Soccer / Revenge of the Statisticians

British association rates the top 100 players, but stats don't touch soccer's soul.

Next month the Association of Football Statisticians will publish a book daring to identify the 100 best soccer players of all time. The statisticians looked only at objective data and ignored the opinions of commentators or players. It's just numbers - goals, titles, national team appearances, saves, etc. They created a formula for comparing the collective data.

The world's all-time greatest in the eyes of many - Pele - may be No. 1 statistically, but you'd be surprised to hear that Maradona is only sixth.

If it doesn't make sense, note that he's preceded by Brazil's Ronaldo and Romario, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. What's more humiliating is that he's not one of the four strikers on the all-time starting 11.

The more one looks at it, the more it looks like a joke by the statisticians. Ferenc Puskas, considered one of the greatest of all-time; Johan Cruyff, three-time winner of the Golden Ball; and Alfredo di Stefano, rated among the top five in most polls, only made it to numbers 20, 21 and 22, respectively.

Well, that's what happens when only numbers count. Iran's Ali Daei scored a record 109 international goals in 159 games, mostly against ephemeral Asian squads, netting him 26th place on the list. That counts for much more, for example, than the 1982 World Cup goals of Italy's Paolo Rossi (43rd place). This contrast shows how the list is a joke, as absurd as a favorite story about the statistician who drowned in a pool with an average depth of 15 centimeters.

The list could either amuse or annoy, depending on the reader. Australian Archie Thompson, who scored 13 goals against American Samoa a few years back, might be insulted - he didn't get in at all. No matter how you look at it, though, it doesn't make sense. Would you include Sylvain Wiltord? I wouldn't. Even if you did, would you put him in front of the likes of Michael Owen, Roberto Baggio, Emilio Butragueno, Hugo Sanchez and Franco Baresi? Come on, really.

It may make sense that 10 Manchester United players made it, from Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson to Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, but when Gary Neville is put at No. 86 among the best in the world - not in England or among defensive players - it's ridiculous.

And who didn't make it from Manchester United? None other than one described as the most exciting British player in history, one Pele called "The most talented player of all-time". Georgie Best did not make the list because he's not suited to statistics. That's no longer funny, just embarrassing.

The association means well, of course, but it ultimately fails in this endeavor. This writer is none other than a statistics freak who majored in the subject at Hebrew University. Thus, I take the liberty poking fun at statisticians. But I also remember Mark Twain's observation: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

Folks, this isn't basketball, baseball or cricket, which can be quantified. This sport is where the soul talks and the heart listens, where one enjoys the beauty and loves the technique. 16th place Zico never won a World Cup, while 10th place Cafu won twice, but only idiots could rate Cafu higher.

Poets and artists will take part in the next survey, and maybe ordinary fans who understand the game's soul will join, too. Then it will be more balanced.