A plea, dear reader. If you can help me formulate a greatest ever Women’s Football XI, I ask that you to please leave me a comment.
One of the favorite pub arguments in sports is the greatest-ever debate. I love it (although I admit to having far less patience for it in other disciplines.) The debate is completely based in fantasy; even in statistics-heavy sports like baseball, there is really no objective measure of greatness. It is almost impossible to agree on the greatest of one’s own time let alone ever. When we compare players from different eras, any veneer of objectivity is forsaken.
Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In sports, players of every era play at a higher level than their predecessor, not because they are more talented, but because of inevitable advancements in physicality, technology, and tactical acuity.
In tennis for example, Roger Federer is considered by many to be the greatest of all time (and even this is debatable because of his head-to-head record with Rafael Nadal.) No man in history has won more major titles than Federer. His style is so perfect that it approaches the Platonic idea–the writer David Foster Wallace famously compared watching Federer play to a religious experience. Yet, even if we accept that Federer is the greatest of his era, how does one compare him to Rod Laver, another player often called greatest of all time? Laver played in an era of wooden rackets, far less advanced physical conditioning, mostly grass courts, a predominantly serve-and-volley game, and the controversy over professionalism. During Laver’s prime, because he played professionally, he was exiled from the four until the Open Era began in 1968. Therefore, one can convincingly argue that Laver’s major championships total is deceivingly low.
Moreover, if comparing Federer to Laver presents difficulty, how much more harder is it to compare either man to Bill Tilden, tennis’s first great male champion? The Federer of the 2000’s would easily beat the Laver of the 1960’s or the Tilden of the 1920’s, given all of Federer’s advantages. But would Federer be so dominant if Laver and Tilden were his peers instead of his predecessors?
Team sports offer the potential for multiple greatest ever lists–not only do fans have the joy of arguing about the greatest ever individual, they also argue about the greatest ever sides. And on top of that, they can debate who should be on the all-star dream team. It is on this last list that I want to focus.
In football, in putting together a greatest-ever side there are challenges that do not exist in the popular American sports. In baseball or American football for example, where positions are rigid and predetermined, it is easier to put together an all time greatest team. Putting together a greatest ever list in these sports is not uncontroversial task, but it is easier when the positions are fixed. In baseball for example, you do not necessarily pick the nine best players; you pick the best first baseman, the best short stop, and so on. To decide the best player for each position, you turn to statistical analysis and legend.
Football–the soccer kind–has only one set position, the goalkeeper. There are defenders, midfielders, and forwards, but the only set number of players on the field is 11 per side. Baseball has nine specific positions, and there is no deviation from those nine. Football positions however, are far more fluid and malleable, shifting according to the demands of the match. Because the positions are so fluid, a greatest-ever list in football must take tactical (and aesthetic) sensibilities into account in addition to player abilities. Do you like attacking fullbacks? A holding midfielder? A second striker? The answers change the shape of the team and could affect which players make the cut.
There are always those brave souls who try to spark the conversation by putting forward their own greatest team ever. I don’t feel secure enough to do that yet; at least not on here. Especially with regard to defenders. One of the problems in football’s greatest ever debate is that for the most part, defenders get relatively little love, especially in comparison to attacking players. Conversely, there are too many great attacking players in history for one squad. If your forward line is (for example): Pele, Maradona, and Cruyff, one can legitimately ask why you overlooked Eusebio, Puskas, Ronaldo (Brazilian), or Messi. Statistics don’t help the way they do in baseball because (1) football is remarkably resistant to statistical analysis, (2) for decades the only statistic that anyone cared about was goals scored, and (3) even the number of goals scored is somewhat suspect as accurate record keeping was not always a priority (hence Pele’s claim that he scored over 1200.)
The problems of picking a greatest ever IX are exacerbated for for a women’s XI. First and foremost professional women’s football, unlike men’s sports, has such a short history. Therefore, while the men’s game has too many contenders and pretenders, the women’s game may not have enough. Contrast that with individual sports such as tennis or Olympics events where women have competed at the highest level since the early twentieth century and in some cases earlier. This does not prevent a greatest ever team in women’s football, but it does limit the possibilities.
The short history of women’s football means that there are few legends of the game. One of the driving motivations behind a greatest ever list is to remember and honor the legends, those figures and teams of the past who still live in our collective memory–I saw them play even though I never saw them play. Who are the legends and legendary teams in women’s football? Does the game have enough history to produce legends? If we recognize a longer history in women’s football, how much weight do we give it? Would Lily Parr, the great player from Dick Kerr’s Ladies make the list? What about other women who played before the 1991 World Cup?
Are international titles more important than domestic titles, and how much weight should these titles carry? In the women’s game only three nations (the United States, Norway, and Germany) have won World or Olympics titles. Would that count against players from other nations like Sun Wen, Pretinha, Marta, or Sissi? What about continent and club competitions? How do we factor those titles in?
How much importance do we place on statistics? Mia Hamm is leading international goal scorer in history (male or female). Kristine Lilly is the most capped player in history (male or female). Those are the stats I see all the time, although I am sure there are other important ones.
Because of the American dominance of the early game, one might believe that Americans should dominate a greatest ever list. Soccer America released a College Team of the Century, which not coincidentally has significant overlap with the USWNT players during its 1990’s peak. Soccer America’s list is too focused and specific for a world’s greatest all-star team, but that does not preclude its usefulness. One could argue that the inclusion of Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm on Pele’s list of 125 Greatest Living Players would assure them for inclusion on a greatest ever list. But Pele’s list is ridiculous; when reading the list in its entirety one sees that it was written for diversity not integrity. Including Akers and Hamm was the only way to ensure that the United States was represented.
FIFA gives out its own awards, but these awards generally display a stunning ignorance from the FIFA and the world football community about the women’s game. (This year the winner of women’s coach of the year was Silvia Neid, who, though great, won absolutely nothing in 2010 and whose team did very little.) Marta has won the World Player of the Year the last five years in a row, Birgit Prinz the three times before that, and Mia Hamm the two times before that. That is the complete winners’ list. The World Player of the Year award (men’s and women’s) is dubious at best for many reasons, but dubious is to be expected from FIFA, particularly with regard to women.
In 2002, FIFA awarded Michelle Akers and Sun Wen a joint Player of the Century award. More accurately, a FIFA panel thought Michelle Akers was the player of the century and but fans on the Internet voted for Sun Wen. (The same thing happened for the men’s award with Maradona and Pele. It was a huge debacle that made everyone look bad including FIFA, Pele, and Maradona. Akers and Sun were far classier.)
Finally, and this is a very hard confession for me to make, I cannot make an accurate list because I could not name enough defenders. As I mentioned above, defenders do the far less glamorous job;, and offensive players get the glory. In women’s football where even the high-scoring players have to scrounge for media coverage, defenders get almost nothing (Brandi Chastain aside.) I am ashamed of my ignorance, but I know I am not alone. After the 2007 World Cup, FIFA named a tournament all-star team with only three defenders. Compare that to the number of goalkeepers (two), midfielders (six), and forwards (four). (In contrast, the 2006 World Cup men’s all-star team had seven defenders.)
So I ask again, dear readers, who would you put in a Greatest Ever XI? What is your formation? Why did you select those players? Arguing for a greatest ever women’s team should be just as passionate and inconclusive as in any other sport, men’s or women’s.
Music that I listened to while writing this post: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “Serenata Notturna, K. 239″; Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581”.