"He's a legend."
That phrase used to mean something. "Legend" used to be reserved only for the special few who truly earned the status. Nowadays, it feels like it's thrown around to anyone. Apparently, there are legends everywhere.
The title of "legend" has become devalued. It has become overused. And it has become confused. There's not one clear definition of a "legend"; there are many, most of which are subjective.
Put simply, nobody knows what the heck constitutes a legend anymore.
So let's try to give the status back some of the significance it once had. Let us make absolutely clear, once again, what makes a legend.
Two Types of Legends
I'll admit, at first, it was really hard to find a consistent set of requirements for what makes a legend. Whenever I thought I'd finally nailed down the qualities that made up a legend, I'd think of a player to shatter those requirements.
But then I realised that the answer lies in the question itself. After thinking about all of the commonly mentioned legends (Bergkamp, Maradona, Henry, Pele etc), I realised that there's not just one type of legend, but two.
There are club or country legends, and there are football legends (from now on I'll just replace club or country with just club for sake of typing)
To really answer the question, it's important to understand the subtle difference between the two types of legends.
Club Legends are legends at club or country level. They're what many people think of nowadays when they're talking about a "legend".
Not all club legends need to have won titles at their club. Robbie Fowler is undoubtedly a legend at Liverpool, but he never won a major trophy with them.
Not many club legends need to have been exceptionally loyal too. Carlos Tevez is now a legend at West Ham, after single-handedly saving them from relegation. But he was only at the club for a season. Roberto Baggio played for several clubs in his career. So did Romario, Zico, Ruud Gullit, and Gheorghe Hagi; all legends at club level.
Some club legends may have had great character, but some were rotten. Rivaldo is a huge Brazilian legend, but everyone remembers his fake collapse against Turkey.
But the key thing that ALL club Legends needed to do was achieve something special at their club, or for their country.
That something special could range from being one of the most talented players ever at that club or country, to being influential in winning a major title not won in many years or for the first time, to being one of the club or country's top goalscorer, all the way to making the most appearances ever at a club.
As long as it was something special.
For example, the following players are club legends because they did special things at their club or country. Thierry Henry became Arsenal's top goalscorer of all time. Eric Cantona inspired United to their first Premiership trophy for 25 years. Through his brilliance, Roberto Baggio led Italy to the 1994 World Cup Final. Romario is one of Brazil's most prolific strikers. Paolo Maldini lifted the European Champions League five times with AC Milan. Bobby Charlton helped Manchester United to their first ever Champions League (then, European Cup) victory. Ryan Giggs has made the most appearances in the history of Man United. Alan Shearer is Newcastle United's record goalscorer.
These players are legends in their own right. For me, they epitomize a club legend.
Legends of Football
But club legends are not what we used to call legends. When I asked "What makes a legend?", I was actually asking about what makes the old type of legend: the legends of football.
Football legends are not just legends on club level. They have legendary status at an even greater level—at football level.
Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Pele, Michel Platini, Ronaldo (you know which one), and Zinedine Zidane are football legends.
They are elevated from club legends, because not only did they achieve special things at their club or country, they also became the greatest contributors to football.
They reached a technical level that would become the standard for future generations. They introduced new ideas and concepts never known before to the game. They became one of the greatest ever in their position; whether that was defender, midfielder, or goalscorer.
They epitomized a style of football or player. They achieved unmatchable things in football. Most of them were also great men, the pinnacle of a professional sportsman.
But, above all, they are the very few (and there should only be a very few) legends who had the greatest of ability, changing the game simply through their brilliance.
And, at least in my eyes, that's what it takes to be called a legend of football.
P.S. That's why Cristiano Ronaldo is not a football legend, unless he is going to be a legend for his contribution to diving in football. I wouldn't even call him a club legend yet, because whilst he may have achieved at the club, his character and loyalty are so unbelievably, that it brings him down from that status.
This article was inspired by the question posed by Stefan Vasilev's article, "What Does it Take to be Called a Legend of Football?"