Sun | Oct 22, 2017

Follow The Trace | Those intangible!

Published:Tuesday | September 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Argentina's Lionel Messi reacts during a 2018 World Cup qualifying match against Venezuela in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 5. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Disagreements about the comparative greatness of sports stars and sports teams are often the bedrock of most sporting debates. Often laced with emotionalism and era biases, these debates are as never ending as they are intense, intriguing, and entertaining.

There is one overbearing practice that seems to characterise several of these perennial discussions, and it is the unwitting over-reliance on statistics and numbers and the converse lack of appreciation for the value of the intangible components of sports performances and their value in defining overall sporting legacies.

As valuable as statistical analyses are, they can be inherently misleading, especially in ascribing overall greatness to individuals in a team context. Case in point: former West Indian batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul, with 11,867 test runs, inclusive of 30 test centuries at an average of 51.37. Chanderpaul is significantly ahead of Sir Vivian Richards' 8,540 runs, 24 centuries, 50.23 average in almost every key statistical category, but who in their right mind could credibly mention Chanderpaul and Richards in the same sentence in terms of true batting greatness.

In any credible analysis of overall greatness, all things must be considered, therefore nothing should be excluded. There must be an astute recognition of the athlete's, or the player's body of work, which is generally reflected in the numbers. It is also imperative that consideration be given to titles and championships won in both individual and team sports. It is inherently paradoxical and devoid of credibility to pronounce an athlete or a player the greatest in his or her sport if he or she has never won the ultimate prize in that sport, whether it's an NBA title in basketball, or a World Cup title in football since the essence of all professional sporting activity is competing to WIN.

There are then factors such as quality of teammates, quality of opponents, relative conditions, the style and manner and appeal of performances, the effect of performances on results. These and other intangibles add context and perspective to performances, results and career legacies.

 

Intangible elements

 

Intangibles are factors that do not have physical presence; they are abstract, not defined or clear to the mind, but it is undeniable that they go a far way in separating good sports performers from great sports performers. Qualities such as the ability to inspire and motivate teammates, tenacity, commitment, desire, are all intangible elements which in tandem with the skill set of athletes and players all come together to varying degrees in different individuals. This explains the disparity in the performance and achievements of individuals and teams.

One of the longest-going debates in sport is the place of Argentine football superstar Lionel Messi on the list of all-time great football players. Certainly one of, if not the most naturally gifted, player to have played the game, definitely the premier performer and achiever at the club level for Spanish giants Barcelona. However, the challenge facing Messi in defining his legacy, is in reconciling his outstanding club performances and achievements with his meagre, indeed zero returns at the international level.

Messi's inexplicable inability to lift himself, and or his talented Argentine teammates, on the big occasions is an embarrassing injustice to his talent level. Over the last four years, the little club magician has fizzed and disappeared on each big occasion as Argentina suffered defeat in one World Cup final and two consecutive Copa America finals. Messi's inability to add the intangible components to his dazzling skills has dealt a crippling blow to his claims as a real, genuine great of the game of football when compared to the likes of Diego Maradona, PelÈ, and even Zinedine Zidane, who, unlike Messi, conquered all club and international challenges.

The nature of the intangible component in sports analysis however, is of such that it cannot be accurately quantified, measured or recorded, thus it is often misunderstood and remains open to selective and subjective scrutiny, which invariably leads to a covert devaluation of this invaluable factor in sports analysis.