Soccer lists are ubiquitous and come in all shapes and sizes, types and varieties. We at O87 never settle for just doing another list. “Just another list” isn’t even in our vocabulary. So, when one of us decided that it would behoove our blog to have it’s own take on the “Best Of” phenomenon of modern sports, we decided that we couldn’t just list the best players in order of their relative merits, by their decades or eras, or even by their positions. We would try something marginally novel (we won’t be so bold as to claim to be the first to come up with this idea): let’s rank players by the number they wore, not by their position. Now obviously, this throws in some wrinkles. Players who might not normally be compared to each other will needs be. For example, Makelele, Hargreaves, Koeman, Zanetti, and Fabregas have all iconically worn number 4. Who to choose? It doesn’t matter! We’re trying to approach this question from a different perspective. We hope you enjoy it.
The first thing we’re all going to have to accept when choosing the greatest number 8 of all-time is that the correct answer is neither Steven Gerrard nor Frank Lampard. I knowI’m preaching to the choir here, and that anyone crazy enough to honestly believe that isn’t going to be convinced by this, but it’s important for me to get it out there so we’re clear on that. Are we good? Good.
So here’s the trouble. Historically, the 8 jersey isn’t a particularly sexy number. It’s what a guy who can’t get number 10 or 9 or 7 wears. Notable 8’s include Didi – though he wore 6 in one World Cup Final and 7 in another – Socrates, Gerson, Sandor Kocsis and Hristo Stochkov; great players to be sure, but considering the depth that’s there for the glamour numbers, it’s something of a thin selection. Which is why there’s no need to wait until he’s finished to say it: Andres Iniesta will go down in history as the greatest number 8 to ever play the game.
This isn’t a late wedding present for the little guy; one day it will be common knowledge. We tend to wait before holding a coronation like this, and because we want to be absolutely sure we tend to wait too long. Our sepia-tinted nostalgia glasses make us lean towards the likes of Socrates or Gerson even though their accomplishments or their play are less than what he’s already achieved.
Look at his resume: Three Champions League titles (he came on as a substitute in the 2006 final and played, typically, the pass leading to the pass leading to the goal), five La Liga titles, during which he appeared at least 26 times each season, one World Cup, two European titles (granted, wearing number six) and >1,000,000,000 tweets of “I think Iniesta’s been the best player on the pitch tonight” from people who know soccer or are trying desperately to sound like they know soccer.
The best dispute that can be raised against Iniesta are in many ways the same ones we have regarding the great Hungarian forward Kocsis: How essential was he to the endeavor? Statistically, Kocsis has a pretty big stick to beat those arguing against him over the head with: His 75 goals in 68 appearances for his country is still the highest return rate for players with more than 42 caps to their name, and those 75 goals puts him in fourth all-time for total international strike rate, behind Pele, teammate Ferenc Puskas, and the world-renowned Iranian striker Ali Daei, he of the staggering 19 goals in 5 seasons in the Bundesliga.
But Kocsis, like Iniesta, wasn’t even the best player on his team at that point. At Honved he was partnered with Puskas, and on Hungary Nandor Hidegkuti too could have a claim for being the superior player. Iniesta, meanwhile, has spent the better part of his career at Barcelona with a peaking Ronaldinho and then, more tellingly, with a dominant Lionel Messi who’s already raising the same questions about the greatest player of all-time list that Iniesta does about the greatest number 8 of all-time.
Meanwhile, for both Spain and Barcelona he’s had to contend with the (short) shadow cast by the Spanish number 8, Xavi. The next few years will determine whether Euro 2012, where Iniesta was named player of the tournament, just as Xavi was in 2008, will prove to be Iniesta making good on Pep Guardiola’s promise to Xavi that he would “retire us all,” or just the next step in the pair’s symbiotic relationship, where without one, the other couldn’t exist.
In a way, the fact that this is the best argument against his inclusion – not his lack of trophies or his stats or his lack of influence on the field – seals it. All the players we’ve chosen in this series so far made their names on truly great teams. Iniesta sees further because he stands on the shoulders of a couple of 5’7″ giants, just as Messi and Xavi do as well.