Everyone knows that Zinedine Zidane is one of the all-time greats to ever step on the pitch. During his time with the Galacticos, he also played alongside some of the world's greatest, suiting up with Ronaldo, Luís Figo, Roberto Carlos, Raúl and David Beckham. So when Zizou says that someone is the best player in the world, we should certainly respect that opinion.
After watching his former club get demolished 4-0 at Anfield, Zizou noted:
“Is he the best in the world? He might not get the attention of Messi and Ronaldo but yes, I think he just might be...For many years, Patrick [Vieira] was the most complete midfielder in the world and now that award must go to Gerrard. No team will be successful without a heartbeat and you can see Gerrard is that heartbeat."
Obviously arguments can be made for Messi, Ronaldo, or others whom Zizou did not mention (poor Kaka), but the striking thing about this statement is how it reflects (or doesn't) fans' thinking about what constitutes "the greatest player."
All professional sports have a version of an MVP trophy, and some have numerous awards which generally honor similar accomplishments. In footy, we have the FIFA POY (voted on by captains and coaches of international teams), the Ballon d'Or (which is restricted to the "best" player in any European league), and the Golden Boot (which is for leading goal-scorer in any European league). At varying times, the winner of any of these awards has been referred to as "the best player in the world."
But, as with American sports, is the winner of an MVP trophy (or something similar) equivalent to "the best player in the world" or do they reflect different notions? In the NBA, for example, there is debate almost every year about whether the league MVP is truly the greatest basketball player, or just the one who has achieved the greatest individual success. Can an MVP play on a losing team, or at the very least on a team that does not make the finals or win its division? Few people complained last year when Kobe Bryant won the award due largely to the fact that, despite not leading the NBA in any statistical category, he was an NBA All-Star, NBA First-Teamer, NBA Defensive First-Teamer, and led that LA Lakers to the NBA Finals. There had been much more consternation when Kevin Garnett won the MVP in the 2002-2003 season with fairly similar statistics after leading the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals, perhaps because Minnesota had a poor history of playoff performance.
The uproar was even greater when Steve Nash won the MVP trophy in the 2004-2005 season and repeated the feat in the 2005-2006 season (and almost took the award again the next year). Was it because Nash is Canadian (although he was actually born in South Africa)? After all, he was an NBA All-Star and NBA First-Teamer, averaged a double-double, and led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals in both of those seasons. No, it was because Nash, despite being declared one of the Top 10 point guards to ever play in the NBA, was not often "showy" when making all of his teammates better. Just like Steven Gerrard.
Stevie G has won almost no individual awards throughout his long and distinguished career. He took home the UEFA Club Player of the Year in the 2004-2005 season (hey, Nash won the MVP that season!), and was the Professional Footballer's Association POY in the 2005-2006 season (same as Nash again). And other than the 2005 Champions League Final victory over Milan, he has not seen the greatest heights of success with either club or country. He has scored over 60 goals (in over 300 appearances) for Liverpool in EPL play and 14 goals (in 70 apperances) for the England senior team in international play, but has failed to win the EPL, a World Cup, or a Euro tournament. In short, Steven Gerrard is Steven Nash.
But then what makes someone like Zidane say that Stevie G is the best player in the world? Watch Liverpool play and notice how Gerrard controls the midfield (much as Zizou in his day), shifting his teammates into position, always talking (occasionally having too much to say to the referee), always probing the opposition's defense. Notice how when he has the ball within 35 yards of goal everyone in the stadium, including the opposing defenders, seem to hold their breath waiting for a bit of magic. Notice how respected he is by teammates and opponents alike (generally), and how he is treated as an ambassador of the game (setting aside a few missteps).
Now all of this may sound strange coming from a Gunner (and a Frenchman), considering the subject. But the truth is that, outside of Arsenal and most of those who have played for Les Bleus, there are few players that I like and respect more than Steven Gerrard (and Michael Owen, as well). Perhaps the fact that I have overcome my natural aversion to someone who plays for England and one of the other "Top 4" is the best compliment yet for Stevie G.
Well, that and what Zidane said.