Best or Zidane, Bradman or Botham?

The greatest debate: The search is on to find the legend of legends - and the choice will be anything but simple
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The Independent Online

A couple of days after that final "hello, good morning, and welcome", a real breakfast with Frost was partaken by an invited few. The debate, between mouthfuls of bacon and eggs, was as fervent as you would expect from the man whose interrogations of Richard Nixon post-Watergate in 1976 and the insurance swindler Dr Emil Savundra were defining moments of television history.

A couple of days after that final "hello, good morning, and welcome", a real breakfast with Frost was partaken by an invited few. The debate, between mouthfuls of bacon and eggs, was as fervent as you would expect from the man whose interrogations of Richard Nixon post-Watergate in 1976 and the insurance swindler Dr Emil Savundra were defining moments of television history.

Only here the point of discussion was sport or, to be precise, the nominations for and ultimate victor of the quest for The World's Greatest Sporting Legend, Sir David Frost's first project following the cessation of the BBC's Breakfast... series last Sunday.

The devil can make work for an idle broadcasting voice, normally burdening the schedules with yet another chat or quiz show. But after 40 years interviewing and presenting, Frost's first venture into sport - if you ignore the one-on-one of them all, with Muhammad Ali, the name you expect will secure the ultimate accolade (to be voted by viewers in the final programme of the eight-week Sky One series) - is the product of his own imagination.

Football, boxing, tennis and golf, horseracing and motor racing, Olympic sports, rugby (both codes) and cricket will be under scrutiny in separate programmes. In the context of contemporary sporting culture, in which the term "legend" tends to be liberally attached to anyone who is a bit better than quite good, it will be a daunting challenge to identify the real thing.

Take this conundrum: you are asked to select your 10 all-time, all-nationality "legends" of football. That's the question set the panel, including Sir Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor and Phil Thompson, in tonight's first programme.

Would George Best be amongst the litany of excellence? I, and others whose views were solicited by Frost and his fellow presenter, Des Lynam, when we met, were almost unanimous that he would be. Best was far more than an exponent of nimble-footed talent leaving defensive devastation in his wake. The whole package, the lithe frame and lanky hair, fired the aspir-ations of a generation, even if his much-reported extra-curricular activities ultimately curtailed his achievements.

The panel disagreed. Those nominated have not been disclosed, although I understand there are only three home-based players, whom, one must assume, include Sir Stanley Matthews and Bobby Moore. But not Best, whose Manchester United career ended at the age of 27. "I believe that part of being a legend is longevity in whatever you do, and George retired from the game too early," says Taylor. "He was also, through no fault of his own, unable to display his undoubted talent on the world stage."

Taylor's only other self-imposed rule was not to include anyone still playing, though I understand that Zinedine Zidane is in the football final 10.It is such differing opinion that lies behind the appeal of such a programme.

The word "legend" derives from medieval-era Latin, when it was used to describe stories about the saints. No such evidence of virtue is necessary for a sportsman or woman to qualify for deification these days, but what are the criteria?

Just as a cartoonist once suggested it could be argued that Disney was the most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo, so there are many perspectives from which to view a sporting colossus. A legend comprises many qualities beyond a unique talent - for instance, spirit in adversity and an ability to accept defeat with magnanimity.

In the Fifties, the remarkable Juan-Manuel Fangio, winner of 22 grands prix and five world championships, embraced those qualities and more. Throughout a career during which he broke his neck and narrowly escaped death, he conducted himself with what has been described as his "style, grace and nobility". How does one begin to compare Fangio with that highly efficient machine Michael Schumacher, or the charismatic Ayrton Senna?

Speaking of the Noble Art itself, few would look beyond Ali, though many aficionados would claim that Sugar Ray Robinson, who over three decades was defeated in only 19 of his 202 bouts, was the true legend of pugilism.

And how much bearing should the nature of the competition have? Among the section for Olympic sports, it is seemingly inconceivable to look beyond the five-times gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave, but he achieved his success as part of a crew. Maybe an individual, a Seb Coe, is more worthy.

The most contentious area, though, is adjudicating on achievements in different eras. Such comparisons are impossible, and, in truth, irrelevant. All a player can be is the best of his generation.

By any estimation, "The Don", Sir Donald Bradman, with his Test batting average of 99.94, is beyond comparison, but the suspicion is that Ian Botham, with memories of 1981 indelible, plus that sheer force of personality and his charity walks since retirement, could win the vote.

What of horseracing? Lester Piggott should be the victor by many lengths, though one suspects that Frankie Dettori would be first name on many lists. The Italian's personality transcends his sport, and so, in a different way, does that of Tiger Woods.

The nominations are restricted. The arguments, you suspect, will be infinite.

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