That’s the thing about saying goodbye—one has to assess what it all means. Whether death, retirement or moving away, saying goodbye is a necessary evil that only softens with the recollection of happier moments. The way people choose to remember you is dependent on the type of memories they associate with you—good or bad. That’s why Cantona still has his name sung at Old Trafford 20 years after his sudden retirement. It’s also why Roberto Baggio is most associated with his penalty miss at the 1994 World Cup final. These fleeting moments determine what a player’s legacy is. Let us examine the legacies of three legends of the game.
For a period between 2004 till 2007 or so, Ronaldinho was the most likable player in the world. His supreme technique, along with boundless imagination and dancing feet made him the most watchable player of his generation. When he played at the peak of his powers, Barcelona were not only a “must watch”, but they also won all the big trophies.
But here’s the thing—his peak only lasted for about three seasons. Aside from these three seasons, Ronaldinho’s career has been characterized by partying, indiscipline and letting people down. The fact is he has left every club he played for under a cloud.
Fortunately for him, it hardly matters. He might still be the “YouTube-d” player ever. He recently became an ambassador for Barcelona. He is an example of how pure excellence can imprint itself on our collective consciousness—no matter how brief.
There are some obvious similarities between Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. They both wore the marquee no. 10’s for Barcelona and Brazil. They both played for AC Milan when they were past their peaks. They both won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year awards. Between 1997 and 2002, Rivaldo was one of the world’s supreme attacking talents along with the likes of Raul, Ronaldo, and Batistuta. He had the most dangerous left foot in world football—it could either caress the ball like a wand or smash it like a sledgehammer. He scored 8 goals in two World Cup campaigns, and was in the team of the tournament on both occasions.
But unlike Ronaldinho, Rivaldo always seemed like an enigma. While Ronaldinho always played with a smile, Rivaldo always wore a pained look on his face. While Ronaldinho was the poster boy for football’s most popular brand, Rivaldo wore Mizuno boots. While Ronaldinho had a knack for riding robust challenges, Rivaldo had a reputation for going down easily.
It is somewhat unfortunate that in a long career packed with brilliant moments, the moment most associated with the bow legged Brazilian is him diving at the corner flag to get a Turkish player sent off in a World Cup game. It still remains one of the most bizarre dives ever seen on a football pitch. Unfortunately, that is all it took for a player who was never the most likable, to go down in most people’s estimation.
If ever there was a player who has benefited from glorious moments on a football pitch then its Zidane. Zidane was never the most consistent performer of his generation. In 10 seasons playing for Juventus and Real Madrid, he only won three league titles (despite playing with some of the best players in the world). In fact most of his legendary performances came when representing France.
But Zidane knew how to provide big moments like few players could. There was the Euro 2004 match against England where a last minute double won France the game and a crucial 3 points. It didn’t matter that he had a mixed game before that—all that counted was his quality made the difference again. His two goals in the 1998 World Cup final masked a relatively inconsistent campaign for him. In fact those were the only two goals he scored in the tournament. Despite this, people still cite that tournament as an example of his greatness. It’s the same way his superb volley in the Champion’s League final against Leverkusen masked an uneven first season for Real Madrid.
But maybe that’s the point of players like Zidane. They appeal to our romantic sides—the sides not so obsessed with facts and figures. So as impressive as Messi’s feats are, and as crazy as Ronaldo’s stats are, football must always have room for the Riquelmes, the Okochas and the Bergkamps. They provoke the best memories and as such their legacies are treasured forever.