A “tale as old as time,” sang Angela Lansbury. Between people who are “barely even friends,” she informed us. But I can exclusively reveal that Mrs Potts – Angela’s character in Disney’s seminal Beauty and the Beast – wasn’t referring to a developing love between opposites. With a prescience acquired, no doubt, from her decades as a successful amateur crime-writing sleuth, the hard-working Angela was predicting the future of social media discourse. I believe she was singing about the GOAT, the predominant concern of the Information Age. Who, or what, is the greatest of all time?
“Then somebody bends. Unexpectedly.” Okay… she can’t be expected to get every detail about human nature correct.
But it is truly a debate that is as old as sporting endeavour itself. Even as Pheidippides ran over the line in Athens in 490BC with the news of the great victory his people had secured over the Persians at Marathon, wizened punters in a Glasgow cave reading of his achievement on a stone tablet argued over whether he was the greatest ever distance runner, or just a gossiping bampot in a hurry.
Other sports such as boxing, tennis or darts have their own internal exchanges, but few are as divisive – and as entertainingly pointless – as those surrounding football. Was the homegrown Celtic team of ’67 greater than the Manchester United team that succeeded them in lifting the European Cup? Does the greatest strip of all time belong to the Ajax of the 70s… or is it in fact the less celebrated chocolate brown Coventry City kit from the decade that taste forgot? And bringing the subject right up to the present day: Messi or Ronaldo – whose tax bill (and skilful avoidance of the subsequent legal slide tackles) is the greater?
The acronym-isation of everything is a modern phenomenon but the GOAT has been around since Noah ensured the survival of the human race during the first climate change crisis. This piece contains several of my personal GOATs, all conveniently gathered together in one nostalgic exaggeration.
Forty-nine years ago, me, my Dad, around 12 of his mates, and the neighbours of our top-floor tenement flat crouched around a small television set in our living room and watched the greatest goal ever scored. Before, since and forever more.
My entrepreneurial father had swapped our budgie and its cage for a loan of the TV to allow us to watch the 1970 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy. He hated the bird and an opportunity to get rid of it as part of a bizarre pre-Bosman style transfer deal was too good to miss. It was called Joey – the budgie, not the telly – and his failed attempts to get it to talk were the justification for its permanent “early bath”.
I missed Joey; well… for about the first five minutes of a match apparently being played in some footballing Technicolor Oz.
That tournament regularly tops the “best of” lists of commentators whose faculties haven’t yet retired. The best save of all time, the best team of all time… and the best player of all time. Admittedly, a fair number of his 1,281 goals might have been scored against the South American equivalent of the St. Trinians XI, but as Kris Boyd would surely attest, he still had to stick it in the net at a near inconceivable rate of almost one a game.
But I’m typically digressing. In a match which has become synonymous with the pinnacle of what football can achieve, that fourth goal of the final is now routinely considered to be the GOAT. Like most in our living room on that day, I didn’t appreciate that then. I was too young. Half a lifetime later though, here are the three reasons why it is… and none of them involve Carlos Alberto.
01: Clodoaldo’s dribble
Naysayers might now contest that when that last goal was scored, Italy were on their knees. However, consider the context of the part that started the whole move. When I was younger, I considered myself to be pretty good at football. A potential contender, scraping layers of skin on the blaes in the west of Scotland admittedly, but I still thought I could make it. I had no chance. I made it as far as Amateur level with a ridiculously brief possibility of lower level Junior status. I was miles away from succeeding at that standard, and that is even more miles away from the Scottish lower leagues, which in turn is light years away from the upper levels of our national game, and the tiny, tiny percentage of players who make it to this level are still highly unlikely to get capped. Even by Scotland; a country with players by some considerable distance short of the level required to play for Italy, and an Italy good enough to reach a World Cup Final in another hemisphere. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Almost without touching the ball at all, Clodoaldo – a centre half, remember – made four Italian internationals look like four versions of me. Think about that, the next time you watch Grant Hanley.
02: The ball
As it made its way effortlessly up the touchline propelled by Rivelino’s left foot, direct to Jairzinho’s right, glinting like a diamond in the sun, that ball seemed to know its destiny. It seemed to appreciate the iconic status that it was about to achieve. It was Elvis’s pelvis, Lennon’s smirk and Johnny Rotten’s sneer all wrapped up in a spherical leather “fuck you, I’m brilliant!” Every ball since has wanted to be that ball… and has failed miserably. For the last World Cup, we had something that looked like the result of an open-air colouring-in contest at Butlin’s for four-year-olds, abandoned halfway through due to torrential rain. Every football should look like the one that flicked the V’s to an entire stadium that day in 1970.
03: Pele’s nonchalance
Taking his cue from the attitude of the ball, the stand-out player in a team of footballing geniuses casually rolled it into the path of the eventual goal scorer as if he was playing against that same group of toddlers who designed the ball for Russia 2018. Watch him again… and again… and then again. His body shape is perfect; all poise and effortless balance. His part in the move is the bit that I love most. He’s like Muhammad Ali – the boxing GOAT – dropping Foreman in Zaire and knowing; just knowing that he didn’t need that final punch. Arrogantly brilliant.
It’s the greatest goal ever scored, the GOAT. It’s a work of art as memorable as Guernica; another GOAT from a different culture. If you disagree with me, you’re simply wrong and my sorrowful heart goes out to you. l