Brian Viner: Genius is not all it's cracked up to be

Some of the claims made on behalf of current 'greats' don't stand up
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Until last week, the greatest footballer of all time was Pele. Or possibly Diego Maradona. If you were British, Dutch or Hungarian you might also have argued the case for George Best, Johan Cruyff or Ferenc Puskás. But what seemed certain was that the world's greatest player was no longer active, in which refreshing respect football differed from golf, tennis, athletics, swimming, snooker, darts and doubtless lots of sports that come less readily to mind.

We are repeatedly told that we live in the age of the greatest. Even some cricket enthusiasts, who would once have greeted with loud disdain the idea that anyone other than the late Sir Donald Bradman could be considered the finest batsman of all time, have started to whisper that the game's present-day genius, Sachin Tendulkar, might be, you know, better.

As for football, Pele's seemingly inviolable claim to all the superlatives has been threatened by the performances for FC Barcelona of the little Argentinian Lionel Messi, whose four goals in the Champions League evisceration of Arsenal on Tuesday have kindled a genuine debate. Read it in the papers, hear it on the phone-ins: Messi is not only the greatest footballer currently playing, might he also be the greatest ever?

It is peculiar, this compulsion to anoint modern sports stars the greatest there has ever been, the more so when, like Messi, their careers are still far from finished. Maybe we do it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. It's comforting to share oxygen with so many of the greatest in the history of the world; it makes us feel that we have come along at the right time. And we seize on sport because we know we can't plausibly say the same of many other areas of human endeavour. Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Socrates, Leonardo, Chekhov, Homer, Dickens, Picasso; they've got all those other centuries sewn up. Conveniently, sport offers fewer eras to choose from.

Even so, here and now in 2010, our disproportionate number of greatest-ever sporting stars doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. True, the stopwatch doesn't lie, but it pays no heed of massive advances in fitness training, equipment technology, nutrition, medical care, even clothing, all the paraphernalia of professionalism. Would Roger Federer have beaten Rod Laver with a wooden racket? How would Tiger Woods, who at the US Masters today embarks on what we are predictably assured is the most breathlessly anticipated round of golf in history, have fared with the hickory-shafted clubs of 100 years ago? The venerable BBC commentator Peter Alliss told me recently that he thinks the greatest golfers of all were the men plying their trade in the early years of the last century, men like Harry Vardon, James Braid and Abe Mitchell, who shot scores not all that different from those posted today with equipment that now belongs on the Antiques Roadshow.

Of course, not all sports yield "the greatest ever", even with this skewed sense of our own historical importance. Sugar Ray Robinson, Lester Pigott, Gareth Edwards, Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Juan Manuel Fangio, even Michael Jordan, all belong to bygone eras. But so many apparently do that we have to ask ourselves a question: are we the most deluded generation of sports fans of all time?