Humans have been comparing things for years.
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" asked GSCE textbook regular William Shakespeare in his 18th sonnet.
It was, the medieval bard found, tough to do. For a start, "Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
Whatever else the subject of this compliment felt at being described as 'temperate' we'll never know. But one thing is for sure, it's tricky to draw allusions between different objects in the world.
The same is true in football. Take that other genius, Kevin De Bruyne. When asked to compare himself to Mohamed Salah in the run up to the Player of the Year Award ceremony, he was fairly pragmatic about the difficulty of the task.
“To compare us, I don't know. With the statistics how are we going to compare ourselves? It's totally different, I played [against Everton] like a defensive midfielder, how you can compare me to an inside forward? I have no idea."
Messi vs Salah
On Tuesday night, I did something I don't usually do: I made a social media comment about a goal.
As a rule, I try to avoid 'stating the obvious' tweets but after Mohamed Salah shaped the ball high and wide of Alisson in the Roma goal, depositing the ball into the net by means of a delicious ping off the bar, I couldn't hold myself back.
"More like Woah Salah amirite?", I tweeted.
But I had no other response. I was genuinely gob-smacked and so a serious treatment of the goal seemed all too obvious. By making light of it, it seemed able to do justice to what had just happened.
One of the other players for whom this sort of irreverent response seems like the only option is Lionel Messi. And so it was only a matter of time before the comparisons came in.
Steven Gerrard, no less, came out after the game and declared, 'It’s difficult to compare him to your Ronaldos and Messis because they’ve done it for so long and consistently year in year out.
"But without a shadow of a doubt, he’s the best player on the planet right now.'
Gerrard is right. It's difficult to compare Mohamed Salah to 'your Cristiano Ronaldos'.
But not simply because of their histories. Salah and Ronaldo feel like intrinsically different players. You don't see Ronaldo scoring the goal that Salah opened the scoring with against Roma just as you don't see Salah scoring the overhead kick that Ronaldo scored against Juventus.
Messi and Salah, though, seem like a more obvious comparison. They are both on the shorter end of the spectrum, they are both left-footed, they both create and score goals in similar ways.
Across the media, this admission is obvious. A quick Google search confirms as much. Football media outlets are comparing Messi with Salah and not Ronaldo.
This offers a slight caveat to idea of comparing footballers. As Kevin De Bruyne points out, 'how do you compare players who frequent different positions?'
Player of the Year
This raises questions of the very possibility of a Player of the Year Award in the first place?
By what metric can you compare goalkeepers, defenders, midfielder and forwards, let alone the various permutations within these categories?
Do you pick Mohamed Salah because of his goal-scoring successes this season? Do you pick Kevin De Bruyne because of his importance within a Manchester City team that has steamrollered its way through the Premier League this season?
Obviously, attacking players are going to have a headstart when it comes to winning such awards. With the exception of N'Golo Kante who won the award in 2017, you have to go back to 2005 to find another player who wasn't a forward: John Terry.
Are we just to admit that all such ventures are entirely subjective and must, therefore, be taken with a pinch of salt.
More to it?
But there is something more to it, isn't there? There is, if not an objectivity, a reality behind these attempts to speak in terms of the greatest player.
'They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel,' wrote Carl W. Buehner in 1971.
Tweaking the quote to make it more applicable to football, you might say 'They may forget your stats — but they will never forget how you made them feel.'
What unites these litanies of the 'world's greatest player' is the fact that there is something about the way these players make us feel that differentiates them from their peers.
On Tuesday night, Mohamed Salah joined the ranks of these greats. He made us feel. And for that, he deserves to be entered into the conversation about the world's greatest.
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