautiful goal in the world… In short, the synthesis of the athletic gesture, clenched fist, with the colors blending with the sky. Already from another world (and Pelé, on the other hand, so attached to life and to the ‘concrete’…).
Starting from bottom left:
Pirlo with Cup in hand. Duncan Edwards. Modric, Totti and Beckenbauer with his bandaged arm. Zidane with Cup. Messi in his physical posture watching Maradona become God (and, therefore, wearing a Barcelona shirt because, up to there, it was Then when he had expressed himself and won). The Flea has taken and is still carrying a legend on his shoulders, the GOAT! Anyone would be crushed by such a burden (and, perhaps, that is the reason for his posture, so characteristic of him, with sloping shoulders); next to it, a Valentino Mazzola.
Continuing on the right, next to Pelé, a Henry with an Arsenal shirt. Cruijff, Puskas and Meazza with 9 and 2 Rimet cups. Di Stefano with the 5 Champion cups. Ronaldo the phenomenon, who massages his knee and Van Basten, next to him, shows his swollen ankle.
In foreground starting from left:
Mbappè, who scowls at the group in his typical position of exultation. Maldini portrayed from behind. Platini with the ballon d’or (and perhaps a way of going a bit… sly?). Ronaldo, all over himself, sitting in bench and pissed, intent on marking the ‘scores’. A Meymar always lying down (but with sponsors in sight). Baggio, in his moment of supreme failure, the missed penalty in the final against Brazil. That moment when he turned from football God, to the God of all frustrated, the greatest lesson of humanity that can be received. Even if you are God, as long as you are on earth, you are a man and, as such, you are fallible, accept it. Finally, Best could not not be there and, next to him, I took the liberty of giving my tribute to Gianfranco Zigoni. Known as Zigo-goal, he is the idol of the Brigades in the 70s. The Italian Best who, when he was once put on the bench, sat in a fur coat; lover of wine and beautiful women, still alive and fit, he is toasting with George.
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