GOAT debates are nonsensical when it comes to players that are part of teams, writes Dileep Premachandran

American football may not be popular in this part of the world, but in its obsession with individual statistics, there are echoes of India’s sporting pastime.

Last Saturday, Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player for the fifth time — no one else has won the honour more than thrice.

On Sunday night, with well over 100 million people watching, the Seattle Seahawks annihilated the Broncos 43-8 in the Super Bowl. To put that score into perspective, it’s the equivalent of a 6-1 thrashing in association football.

The great debate

After the game, a lot of the debate centred on Manning and whether he should be ‘embarrassed’ by the performance. There was talk too of legacies. Despite having racked up unmatched individual numbers, Manning still has only one Super Bowl ring to his name.

That line of inquiry brought back memories of India’s World Cup campaign in 2003. Sachin Tendulkar scored 673 runs in the competition, more than any man before or since, but India was at the wrong end of a 125-run hammering in the final. In the aftermath of that defeat, much was said about Tendulkar’s inability to turn it on when it mattered.

It’s an argument that I’ve never been able to fathom. That afternoon at The Wanderers, India was chasing 360 for victory — the equivalent of 425-plus under the present playing conditions.

Yes, Tendulkar failed, but such was the asking-rate that he had to go after the bowlers from the first over. Had he not been able to take the team past a target of 250 or so, the criticism might have been justified.

Tendulkar, like Manning, was just one of 11. Was it his fault that India leaked runs at the start of the innings, giving Australia a whopping 105 in the first 15 overs?

What could he have done to stop innings for the ages from Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn? Manning had a poor game, but like Tendulkar that day, his teammates did him few favours, as they were comprehensively outmatched by opponents playing at the peak of their powers.

These Greatest-Of-All-Time (GOAT) debates are fine for most individual sports, but rather nonsensical when it comes to players that are part of teams.

Even in individual sports, how can you possibly compare across eras, and ignore the off-field changes that no athlete is immune to?

In football, the Pele versus Maradona arguments have been around as long as I can remember, despite the fact that Pele’s top-flight career was over before Maradona was out of his teens.

Pele was blessed to play with an all-star ensemble. At various times, his teammates included Garrincha, Vava, Amarildo, Jairzinho, Tostao, Gerson and Rivelino. Maradona’s golden years came long after the Pasarella-Kempes-Bertoni-Luque generation that won the 1978 World Cup had faded.

Even today, you can hear the discussions for and against the qualities of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — debates that steadfastly ignore how different they are as players and how vastly dissimilar are the playing philosophies of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Things get a little easier when it comes to sports like tennis, as long as we stick to comparing those of the same generation.

Some reckon that Pete Sampras’s greater weight of serve, in contrast to Roger Federer, would have given him a better chance to stymie the relentless baseline aggression of Rafael Nadal. That is mere speculation though.

Nadal’s dominance

What is beyond dispute, however, is the dominance that Nadal, despite being behind on the all-time Grand Slams tally, has established over his greatest rival.

These days, you can almost see the way Federer falls apart. His behaviour has become increasingly tetchy and petulant with each passing defeat — Nadal now leads 23-10 in the head-to-head count.

Even when you give those numbers some context, Nadal comes out way ahead. He’s 6-2 in Grand Slam finals against Federer, and 9-2 against him overall in the four tournaments that really matter.

Regardless of whether Nadal surpasses Federer’s Grand Slam count of 17, there’s a strong argument to be made in favour of him being the better player. In this case, the numbers – unlike in team sports – don’t lie.

(Dileep Premachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India)