What makes the good ‘great’?


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Wayne Rooney – England’s captain, the fourth highest goalscorer for his country and about to become only the ninth Englishman to reach a century of caps. Statistically, it can be said that Rooney is one of the finest footballers this nation has produced; he himself argues otherwise, as do a number of others.

Earlier this week, the Manchester United forward came out and said that he will only be able to rank himself alongside the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton – a ‘great’ – if he wins a major tournament. Whilst it is true that a number of the team that won England’s only silverware are still revered even now – Charlton, Sir Bobby Moore, Sir Geoff Hurst, Gordon Banks – there are members of the same side that only the most dedicated football fans or those who were alive at the time whose names are still recognised – it’s unlikely many of you will have heard of George Cohen and Ray Wilson before.

The way silverware is viewed is extremely subjective – it depends on the sport, the nature of the competition, the success of others in your nation and so on. For example, an Olympic bronze medal for a nation such as Afghanistan or Senegal results in a day of national celebration; if Great Britain win a bronze in a sport such as rowing, it is almost seen as a disappointment. As such, winning trophies and medals is not the be-all-and-end-all in becoming a legend.

Indeed, some of the finest players to have ever graced the sporting world have won few major tournaments. Neither Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi – currently the two best footballers in the world – have come close to winning a major accolade with their nations. Both have won multiple league and cup titles in Spain as well as the Champions League, regarded as the hardest club competition in World football, but the major tournament to win is the World Cup and both do not look like coming close to achieving this anytime soon. Sachin Tendulkar, seen as a God-like figure across India, only won a single World Cup in six attempts whilst rugby union’s Richie McCaw has only won the Webb Ellis Cup once despite leading arguably the best All Black team in rugby history. Yet, despite all this, these superstars will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come. One common theme between them all – they have incredible statistics.

Numbers are a great indicator of individual greatness – as the saying goes, stats do not lie. Messi currently holds 5 World and 9 European records and has scored over 400 career goals at the age of 27. Ronaldo is a two-time Ballon d’Or winner (2008 and 2013) and has scored 195 La Liga goals in just 175 appearances for Real Madrid. Neither of them have won the World Cup, but what they have done on the football pitch is unprecedented. Tendulkar is the only cricketer to have scored 100 centuries in international cricket, a feat unlikely to ever be repeated, and has scored more runs in both Test and One Day International cricket than anyone esle. McCaw, meanwhile, has captained the All Blacks 98 times in his 135 Tests; 88.65% of those games have ended in wins, with the forward scoring 25 tries in this period on top of that. Despite their relative lack of major silverware, the numbers prove just how special these athletes are.

You don’t have to break records, though, to still be viewed as a ‘great’; you can hold all the records in the world but you still have to perform when it matters. Cricketers Andrew Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham are great examples – neither player has particularly great career figures, but what they single-handedly did against the Australians on the biggest stage in cricket in 2005 and 1981 respectively means they will go down in English cricketing folklore. David Beckham is another great example – although a wonderful player in his own right , he automatically entered a very select band of footballers with that freekick against Greece to send England to the 2002 World Cup. As these athletes have proved, statistics count for nothing if you cannot perform on the biggest stage.

Combine all of these elements, though, and you have the ultimate sporting legends. Charlotte Edwards, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Michael Phelps, Sir Steve Redgrave, Michael Schumacher, Serena Williams – all of them have picked up an incredible amount of silverware, their statistics are almost super-human and they always performed at their very best when it really mattered.

This is Rooney’s biggest downfall – he is highly unlikely to ever win a major tournament with England so that has to be discounted, but he does have a very impressive goalscoring record. The problem is that he has never produced his best form for his country; the only incidents that come straight to mind from his England career are his red cards in 2006 and 2011. I cannot even remember any of the 43 goals he has scored. If Rooney wants to really be classified as a ‘great’ then he has to start performing consistently at the highest level for his country. At the age of 29, though, he still has plenty of time to do this.

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