Ken Jones: Class may be permanent but judgements are purely personal

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Anyway, in the short period of time that elapsed between following with interest the internal affairs of Manchester United and watching them inflict Chelsea's first defeat in 40 League matches, I became involved in one of those lively debates that spring from a chance remark.

One of my companions who is successfuly employed in (to this feeble mind) the complicated world of computers happened to say that "world-class" is a rating often heard in his line of work as a basis for negotiation. "People use it all the time," he said, "and I wonder how they arrive at the assessment. Surely to argue that anyone or anything is world-class is purely a matter of opinion and has no definable substance."

This brought to mind remarks once passed by the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson shortly before the start of a Premiership season which are no less appropriate today.

Ferguson recalled being at Hampden Park, Glasgow, in 1960 when 135,000 spectators, the great majority Scots, hailed the thrilling virtuosity displayed by Real Madrid when overwhelming Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 to secure a fifth successive European Cup. In the context of a thrilling performance Ferguson addressed the issue of greatness, stating that the description "world-class" can only be justified if a player has distinguished himself in World Cups.

This is one way of determining the completeness of a footballer, but it is inevitably flawed. It would, for example rule out one of Ferguson's all-time favourites, Eric Cantona, who never took part in the World Cup for France, and Ryan Giggs, who hasn't had the opportunity with Wales. Also it disqualifies George Best, who was denied an appearance on the ultimate football stage, which may help to explain why his career went into decline when Manchester United's European Cup-winning team of 1968 broke up.

You can go on and on like this. In golf, I guess, the clearest way of electing a player to world-class is to go for those with major championships to their names, although this is weakened by the fact that there have been major winners who have since struggled. A more accurate measure is the world rankings. A number of cricketers - Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Shane Warne - stand out as much for their presence as statistical evidence. When there were only eight weight divisions, and before the expansion of sanctioning bodies, world-class status in boxing was clearly defined. Now there is such a proliferation of world titles that the term has no real meaning.

At some point in last week's debate, I introduced a list of footballers held for some time in my head and acceptable to managers, past and present, as irrefutably world-class. It includes, of course, Pele and Diego Maradona, who were jointly honoured by Fifa as the outstanding players of the 20th century. In no order of preference there are eight others - Alfredo di Stefano, Best, John Charles, Ferenc Puskas, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Stanley Matthews and the most recent entry, Zinedine Zidane, who is still playing. By their towering standards others are judged. Nobody is obliged to share this view, but whenever questions come up about greatness in football, some of us keep seeing faces from the past.

I recently asked Terry Venables to define a world-class player. "It's not easy," he said. "You look for four things: technical ability, tactical awareness, personality and pace. All great players have those qualities. It enables them to step up to a different level."

The choice is narrow. Of the present crop, Ronaldinho of Barcelona, already a World Cup winner with Brazil, clearly meets Venables' criteria. So does Thierry Henry of Arsenal. Wayne Rooney is a world-class player waiting to happen.

Trouble is, and this applies to all major sports, too many players are loosely rated world-class. It depends, of course, on how you look at things. Curious how often that consideration crops up.