The hard work of greatness

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IT WAS, no doubt, pure coincidence that on the very day when David Platt of Sampdoria was elevated to football's pantheon by his coach I fell into a long and ultimately heated discussion about greatness in the game.

The accolade is bestowed so indiscriminately these days that the public may find it exceedingly difficult to conclude what a truly great footballer looks like. Not, to my mind, like Platt, who for all his admirable qualities hardly merits a distinction pronounced last Sunday after Sampdoria drew 1-1 at Lazio. 'An unselfish player who makes his presence felt in all areas of play,' said Sven Goran Eriksson. 'His invaluable contribution is the hallmark of a great, great player.'

It is hard to imagine that Eriksson seriously entertains the idea of placing Platt on the same exalted plane as Pele, Alfredo di Stefano and George Best, but on the understanding that he does, a protest is in order.

There are two things in a player that combine to stir the imagination of spectators and testify to greatness: virtuosity and determination. On the second count Platt is the equal of anybody. On the first he is not in the frame.

All coaches today recognise the desirability of effort and doubtless would concur with a view expressed by Calvin Coolidge on being elected 30th President of the United States. 'Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb . . . persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.'

When supporters weep over the omission of talented but work- shy players and plead for an exception in their favour, they ignore an irrefutable truth. It is that the great ones give themselves fully.

In the spring of 1974, when Pele was being pressed by Brazil to extend his international career into a fifth World Cup, I watched him play a league game for Santos at Belo Horizonte. He was almost 34 and two years earlier had achieved the monumental total of 1,000 goals in first-class football. Driven by pride, he never stopped working.

A long time later he stated: 'Never in my 25 years as a player could anyone say Pele does not run in the field. If you have a talent - if you are born to do something - you must be in good condition to do it well. We all know men who are very good players but are never in good condition. I could not be like that.'

Once, I heard Gustav Sebes - who coached Hungary's marvellous team of the 1950s - speak about Ferenc Puskas, its captain and most arousing figure. 'In his age group at 15 we had half a dozen inside-forwards who were ahead in ability,' Sebes said, 'but he had a level of determination the others didn't possess. Added to exceptional gifts, it is why he became a great player.'

Sometimes circumstances dictate the progression to greatness. Recently, the Manchester United captain, Bryan Robson, stated that Eric Cantona could become the best foreign player to appear in English football. This did not appear to be on the cards when the Frenchman was turning out for Leeds. Operating in the space left by defenders who are driven back by surges along the flanks, Cantona now looks a class apart. But the jury remains out on him.

Somewhere in all this is the core of a debate that currently surrounds Arsenal, who in the eyes of some of their supporters are making no concessions to class. Why, they ask, are talented players, most obviously Paul Merson and Anders Limpar, sometimes left on the bench?

The dilemma confronting the club's manager, George Graham, is not a new one in football. It is to do with reliability and touches upon how footballers qualify for the estimate of greatness.

Looking back, I can't imagine there was an Englishman prepared to forgive Alf Ramsey when he went into the 1966 World Cup final without Jimmy Greaves who was considered to be a great player. Then Geoff Hurst, who wasn't, because there haven't been many, scored a hat-trick.