What makes a player world class? Who are the world class players? This is one of the never-ending debates in football, particularly in recent times when the term has been thrown about quite loosely.
In his 2015 book, ‘Leading’, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “In my book, there are only two world class players playing today: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo”. He went on to say “I don’t mean to demean or criticise any of the great or very good footballers who played for me during my 26-year career at United, but there were only four who were world class: Cantona, Giggs, Ronaldo and Scholes”.
Though I don’t quite agree with this, I perfectly understand his reasoning and premise. It is quite frustrating to see every player who has a great season or two labelled as world class. It is also quite extreme to place that label on every player who has had a good career. Fans and pundits no longer seem to be content with appreciating a player as ‘very good’, which is also high praise, in my opinion. And that seems to be a trend in modern football; for the sake of banter, players are rated in extremes. One is either world class or garbage. A middle ground no longer exists. For this reason, if one is to disagree with a player’s label as world class, it’s translated into “That player is rubbish”.
Another reason for the inaccurate rating of players is that, people are too eager to label potential world class players as world-class prematurely. So the likes of Mbappe, Dybala, Ousmane Dembele, etc get labelled as world class by some already after just a great season or two, despite not leaving a significant or permanent mark on football.
Now, there will never be a perfect definition for the term ‘world class’ because it is a purely subjective topic and everybody has a different understanding. So all I can do is give my personal requirements for a player attaining the world class label and why it is necessary.
Consistency, as everybody should know is a fundamental requirement. And by consistency, I mean regularly excelling in a top league for a minimum of three seasons. In many of my numerous arguments on the subject, I’ve realised that quite a number of people believe that a single outstanding season by a player is enough to place him on world class status. For this reason, Jamie Vardy was said to be a world class player in the 2015/16 season, but somehow stopped being world class after a sub-par 2016/17 season. Now the problem with that assessment is that being world class shouldn’t be a temporary label that can be put on and off, depending on the type of season a player has. It should be a description of the type of player one is. A good player can have a world class season and that is exactly what it should remain at; a world class season. The world class label should be attained only after the player has proven that he can consistently perform at that level for three seasons or more, because it is at this point that one proves that he is no flash in the pan.
Ability or talent is obviously another basic requirement. This can be interpreted in many ways depending on the position of the player so I won’t delve too much into it. However, ability without consistency cannot make one world class. Unless you can make a solid argument for the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa, Mario Balotelli, Ricardo Quaresma, etc.
Another major factor that should be included as a follow-up is that the player should have excelled in a competition, other than league football. No, I don’t mean the FA Cup. The World Cup, Champions League, or any of the continental tournaments are where legends are made. The reason is simple; these are tournaments where the best of the best compete. It is also at these tournaments where the pressure is highest; the biggest test of character a player can face. Klose was a lethal striker in league football, but one can argue that it is at the World Cup that he truly attained world class status. We all knew Robert Lewandowski was achieving great things in the Bundesliga, but it was when he hit four against Real Madrid that he ascended to the next level. A simple question I ask those who disagree with this is, how can you be among the best if you aren’t actually playing against the best?
Now many times when I write off a player, usually at an average team, who is being hailed as world class, one of the common complaints is “So if a player isn’t playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona he can’t be world class?” Though this isn’t entirely true, the reason why it is easy to label players in these teams as world class is that, to start for one of them means you must be automatically fulfilling all the requirements I have stated. I can’t imagine that a player would be an automatic starter for one of those teams and not be consistent or talented. Also at the moment, these are the teams that consistently go the farthest in the Champions League, so the assumption is that the players starting at these teams are most likely excelling there as well. This is not to say that every single member of both starting elevens is world class, but those are the teams where you are most likely fulfilling all the requirements.
Now to the controversial part; where does this leave the likes of Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Paulo Dybala etc? These are potentially world class players. I know many will debate this part, particularly regarding Harry Kane, but outside of league football, he is yet to leave his mark. There is, however, no doubt that he will eventually have one signature tournament that elevates him to world class status, so there should be no rush to crown him so soon. An easy comparison to be made in this respect is with Alexander Lacazette, who has scored 76 league goals to Harry Kane’s 75 over the last three seasons. Can an argument then be made for Lacazette, who has been similarly consistent in league football, as a world class player?
The reason why I deem it necessary to combine all these factors in making a judgement is that, in omitting one of the stated factors, it allows a large number of players to be entered into the world class category. Take, for example, a player like Iago Aspas who has been fairly consistent over the past three seasons in a top league. In the just-ended season, he even outscored bona fide world class players such as Antoine Griezmann and Neymar. Can we then put him on world class status, without him proving himself outside of league football? Other players with similar consistency in league football over the years include Seamus Coleman, Leighton Baines, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Yohann Cabaye etc. Are they all also world class?
Additionally, can a player like Lukas Podolski be considered as world class, seeing how he has excelled in international competition but struggled to cement his place at teams in top level leagues? My answer is no.
Take a look at a few players that majority of people generally accept as world class with little debate, Messi and Ronaldo aside; Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Neymar, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Andres Iniesta, Leonardo Bonucci, Antoine Griezmann etc. Which of these players doesn’t fulfill all the requirements that have been stated? These are players who wouldn’t look out of place in any starting XI in world football. That is world class.
In summary, the term ‘world class’ is very subjective and the debate will rage on for years to come. Feel free to agree or disagree with any of the points raised. I however leave you with one simple question that a friend uses to determine world class status; “Can a good argument be made for that player to be included in a World XI without bias?”