Individual awards in a team game like football is ridiculous, a clear attempt to cash in on Oscar fever. While it is relatively easy to be somewhat objective about “the best” in sports (as opposed to say literature or film), it is not foolproof, even in direct competition. When judging the comparative merits of individual players, you might as well admit that it is largely based on opinion and taste–and hype. Although football position are more fluid than those in other sports, players still very clear duties. As such, when talking about “the greatest individual player,” this usually means attacking players. Defenders and goalkeeper (or defensive midfielders) get little love and respect in comparison to the scoring greats.
The team and the star player cannot function without one another, although this is often forgotten. The team requires the individual to be brilliant, while the individual relies on the team to let him be brilliant. No one player illustrates this symbiosis better than Lionel Messi; he is (unless you work for a Madrid-based tabloid or English sports commentary) far and away the best player of his generation. Depending on who is praising him, he is the greatest since Zidane, the greatest since Maradona, or the greatest ever. (Or if you live in Madrid, you might grudgingly concede that he is currently the second-best player after Cristiano Ronaldo.) No matter where Messi plays he would probably be the greatest player on his team. All that is missing from his resume is major international team success (i.e. the World Cup).
Yet, Messi would not be the player that he is today without Barcelona–or more accurately, without the other players of Barcelona. The IX on the field work in tandem to create a machine (a Máquina as it were) unlike any that football has ever seen. Even the Spanish National Team, great as it is, is a lesser reflection of Barcelona–primarily because Messi plays for Argentina. Messi is a magician; Messi is a wizard; Messi is a genius. Messi is not however, his team’s playmaker. That is what separates Messi from Maradona. Messi does not take lesser teams, put them on his shoulders, and will them to victory. The reason for that is because in playing for Barcelona he has not had to.
Xavi is the playmaker on the team. Until recently, Xavi has been the under appreciated workhorse of Barcelona. In the last two years, he has become increasingly recognized as the spark that ignites the machine. He passes, passes, passes, and passes some more–rarely scoring goals himself, but laying the groundwork to ensure that one his teammates (usually Messi) does. Xavi took over the Guardiola position and, under Guardiola’s tutelage, shaped it into his own.
I bring this up because the Ballon d’Or, which was given to Messi today for the second straight time, is perhaps the most egregious example of failing to recognize what makes Barcelona (and football) great. It is possible to distinguish but not to sever Messi from Xavi from Iniesta from Villa from Valdés from Piqué from Puyol, etc., etc., etc. Messi is the face of the team, and surely his teammates know they play with one of the all-time greats, but it is Barcelona that lets Messi be Messi–Argentina is the proof of that. Tiki-taka is the style that Messi was trained in since he was 13. For all his brilliant individuality, his individuality is second to the team play. Unlike certain other superstars, Messi has no problem passing instead of scoring. In fact, I would not be surprised if Messi was bemused by his win.
This year for the first time the Ballon d’Or was combined with the FIFA World Player of the Year. All three finalists were graduates of Barcelona’s storied academy La Masia. Two of the three finalists, Xavi and Iniesta, were integral to Spain’s victory at the World Cup with Iniesta scored Spain’s winning goal in the final. In World Cup years, the winner of the Ballon d’Or and the World Player of the Year almost always comes from the World Cup winning side.* This year, the trend was bucked in a most extravagant way. Not only could Messi’s two teammates claim a better year, any player from Inter Milan, Wesley Sneijder especially, could convincingly argue that they had far more a successful 2010 than Messi. Unlike the Netherlands’ Johan Cryuff, who won the 1974 Ballon d’Or over Franz Beckenbauer, Messi’s Argentina neither reached the final of the World Cup nor set the tournament alight with its innovative style. The most notable thing about Argentina 2010 was Maradona, both for his unwittingly sabotage of the national team and for his embarrassing displays of his Maradona-ness on the sidelines. (In defense of Messi, he did not actually have a bad World Cup. Given Argentina’s top-to-bottom tactical failings and the fact that every opponent’s primary goal was “Shut Down Messi,” he had actually had a rather good tournament.)
So Messi won, and Cristiano Ronaldo is no doubt trying hard to swallow back his bile. But I am not sure what to make of this award. If it is for the best player in the world bar none, then yes Messi deserves it. But if it is for the player who had the best year, which it traditionally has been, then Xavi (or maybe even Iniesta) deserved it more. If it was for recognition of Barcelona’s greatness, then it should have been a 3-way tie.
What is most interesting about this year’s awards, although I am positive that this is not FIFA’s intention, is that it shows the growing unimportance of the World Cup. The winner of the player’s award was not on the World Cup winning side. The winner of the coach’s award (Jose Mourinho, who deservedly won it for his treble with Inter) was also not the World Cup winner. The World Cup, while still a spectacle, is not as respected as it once way because the international game is rapidly losing prestige due to globalization, the influx of money into the game, and the dominance of the superclubs.
Running through the other awards that I have not yet mentioned:
Marta waltzed to yet another victory (her 5th in a row–take that, Platini!), and it is difficult to argue with that. With the glaring exception of the Olympics and the World Cup, she has won everything there is to win (proof that the individual alone cannot win tournaments when the team is not fully functional.) This year she dominated the WPS as FC Gold Pride ran over all competition en route to a title–and then promptly folded. She won the MVP award and the Golden Boot. Currently Marta is playing for the Santos women’s team, just in case you had the audacity to forget that she is the Pelé of the women’s game!!!! Most likely, this is a way for Marta to play with and against other Brazilians (women who may be her teammates at this year’s Women’s World Cup), given that the Brazilian squad will probably not play a competitive match until their first round in Germany.
And now for the award that I don’t understand at all, which is the women’s coach award. Silvia Neid, the coach of the German women’s national team won it over Maren Meinert, the coach of the German women’s U-20 side and Pia Sundhage, the coach of the USWNT. Now, I have nothing against Neid; she has done a great job with the German team, but what did she actually do this year that was special? At least Meinert won the U-20 World Cup, and Sundhage’s USWNT beat Neid’s Germany at the Algarve Cup. Furthermore, the USWNT is currently FIFA’s top ranked team (for what it’s worth.) This year FC Gold Pride won the WPS, Santos won the 2010 Copa Libertadores de Fútbol Femenino, 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam won the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and South Korea won the U-17 World Cup. Therefore, all of the coaches of these sides had a more successful year than Neid (and arguably Sundhage), and were not even considered. It’s almost as if FIFA wasn’t watching the women’s game. Try to look shocked.
The World IX is solid and unsurprising. It’s a 4-3-3 and Spain/La Liga/Barcelona heavy: Casillas, Maicon, Lúcio, Puyol, Piqué, Sneijder, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, C. Ronaldo.
The Puskás award was given to Hamit Altintop of Turkey and Bayern for an amazing goal that he scored for the national team against the powerhouse that is Kazakhstan. If I cared more about this award I am sure I would say something, but I don’t so I won’t.
The FIFA Fair Play Award went to the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team for what I can only guess is existing after the earthquake. I wonder if there is money attached to this award because that is what Haiti and this team really need.
The FIFA Presidential Award was given to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his scoring a terrific goal against Nelson Mandela.
* This actually needs to be explained a little bit. The Ballon d’Or used to be a European player award, meaning it was available only to European players at European clubs. When a European nation won the World Cup, the Ballon d’Or winner was (with the exception of Cruyff in 1974) from the World Cup winning side. When the World Cup was won by a South American nation, then that year’s Ballon d’Or was a free for all. In 1995 it was opened up to all players who played for European clubs regardless of national origin. Prior to this year, the FIFA World Player of the Year was always won in World Cup years by a player from the World Cup winning side.
Music I listened to while writing this: NPR Interview with Eric Johnson.