“Legend” is a term banded about much too often nowadays. It seems to have lost its original meaning, and instead is simply a word used to describe someone who is funny or kind, or buys you a pint down the local.
The word “legend” has been somewhat colloquialized to an extent where the usage of it as a noun does not match and dictionary definition of it. Here are the closest two definitions:
1. A popular story handed down from earlier times whose truth has not been ascertained, whether partially or fully.
2. A person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits.
We can see that neither of these fit the bill. A “legend”, at least in footballing terms, is a man who played with distinction, a man who was a class above the rest of whom he played with and against – whether that be in actual technical ability, humbility and pride, or outstanding leadership. To fit the definition of “legend”, a footballer would have to be either fictional, and not currently alive, or his deeds would have to be fictional.
An example could be Edison Arantes do Nascimento; or more familiarly, Pelé. Why is Pelé considered a legend? Is it because he won three the Jules Rimet (The famed World Cup) with Brazil, in 1958, 1962, and 1970? Is it because he scored 1,281 goals over the course of his career? Partially, yes. He is the third highest scorer in the history of international football with 77 goals in 92 matches between 1957 and 1971. He ranks third behind Ali Daei of Iran and Ference Puskas who played for Hungary and Spain; these stats are all very well, but good stats don’t make you a good player. His “legendary” status was attained through his style of play. He was primarily a very deep-lying forward (the same way in which Wayne Rooney is now). He was explosively fast and powerful, with a habit of scoring truly outstanding goals. His athleticism was beyond what was considered the norm back then – when the ball was a big, heavy lump, formations were either not deployed or were very lax, and defenders were not as willing to get stuck in. Sensational volleys, flicks, tricks, and bicycle kicks – what Pelé did was simply not done. Imagine a striker with the pace of Theo Walcott, the class of Dimitar Berbatov, the skill of Thierry Henry, the heading ability of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the finishing prowess of Ruud van Nistelrooy. That’s a man about half as good as Pelé. Really. I think it’s safe to say that puts his sheer ability into perspective.
But was he a “legend”, in the literal sense of the word? No. We are aware of what his abilities were. They are not a general folklore; a campfire myth. Pelé is not romanticized to such a degree which makes his accomplishments implausible. He, as a footballer, can not be wholly ascertained, but that is only because the modern age has not seen a player quite as good as him – it is not because there are doubts about the truth of his manner. Therefore, he can not be considered a legend. A footballing great, yes. One of the best of all time, undisputedly…but a legend? Not in my book. Or the Oxford English Dictionary, for that matter.
There is one man, and one man alone, who I would consider as a legend of football. Godfrey Chitalu of Zambia. Is he as good as Pelé? I don’t have evidence to judge that, but it is highly unlikely. Chitalu does match the primary aforementioned definition of “legend”. Should I remind you? Of course….
On the 13th December, 2012, The Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) said it would approach FIFA about obtaining recognition for striker Chitalu’s little-known feat of scoring 107 goals in 1972 – This move came after Lionel Messi broke Gerd Mueller’s record of 85 goals scored in a calendar year. The problem is, FIFA refused to investigate it, as they hold no official records for goals scored by players in domestic competitions – meaning that, with little to zero help from football’s highest governing body, the Zambian FA had little chance of their claim being officially recognized. This means that Chitalu’s supposed feat is one for which the truth can not be fully ascertained, at least – especially since he is unfortunately no longer alive.
In summary, Pele is a special, wondrous player, but not a legend; whereas Chitalu was not as good, but is a legend – well, not him, that is somewhat of a hyperbole itself, but his achievements at least, are legendary. Controversial, I know. But it’s an angle, a perspective. It doesn’t have to be agreed with by anyone, I simply feel that a distancing from the core of the subject offers a better ground for analysis.
This leads me on to my next point: here, briefly, you must shelf my idea that “legend” is an incorrect term… I want to consider the footballers of the present, and whether any of them can be true greats of football history – such as former stars by the names of Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho, Maldini, Moore, Beckenbauer, Maradona, and Best. These men are just a few examples of footballers held in reverence by most. But can they be matched? Look at some of today’s players – the likes of Giggs, Pirlo and the newly-retired Beckham are undisputed legends – you just can’t argue that they are not. However they are not really the focus of this; I mean the slightly younger players – Ronaldo, Messi, Casillas, Schweinstiger, Lampard. Will they be held in the same high regard as those who have gone before them? I just can’t see it. Now, is that a lack of relevant perspective on my part, or is it a matter of truth? I’m inclined to think that the former is correct – and that I am unable to distance myself from current footballing affairs in such a way that I can grasp a more telling angle. It’s a shame – but in a way, it’s the reason why life as we know it is exactly that… as we know it. If everyone could spearate themselves from something to such a point where they could realistically contemplate plausibilities for various situations, decisions would change. Nobody would take risks. You may have answers to the somewhat rhetorical questions I have raised – but before you come down on me with heavy criticism for stating such abstract, controversial ideas, think about it. Are you really any more right than me? Do you have proof that any footballer will be as warmly recieved by our future counterparts as past players are by us? I can assure you that the answer to that is no. However if you would like to further my somewhat philosophical detailling, please do get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
By James Browning- @JamesBrowning96
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