Does lack of major titles devalue a player's greatness?

Winning the World Cup or the Champions League is about team work and should not be a barometer to judge an individual player and his greatness, writes Aditya Bajaj.

     BY ADITYA BAJAJ  |    Follow @adityabajaj

Often there are arguments and discussions about Lionel Messi not being as great as Diego Maradona just because the Barcelona star is yet to win the World Cup. Or how, for that matter Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s name should not be mentioned in the same breath as that of Cristiano Ronaldo because the Swede has never won the Champions league or the Ballon d’Or.

We gush in awe when these players score wonderful goals week in, week out for their respective clubs and countries and pin all our hopes on their shoulders because they are dependable. Yet, when it comes to comparing the very same players it boils down to the number of trophies they have lifted in their career.

Two particular fixations? The World Cup and the Champions League – the two biggest cup competitions in the game.

The most pertinent question is though if it really matters. Does the lack of a major career title really make a great player any less greater than he already is?

Well, no. Why? Because football is a team game.

Let’s consider this interesting stat – over the course of eighty years since its inception in 1930, only 8 teams have managed to become world champions through 19 World Cups. Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Spain, France and England have been past winners, and even today or in future they remain favourites to lift the trophy. The only team to break this hegemony was Uruguay but they last won the World Cup back in 1950! The Netherlands on the other hand have come close on three occasions to end up runners up.

Here’s the point - winning the World Cup is simply the prerogative of a handful of nations.

There may be upsets here and there, or a surprise semi-finalist every now and then but never has there been an upset when it comes to winning the whole tournament – ala Greece in the European Championship in 2004 or Denmark in Euro 1992.

Yes, Messi has won a lot with Barcelona and his club stats are much better than the ones with Argentina but these are two completely different teams. The Albiceleste have one of the weakest defence in world football and their midfield is no way comparable to what Messi has behind him at the Catalan club. Sure, winning the World Cup will be the icing on the cake on a glittering career but not winning it ever really doesn’t change the fact that he has been one of the greatest footballers to have ever graced the game.

On the other hand, many great players belonging to countries outside of the privileged few have not participated in anything beyond the qualifiers. Here we are looking at legends like former Ballon d’Or winner George Weah of Milan who was a Liberian or Manchester United great Ryan Giggs who hailed from Wales. Then there are players like Andriy Shevchenko who played in the World Cup finals but only for pride simply because he represented Ukraine and not a team like Brazil.

Cristiano Ronaldo may never win the World Cup with Portugal, while his compatriot and the most expensive footballer on earth Gareth Bale may not even get the opportunity to play one like Giggs.

The Phenomenon | An all time great, Ronaldo never lifted the Champions League

When it comes to the Champions league, one of the greatest forwards of all time has astonishingly never won the title. He’s a two time world champion with Brazil but never really lifted the famed ‘Big Ears’ despite having played for some of the best clubs European clubs like Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Brazilian Ronaldo, nicknamed 'The Phenomenon' never fulfilled his dream of becoming a European champion yet that hasn’t tainted his status amongst the greats of this game.

But when you talk about Ibrahimovic – the only player to have played over 100 Champions league games without winning the tournament – the same barometer does not apply. Often its argued that despite having played for Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan, he has failed to win the greatest club competition in the world which perhaps may not earn him a place amongst the greats of the game despite the fact the 33-year old is still today amongst the top five players in world football.

Now, if Ronaldo was not Brazilian would he still not remain one of the best strikers in history? Of course he would.

An all time great, Romania's Gheorghe Hagi was amongst the best midfielders of his time but despite having played for Real Madrid and Barcelona, failed to win any major continental title during his career. He finished runners up with Steaua Bucharest in the 1988-89 European Cup while winning the Uefa Cup with Galatasaray in 1999 towards the end of his glorious career.

Similarly, Gianluigi Buffon is yet to lift the Champions League despite registering his name as one of the best goalkeepers of all time.

A World Cup or a Champions League is what every player dreams of and plays for in football, but at the end of the day it’s the team that wins it. That should be the benchmark to judge a club or a country based on their talent pool, but it should no way be a criteria to decide whether one player is better than the other based on the number of titles he has won in his career.

Maradona was great because he enthralled the crowd with his skill and was unplayable in his prime and not because he won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986. He was their most important player no doubt, but due credit goes to other legends like Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga without whom winning would have been equally difficult.

Similarly, others like Alan Shearer or Gaizka Mendieta who were amongst the best footballers around the change of the millennium a decade ago but failed to win anything major in their career. However they will retain their place in history regardless of a not so glittering trophy cabinet.  

Unlike individual sports like Tennis or Badminton, a major title does not define a player but rather the team, their philosophy and the entire system.

What a player has won or not won with his team, really doesn’t add to or take away anything from his greatness.

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