The GOAT debate: Perception vs stat-machines

Two legends of their respective generations – Tendulkar and Bradman

If sports were just about winning, there would be no debate; if sports were about numbers alone, there would be no debate either; and, if sports were all about majoritarian perception, there would be little to no debate again, but unfortunately sports and the quantification of greatness are an amalgamation of these.

Different people have different reasons for their choice of the Greatest Of All Time, and hence there is always room for debate and the ensuing battle between representatives of all camps.

We take a look at three different sports here, Test cricket, basketball and football, and draw a comparison between the one touted to be the greatest, and the stat leader of the most important stat in the sport.

Test cricket

Perception: Sir Don Bradman

Stat-leader: Sachin Tendulkar

There is no questioning the fact that these two will always remain legends of the game, despite having played in two extremely diverse eras. One’s most popular record has survived the test of decades already, while the other’s relatively recently set records in Test cricket seem to be rather unreachable for the current crop.

The fact that they are greats of the game needs no justification, however, the GOAT debate has now lingered for a while. Given India’s population and prevalent cricket frenzy, one might lean towards Sachin being the popular choice, but a look at popular global perception and surveys would suggest otherwise.

While there were things on the pitch no other man except the Don could do, Sachin’s longevity and everlasting purple patch are things that no other human has managed yet. Bradman once scored 300 runs in a single day, Sachin hit 51 Test centuries. Bradman had an average of 99.94, Sachin played 200 matches and scored more than 15,000 runs.

They were both diminutive yet explosive, and extremely likeable characters both on and off the pitch. Sachin is the ideal choice for a statistician’s favourite, but if there had to be ‘one’ GOAT, we know who that is.

Here is a statistical comparison between the two:

Don BradmanSachin Tendulkar


Highest Score334248*


Perception: Michael Jordan

Stat-leader: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan were influential figures in both their teams

This probably is one of the most understated debates in sporting histories. We all know what popular perception says, ‘His Airness’ Michael Jordan is probably the most established GOAT in team sport history. I am not implying that he hasn’t done enough to earn that honour, but the question is, have others done enough to challenge that notion. Has no NBA player done enough on the hardwood to challenge Jordan’s legacy as the unanimous GOAT in NBA lore.

Enter Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: the man who finished second only to Jordan in ESPN’s assessment of the greatest NBA players ever. However the podium is as lopsided as it gets, after all, how many people put Kareem right up there with Jordan in the barometer of greatness.

They have both won 6 NBA championships, Kareem has one more regular season MVP award than Jordan (6 v/s 5), they’ve both been scoring champions; Kareem has led the league in rebounding and blocks while Jordan has been a steals leader; there is very little that separates them statistically.

That being said, there are two large differences between the all-time points leader and ‘His Airness’ himself: their teammates and Finals’ performance. While Kareem had the luxury to play with another generational talent ‘Magic’ Johnson and the likes of James Worthy, Jordan played with another two-way stud Scottie Pippen. This may rile the Pippen fanbase, but he was no Magic.

In terms of Finals' performance, there are two key indicators. Michael Jordan never lost an NBA Finals, Kareem did. In his 6 trips to the Finals, Jordan was MVP, every single time; Kareem on the other hand, has been Finals MVP on only two occasions out of the six times that his team lifted the title.

Here is a look at Kareem’s and Jordan’s numbers and achievements:

Michael JordanKareem Abdul-Jabbar
NBA Titles/Finals Appearances6/66/10
Season MVP56
Finals MVP62


Perception: Diego Maradona

Stat-leader: Pele

Maradona and Pele were from two different eras but often get compared to each other

This is one for the ages. If you thought picking one between Messi and Ronaldo was difficult, well, let’s make it more difficult for you. Maradona, the ‘Golden Boy’ of Argentine football, and Pele, the man who made the ‘beautiful game’ so much more joyful to watch, were two contrasting personalities, both on and off the pitch. They played across different eras, but in football lore, they’re the inseparable yin and yang, the representatives of two very different schools of thought, and yet the embodiment of the range of what football is all about.

Maradona won the popular vote for the footballer of the century only to be ‘told’ before the ceremony that Pele was ‘also’ the winner based on the Grand Jury’s selection. Maradona, not known to be the humblest of the lot, took his award and left.

Maradona almost single-‘handedly’ brought laurels to Napoli and Argentina, something Pele could never claim considering the teams he played in. Even when Maradona guided the Argentines to victory at the 1986 World Cup, he was the only player from his country to be selected for the All-Star team of tournament. Pele on the other hand had multiple compatriots in such teams that he featured in.

Maradona may not have found the back of the net as many times as Pele did, but he was the more gifted playmaker. Most remarkably, along with winning the Silver Shoe at the 1986 World Cup with 5 goals, Diego Maradona was also the assists leader with 5 assists to his name.

Comparisons apart, Pele was one of, if not ‘the’ most prolific goal scorer the sport has ever seen. With more than a 1,000 goals to his name (including friendlies he played for Santos), Pele was a goal machine like no other. He has won more World Cups than Maradona and was inarguably the more likeable of the two.

The GOAT debate in football could possibly be resolved by only two men now, one who goes by the name of Lionel Messi, the other, Cristiano Ronaldo!

A look at Maradona’s and Pele’s Stats:

International Appearances9191
International Goals3477
Club Appearances491694
Club Goals259650

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Edited by Staff Editor
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