Good Bye, Pep

Pep Guardiola has announced that he will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.  This is not a shock; in fact, I would have been surprised if he had chosen to stay.  He seems completely drained, and he needs to recharge his battery.   That will not happen at Barcelona.

So, I wish you much success wherever you go and whatever you do next, Pep.  You brought Barcelona its greatest period of glory, and you will always be a legend.  A toast to you, Pep; you deserve it.

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Spanish Fly

When I first started following football, the English Premier League was on top the world.  Most of the best players played in the EPL, and English clubs dominated the Champions League.  Three of the four would regularly appears in the Champions League semifinals.  This culminated in the 2008 Moscow final when Manchester United beat Chelsea.

That final, it turned out, was the beginning of the end for EPL dominance.  In hindsight the change came a couple of months later when a Xavi-led (and Raul-less) Spain won the 2008 Euro in spectacular fashion.  Around the same time, Barcelona’s coach Frank Rijkaard was sacked.  This ushered in the Pep Guardiola era, and the rest is history.

As Barcelona won trophies at an unprecedented rate, its eternal enemy Real Madrid got very jealous and scared and did what it always does when faced with a problem: throw money at it.  Madrid acquired arguably the best player in Italy (Kaka) and the best player in England (Cristiano Ronaldo) and when buying expensive players wasn’t enough, Madrid got the man who the media claim is the best coach in the world (Jose Mourinho).  Barcelona for their part doubled down on their Cruyffian philosophy and put more energy into the youth academy system with the occasional purchase, both good (e.g., Sanchez, Fabregas, Villa) and bad (e.g., Ibrahimovic, Chygrynskiy, Hleb).

As the arms race between Barcelona and Madrid escalates to an almost nuclear level, it is unquestionable that the best two teams in the world are in Spain (save for the occasional “Tuesday night in Stoke” comment, the other remark that Andy Gray will never live down).  In denial fans of the EPL tried a new tactic to prove how superior their league is.  It goes something like this, “Well maybe there are two great teams in Spain, but the rest are lousy, so it’s really just the Scottish league on steroids, and therefore boring.”  Even people who should have known better (I’m looking at you, Sid Lowe), repeated this fiction as though it were gospel.

As it turns out, this year’s two European competitions have completely undercut this argument.  Yes, Barcelona and Madrid are still the best of the best, but it turns out that the rest of Spain isn’t all that bad either.  Advancing to the semifinals of the Europa League today were Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Athletic Bilbao.  The latter club beat up on Manchester United in the last round in thrilling, Barcelona-esque fashion.  Who knew that Athletic could do that?  Certainly not the English.

So to recap, in this year’s two European competition, five of the eight remaining clubs are Spanish, the top four players in the world play in Spain, eight of the top 20 players in the world play for Barcelona, the defending Champions League and World Club Cup champion is from Spain, the Euro and World Cup champion is Spain, Spain is the top ranked nation in the FIFA rankings, and very shortly it will be the top ranked national league according to the UEFA coefficient.

Maybe Barcelona and Madrid rule the roost, but right now the also-rans in Spain are superior to the best of everywhere else.

Messi-anic

From a sporting perspective I have lived in a very fortunate era.  At the time when I was aware enough to recognize greatness some of the greatest athletes of all time have lived and played, and I was able to see them in their primes: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Steffi Graf (alas, I just missed Martina at her peak), Michelle Kwan, Michelle Akers, Marta, Michael Phelps, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and Lionel Messi.  There may be more; this is not an exhaustive list, and I cannot follow every sport.

To an extent this is a natural progression, every generation of athletes improves upon the previous one, particularly with regard to skill development and training.  Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that.  Even so, the people I named tower over their sports, and their feats will not be easily forgotten (or surpassed) just because time has gone by.

Today Lionel Messi score five goals in a 7-1 trouncing of Bayer Leverkusen at the Camp Nou.  This is the first time that anyone anywhere in any time period scored that many goals at this stage of the Champions League or its predecessor the European Cup (the first time ever in the Champions League).  Not DiStefano, Puskas, Eusebio, Best, Cruyff, Muller, Platini, Maradona, van Basten, Romario, Ronaldo, Zidane, Ronaldinho, or Cristiano Ronaldo.  Pele, of course, never played in Europe.

Goals alone are not an indication of greatness, and Messi plays for arguably the finest side of all time, a side that took over two decades of crafting before the finished jewel could emerge.  Messi is neither the captain nor the engine of the team, but Messi is something else.  He is the personification of Barcelona’s greatness.  It is like he is divinely touched, as though he were created only to play football.  After today’s victory, one of the Spanish newspapers (one of the pro-Barcelona papers, naturally) said that he was not a footballer, he is an extraterrestrial.

Every time you think that you have seen the best of Messi, he surprises you with a completely new level.  It’s enough to make you weep with joy that you have been privileged to see such a player play.  The Argentinians cannot understand what they have although the Catalans rejoice in it.  The World Cup is not necessary to complete Messi’s legacy (teams win tournaments, not individuals), but I do hope he does win one eventually.  If only because only then will Messi’s countrymen finally embrace that the greatest player of all time is one of their own. Imagine the joy if Messi’s Argentina won the World Cup in Brazil.  The Church of Maradona would add a second deity.

After Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, he was asked if he thought of himself as the best player in the world.  He laughed and said that he wasn’t even the best player on his own team.  He was talking about Messi, who was still a teenager at the time.  To an outsider that seemed an incredible claim, but at the Camp Nou, they all knew what they had, and they guarded it jealously.  Now the rest of the world knows what the Catalans did.  Messi is not just of this generation; he belongs to the ages.  We will tell our grandchildren that we saw Messi play.  And they will envy us.

Please Don’t Go, Pep!

Now that André Villas-Boas has been sacked, Chelsea is looking for a new manager.  Again.

I never quite understood why Villas-Boas went to Chelsea to begin with.  Well, obviously I do understand; money talks.  But at the time he signed I felt like Villas-Boas was shooting himself in the foot.  Had he stayed at Porto, he would have gotten some Champions League experience, and probably another league title.  Chelsea paid better and was higher-profile, but there were far too many pitfalls.  If the England manager is a poison chalice, than how much worse is Chelsea manager?  Not only do you have to deal with the press and the inflated expectations to win everything, you also have no time to settle in before someone is calling for your head–even when you are winning.  On top of that the players control the locker room, and really who wants to be subservient to a loathsome human being like John Terry?  Then there is the shadow figure of Roman Abramovich who expects nothing less than total domination in England–a feat that may be more and more unlikely as Manchester City can now match him dollar for dollar–and the Champions League.  Above all there is the memory of José Mourinho.  It’s unfair of course, Mourinho never won the Champions League at Chelsea either (and lest we forget, Mourinho was also sacked), but Mourinho brought Chelsea to heights it had never before scaled and has yet to attain again–even if Chelsea actually did won the League/Cup double under Carlo Ancelotti.

Villas-Boas definitely did himself no favors, and as the pressure ratcheted up on all sides, he cracked.  A deity in Porto and a laughingstock in London.  It’s almost Shakespearean in tragic scope.

So now Abramovich is looked for a new manager and his eye is firmly fixed on Spain, at least if we are to believe the British press.  Mourinho’s name is being thrown around, which is not a surprise given his (inevitable) unhappiness in Madrid and the fact that his name is always thrown around whenever Chelsea need a new manager.  Rafa Benitez has also been mentioned, which boggles the mind given (1) how long ago his success was, and (2) he much of a buffoonish figure he has become.

But for me, the most alarming name mentioned is Pep Guardiola who has (again) been hedging about signing a new contract for Barcelona.  Guardiola is the best manager Barcelona ever had.  In not fully four seasons he won 13 of a possible 16 titles, and possibly could have won more if not for an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland.  He is the epitome of the Barcelona system; he grew up in the academy, played for the first team, captained the team, managed Barcelona B, managed Barcelona proper, and is now the city’s most favored son.  Pep Guardiola is Barcelona.

Managing Barcelona is not easy.  It has aged Guardiola very rapidly.  No doubt Guardiola is also a man aware of history.  While I wouldn’t agree, there are so many pundits who believe that if Guardiola wants to be considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, he has to go and coach and win at another club, and in another league.  Additionally, the Alex Ferguson type manager, the man who spends decades at one club as an absolute authority, is not really a viable model anymore.  If Guardiola wants to go, I wish him the best. And thus my open letter to Pep Guardiola.

Dear Pep,

If you choose to leave Barcelona, may the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.  May sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.  You’ve given so much, Pep.  You’ve turned this Barcelona team into possibly history’s greatest side.  I want you to stay, but if you feel like you’ve given all you could, then no one can ask for more than that.

But don’t go to Chelsea.  I’m thinking about you, Pep.  The Barcelona backroom may be bad, but how much worse is Chelsea where you have no allies, only the whims of Roman Abramovich?  At Barcelona the players are devoted to you, and those who are not are traded.  At Chelsea, a few over-the-hill players rule the roost.  Terry, Lampard, Drogba, they run Chelsea, not the manager.  And they won’t let you do anything to jeopardize them.  You saw Raul at Madrid and you know about Totti at Roma.  Imagine three of them instead of one.  The team needs an overhaul, and there is no La Masia production line to provide replacements.  You only have the transfer market, and no recent additions will replace the unholy trinity in the fans’ eyes.

Barcelona has aged you, but Chelsea will kill you.  Please don’t go, Pep!  Please stay, but if you can’t stay, go somewhere else where you will be the boss.  You are not some title collector like Mourinho; you are an architect and a builder.  You create, you mold, you shape, and football is all the better for it.

Pep, whatever you choose to do is fine by me.  But for your sake, please don’t be tempted by Abramovich’s money.  Look at Villas-Boas; he was on the verge of greatness, and now his career is in tatters.  I’m thinking only of you, Pep.

Sincerely,

Solitary Muser

Another Day, Another Clásico

Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.

For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal.  And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead.  The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins.  The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field.  It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate).  Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss.  At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses.  (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.)  Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.

Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season.  Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league.  Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible).  The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.

Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry.  It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou.  The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals.  Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.

On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!”  The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards.  Too many draws.  Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won.  No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces.  Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it.  Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans.  This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down.  Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner.  When Madrid shut down the  Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.

(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol.  In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them.  In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws.  It’s pretty incredible.  Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)

This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona.  Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou).  Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.

Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona.  But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse  Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season.  At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat.  He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies.  He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play.  And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving.  Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking.  So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.

Mourinho’s response was fascinating.  His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.  His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else.  At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this.  The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.”  On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager.  On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss.  It’s unfair.”  If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility.  Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know.  I claim no neutrality.  I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good.  I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.

Footnotes: 

* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League.  Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts:  (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago.  (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans.  (3)  So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are.  (4)  The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality.  For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years.  So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.

** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost.  The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing.  I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot.  For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.

The Lionel Messi Award For Excellence In the Field Of Being Lionel Messi Goes To Lionel Messi

Are you shocked?  If you are then you clearly have never watched football in your life.  (Welcome, Stranger!  Make yourself at home.)  I don’t think I have ever been less surprised by anything ever except perhaps the revelation that Britney Spears did not in fact save herself for marriage.  Seriously people, if you want real European drama–fun drama, not Oh-my-God-the-Euro-is-collapsing! drama–watch Eurovision.  Every year the winner will surprise you, which is how this year’s competition ended up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Back to football.  I think the surprise is that Messi won with only 47.88% of the vote.  Clearly he’s slipping.  I mean the man wins La Liga, the Champions League, and the Club World Cup, and all he gets is a meaningless gold-ish statuette and the chance to be serenaded by James Blunt.  Cristiano Ronaldo received 21.6%, and Xavi, the perpetual bronze medalist in this FIFA-sponsored charade, a mere 9.23%.  From these results one can learn the following about this year’s World Player of the Year voting: 30.83% of the voters were Portuguese, Madridistas, or related to Xavi.

I had no doubt that Messi would win the award and in as much as individual awards matter, he completely deserved it.  Messi is the legend of our time, and only churls dispute that.  Nevertheless, I would have given the award to Xavi.  I’ve said this before, but individual awards in a team sport is the height of ridiculousness.  The winner of the Golden Ball should be Barcelona not Messi.  Xavi more than anyone represents the whole of Barcelona.  He is the heart of the team, the engine of the club, the conductor of its orchestra, the knitter of its intricate patterns, [add your cliché here].  This is the third time in a row that the man has finished third.  He is finally respected and appreciated; there will not be anymore headlines like Daily Mail‘s now infamous “The best players of the world (and Xavi)” from 2008.  Nevertheless, he will never win because his football is cerebral rather than sexy.  Xavi is great enough to be widely admired, but not spectacular enough to be celebrated.

Almost as surprising as Lionel Messi’s award was the Coach of Year, which went to Pep Guardiola (just under 42% of the vote).  Neither of the other two finalists, Sir Alex of Manchester and The Special One of Porto London Milan Eyepoke Madrid, got anywhere near Cristiano Ronaldo’s second place percentage, but both topped Xavi’s meager total.  I can kinda sorta see why Ferguson got votes; he won the Premier League–granted it was over mediocre opposition, and then he got his ass handed to him by the Blaugrana.  But Mourinho, that one is baffling–or it would be if I didn’t understand how these awards are actually chosen.  What exactly did Mourinho win last year?  The Copa del Rey.  That’s it.  In eight matches against Barcelona, he won once.  The title he won was the least consequential of the three he chased.  Tactically he got it wrong over and over again, and frankly cheapened Madrid at every turn acting more like a child than a coach.  There are so many better candidates than Mourinho.  Why not give some consideration to Mancini who won the FA Cup (which is slightly more important than the Copa del Rey)?  Or Allegri who won Serie A?  Or Villas Boas who won a treble with Porto?  Mourinho’s inclusion is just further proof that if you hog the media spotlight and are proclaimed by idiotic pundits as the greatest ever, then you will always be considered for the FIFA awards, season be damned.  Ask Wesley Sneijder about that.

I suspect that Messi and Guardiola would gladly give up their awards in a heartbeat to be leading La Liga right now.  Or at the very least to have won at Espanyol this weekend rather than disappointingly draw.  I wonder though if Cristiano Ronaldo would have given up Madrid’s 5-1 win at Granada to win the Player of the Year award, especially now that Karim Benzema is usurping his place as the Golden Boy of the Bernabeu.

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The most fascinating awards for are the awards for the women’s game, which is why I am going to talk about them later.  I would like to try and close out this post with something thoughtful.  Whether I am successful or not, you be the judge.  But first, frivolity!

If you are looking for an in-depth discussion of this year’s Puskas Award, you’ve come to the wrong blog.  Neymar won it, and truth be told O Fauxhawk did produce something magical.  Great goals however, are spectacular in their own way, but they are an aesthetic judgment, in no way objective.  And goals are really a team effort, even if it looks like one person is doing it all.  Enjoy the art, admire the dance, but don’t pretend that a goal’s greatness can be quantified or voted upon.

The Fair Play Award went to the Japanese Football Association, because apparently this award is now given to nations that have endured tremendous and unthinkable tragedy.  To wit, last year’s winner was the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team.  Thank you FIFA; your meaningless trinket has completely smoothed over the pain and damage from an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that ruined the lives of an unfathomable number of people.

Men’s all-star team of the year (there’s no women’s team, because that would mean FIFA would have to pay attention to the women) is as follows: Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi.  Putting aside the fact that there are no left backs on this team, something is clearly wrong with it.  I know.  Here is the real team of the year:  Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Segio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro.  See what I did there?  I named an actual team that performed at the very highest level rather than a collection of names, some of which were very dubiously included.  Wayne Rooney ended his season well, but it was far from an annus mirabilis.  In fact, I’d wager it was a year he would like to forget.

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In as much as Messi and Guardiola were obviously going to win, so too was Norio Sasake of Japan the coach of Japan’s World Cup champions the Nadeshiko.  He earned around 45% of the vote.  His closest competitors,  Pia Sundhage of the USWNT (runners-up) and Bruno Bini of France (semifinalists) won 15.83% and 10.28% of the votes respectively.

It is hard to argue with any of the three finalists especially Sasake who from any angle deserves recognition for Japan’s accomplishments.  But one has to wonder if FIFA focused too much on the international game.  In World Cup years, everything at club level is generally overlooked in favor of World Cup heroics (exception: last year’s awards where Messi and Mourinho won rather than Xavi/Villa/Iniesta, and Vincente del Bosque).  This is all the more true in the women’s game where the muckamucks only watch the international play, i.e. the World Cup.  Maybe the Olympics too–we’ll know they watch the Olympics if at next year’s awards all three finalists are managers of the top performing Olympic teams.  The problem is that in non-World Cup years, FIFA pretends that everything else doesn’t exist.  This ignorance of the women’s game is how Silvia Neid won the award last year.  Neid has been one of the most illustrious coaches in the history of the modern women’s game, but she did almost nothing of note in 2010.  She won because she was one of the few names the voters knew, and they knew Germany won the last two World Cups.  Completely ignoring club play, last year the only nominated coaches were international coaches, one of which was the German U-20 Women’s coach (who was nominated this year despite coaching in one competitive match.  At least she won it.)

This disrespect would be unthinkable in the men’s game.  It’s flat-out pernicious, and it gives the message that women’s club football is unimportant.  That attitude has some dire consequences.  Santos of Brazil recently disbanded its women’s team, the most successful women’s club team in South America’s short history, along with its futsal team to help pay Neymar’s exorbitant salary (an extremely shortsighted move, given that Neymar is soon for Europe.  The Club World Cup saw to that.)  Santos no doubt was aided in this massacre by a lack of interest in the women’s team; a lack of interest that was no doubt fed by Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in the World Cup.

Because this was a World Cup year, no one would question that three national team coaches were the three finalists.  Unlike in the men’s international game where style and creativity have slowly and painfully drained away, the women’s game still has beauty and striking contrasts.  The women’s international game is still important because it is still the highest level of competition.  Nevertheless, it is scandalous that the awards completely ignored what happened at the club level.  Lyon ended the German domination of the Champions League, the Western New York Flash eked out a WPS championship over a very talented Philadelphia Independence, and International Athletic Club Kobe Leonessa won the L-League in Japan.

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Finally, we come to the women’s Player of the Year.  I predicted after the World Cup final that Homare Sawa would win the award to go along with her World Cup championship, her Golden Boot, her Golden Ball, and her L-League title (the L-League came after I made the prediction).  Sawa has attained a level of stardom in Japan unknown to any female player not named Mia Hamm.  She’s a superstar there, and justifiably so.  On the biggest stage, at the biggest moment, Sawa almost singlehandedly dragged her team  to victory when defeat looked all but certain.  She is near the end of her very long career, and 2011 was the ultimate valedictory.  Sawa’s most important contribution: she gave Japan steel.  The knock against Japan for a long time has been that despite all the great technique, the team lacked the killer instinct.  It is easy to imagine that had there been no Sawa Japan would not have made it past Germany in the quarterfinals.  She didn’t score the winning goal, but she set it up.  Against Sweden and the United States, it was Sawa who saved Japan, scoring crucial goals, never letting up the pressure.  Sawa represents the complete opposite of what a Japanese woman is supposed to be, and yet she is being celebrated as a national hero.  There is something both heroic and poetic about her and her accomplishments.  (And she makes a very classy figure in her kimono.  Does this woman look like a killer to you?)  Has there been as effective a talisman in the game since Michelle Akers?   I am hard-pressed to think of another.   Forget the female Messi, who is the male Sawa?

If anyone deserved to break the 50% mark in the voting (or unanimity), it should have been Sawa.  Yet, of the five big awards (men’s and women’s player, men’s and women’s coach, Puskas Award), only Sawa did not break 40%.  In fact, she garnered only 28.51% of the votes.  Second place went to Marta with 17.28% of the vote and third place to Abby Wambach with 13.26%.  All three finalists were clearly their team’s leaders.  When things looked bad, all three of them at one point or another during the tournament completely changed her team’s momentum by doing something spectacular and jaw-dropping.  Both the final between the US and Japan and the quarterfinal between the US and Brazil featured spectacular play and dramatic heroics from all three women.  All three of these women were integral to their clubs’ success, and in Wambach’s case, she held magicJack above water as she both played and coached.  (One person who was not considered, but should have been was Christine Sinclair whose own dramatics this year should have overcome Canada’s poor showing.)

Nevertheless, despite how similar the three women were in importance to their respective teams, the voting should not have been as close as it was.  Here are the full tallies.  Some of the contenders were deserving, some were head scratchers (at least Birgit Prinz was not on the list; legend that she is, her inclusion would have turned this award into a farce).  I cannot wait to see who voted for whom.

I confess, I was afraid that Marta would win this award.  I have gone on record many times as an unabashed Marta enthusiast.  She is the best player in the world and perhaps ever.  I also made no secret how unimpressed I was with the way the crowds treated her at the World Cup, making her the scapegoat for her teammates’ behavior in the quarterfinals largely because they know who Marta is.  One can debate whether she deserved to win five Player of the Year titles in a row, but one cannot argue with her abilities (for the record, she looked rather pissed off when she didn’t win this year, which shows how great a competitor she is).  Nevertheless, I was terrified Marta would get this year’s award because of what it would represent.  Had Marta won, it would mean that the Player of the Year Award was not being judged by accomplishments but rather by reputation.  Around the world, voters know who Marta is and probably Wambach to a lesser extent.  Had won of those two won, it would have revealed a depressing ignorance of the women’s game, even at the highest level.  It would mean that the voters didn’t watch the World Cup.  For now at least, we have been spared that indignity.  (Not that this is unique to the women’s game.  Messi’s win last year was extremely controversial, especially in the Netherlands and non-Catalan Spain).

Sawa’s win felt like a victory for women’s football, even if the margin of victory was somewhat less than thrilling.  It makes me worry less about the game, especially in light of the WPS’s problems, which I have not yet written about on this blog.  To wit: although there will be a season this summer, there will only be five teams in the league.  There are ominous sign of collapse.  Vero Boquete, arguably Philadelphia’s and Spain’s best player, went to Russia for the European season; who knows if she will be back with the Independence when the WPS season starts.  Even more disturbing is the news that Marta and Abby Wambach may not return, which is akin to a death-blow.  There are other great players, but how many other names does WPS have?  Can Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo carry the league?  They may have to; God help us all.

Music listened to while writing this post  Glazunov: Symphony No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 16, “In Memory of Liszt”; Symphony No. 3 in D Major;  Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 48; Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 55.

¡Campeones! ¡Campeones!

I had trouble sleeping the night before Barcelona was to play Santos in the Club World Cup.  As often happens before a big match that I am nervous about, I dreamt about the score after the match.  In my dreams Barcelona won 4-2, 4-1, and 3-1 (the score never stayed constant.)

Of course, Barcelona won the match 4-0.  It was probably the most flawless Blaugrana performance in a big match since the 5-0 result last year against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.  (When will non-Madrid teams learn not to wear white when playing Barcelona?  It only enrages the Blaugrana.)  Even the Champions League final against Manchester United, beautiful as it was, was not quite that perfect.  To the naysayers (who tend to be British) the Club World Cup is inconsequential.  Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports and World Football Daily is particularly vociferous in his dislike for the tournament.

The critics do have a point.  The Club World Cup is a FIFA invention, and like all FIFA inventions, it is deeply flawed and designed primarily to make FIFA money.  For example, although confederation champions, the likes of Aukland City and Al-Sadd would not be competitive in the Copa Libertadores let alone the Champions League (not that clubs from San Marino and Malta are world beaters.)  Calling Al-Sadd the third best team in the world is grating when the club is at this tournament solely by accident of geography.

Nevertheless, that does not negate the value of the Club World Cup.  What the critics don’t get is that there is a larger world outside of Europe.  Just because non-European clubs compete at a lower level than the European super clubs, that does not make them worthless.  The South Americans feel this snub most acutely because the success of the Champions League is built largely on the shoulders of their best players at the expense of the South American leagues which lack the money and resources to keep the best players.  The Club World Cup is a a way for the non-European leagues to get a foot in the spotlight, even if just for one or two matches.  Sometimes there is even a pleasant surprise.  Remember TP Mazembe?  Internacional of Brazil will never forget them.

The Mazembe upset aside, the Club World Cup is otherwise just an updated version of the old Intercontinental Cup, the champion of Europe against the champion of South America but with some preliminaries.  The real difference though is that during the International Cup era sometimes the world’s best teams really did play in South America, especially in the early years of the competition.  The Europeans (specifically the Northern Europeans) gave up on taking the Intercontinental Cup seriously, but the South Americans never did.  The Intercontinental Cup was a way for them to prove that football was their game and the Europeans were only playing it.  The Europeans’ disdain for the Intercontinental Cup and the Club World Cup enrages the South Americans.

The recent results however, have only proven the European correct.  The European clubs have won the last five Club World Cups.  The two before this run, won by the Brazilian clubs Inter and São Paulo, were both won by lesser sides.  The Brazilians parked the bus, waited for the right counterattack, got their one goal, and then parked the bus again.  It was their way of acknowledging their opponents’ technical superiority.

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Ever since it won the Copa Libertadores, Santos planned for the final against Barcelona (not an unusual tactic for a Brazilian side after it wins the Copa Libertadores).  Unlike its recent–successful–predecessors Santos wanted to play Barcelona the “right” way because it believed it could beat Barcelona.  Santos let its Brasileirão form suffer safe in the knowledge that already qualified for the next Copa Libertadores.

Santos bought into its own hype, probably because of all the historical coincidences following the Peixe on this campaign.  Santos won its third Copa Libertadores title ever, the first since Pele played.  The opponent in the Libertadores final was Peñarol, whom Santos beat for its first title way back in 1962.  Next year is Santos’s centenary year (as Tim Vickery is so fond of saying, the club was founded the day the Titanic sunk).  And in O Fauxhawk, the Santos faithful believe they finally have an heir to Pele (a real one this time, not some false messiah.)  The Brazilian press (followed by the world press) went overboard in its estimation of Santos for reasons I have explained previously.  Pele himself opened his mouth (never a good thing), and claimed Santos was better than Barcelona and Neymar was better than Messi.  Neymar, of course, was Pele’s stand-in for himself, for Pele is a jealous god who sees Messi as a false idol.

Santos made a fatal error; it underestimated how much Barcelona wanted this title.  This was not an unreasonable assumption because the European teams have historically not cared about the tournament.  It also came a little over a week after the most significant match of Barcelona’s season.  This assumption was even made by Tim Vickery, perhaps the most astute observer of football anywhere.  Last week in his BBC column, Vickery wrote:

Barcelona… have been in competitive action right up to Saturday night. Compared with the trip to Real Madrid, this tournament in Japan is almost an afterthought. For Santos it has been in every thought.

Yes, last week was the latest installment in the eternal struggle between Barcelona and its arch-nemesis, and yes, there was much at stake for Barcelona.  But the Club World Cup was never an afterthought for Pep Guardiola; it is a tournament he is obsessed with.  If you doubt that, watch his reaction to Barcelona’s victory over Estudiantes de la Plata two years ago.  Granted, Guardiola is not a taciturn man.  Once a match begins he scowls and yells, and gesticulates until it is over.  Barcelona could be up 5-0 and he never loses that intensity.  Only after his team wins the trophy does he smile.  He never cries though.  Nevertheless, after Barcelona beat Estudiantes, Guardiola broke down and sobbed.

Before 1992, Barcelona had never won the European Cup, the predecessor of today’s Champions League.  In fact, Barcelona was probably the best club never to have won.  Barcelona had won European glory elsewhere but never the biggest prize of all (although it lost in the final round twice).  All the more galling was how many times Real Madrid won.  In 1992, under the guidance of Johan Cruyff, Barcelona finally won the European Cup.  Among the players on the field was an elegant Catalan midfielder named Josep “Pep” Guardiola.  That year, Barcelona lost the Intercontinental Cup to São Paulo.  In 2006, when Barcelona (sans Guardiola) finally won the Champions League a second time, again it lost the Club World Cup, this time to Internacional.  Knowing that Real Madrid won three such titles only added salt to the wound.  Without the title, Barcelona could never truly call itself the world’s best team.  Ergo, Guardiola craves this title and what it represents.  What he wants his devoted players (particularly those who, like him, were brought through La Masia) want so badly to give to him.  He was, after all, the childhood idol of several of them.

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Guardiola is utterly devoted to Barcelona.  He may even be the apex of the Barcelona system.  He was a ball boy for the club, a youth player, a senior team player, team captain, youth manager, and finally the manager of the senior team.  As both player and manager he brought the club titles and trophies.  Now he is Barcelona’s most decorated and greatest manager, winning a supernatural 13 of 16 possible trophies in a mere three and half seasons.  He has given his all to the club, and each year he looks tremendously older, like the United States President.
In as much as the media loves to compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, the media also loves to compare Guardiola to Jose Mourinho.  Stylistically the two managers are near polar opposites (a subject that I have written about before) and currently they are each other’s primary rival.  That was before Mourinho arrived in Madrid.  Prevailing opinion (at least according to World Football Daily) is that right now Mourinho is the better manager.  Any armchair analyst has his own explanations for why Guardiola cannot be considered one of the greats yet: he hasn’t been a coach long enough, he’s only been with one team/country, he took over Frank Rijkaard’s team which any fool could manage, etc.
One has to put Guardiola’s accomplishments in context to understand why it is so unfair to disrespect him this way.  It is true he has only managed one team, but, excluding his apprenticeship in charge of Barcelona B, this is his first coaching job.  Ever.  If one’s criteria for greatness is coaching in more than one place, then wait for Guardiola’s second job before talking about him.  Otherwise, discussing his merits is akin to building a straw man simply to knock down (and to extol Mourinho.)
The Rijkaard criticism is especially galling.  Rijkaard was sacked because he had let the team fall apart and the inmates run the asylum.  His final season was disastrous for the club, and the final match at the Bernabeu was a humiliation that no doubt still burns the players who played that day.  Worse, Ronaldinho, once the hero of Catalonia, had become a dressing room poison and the symbol of everything wrong with the club.  Guardiola came in and got rid of Ronaldinho, Deco, and Giovanni Dos Santos, players he deemed not committed enough.  Guardiola has used the Barcelona reserves to perhaps its greatest effect; of the 13 players who were on the field in the Club World Cup final, 11 came through La Masia.  Most importantly, he refined and perfected Barcelona’s identity and ethos.  Under his watch, the team is everything, and all individual brilliance is a way to serve the team.  No matter how expensive a player (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), if he puts himself above the team, then he is out.  This is not Rijkaard’s team even if many of the players are the same.

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The real difficulty with comparing managerial greatness is that (unlike for players) there are different criteria to becoming a great manager.  Titles are the most obvious way to judge greatness because of their quantifiable nature; managers like Mourinho, Carlos Alberto Parreira, and Alex Ferguson will go down into history for their success at winning titles.  Generations from now they will be remembered for their dazzling array of silverware, although not much else.  Although commentators repeat it as though it were a mantra, it is simply not true that fans forget how the trophy is won.  Fans may not care, but they never forget.  For managers like Mourinho, there was no unifying philosophy beyond victory at all costs, no aesthetic to boggle the eyes, nothing to excite the pulse or caused the jaw to drop in wonder.  Judging by titles though can only really be done properly once a career is over.

The other way to judge managers is qualitatively.  What were their teams like while winning?  What imprint did the manager leave on the game?  This is how to best judge managers such as Rinus Michels (considered by many the greatest ever), César Luis Menotti, Béla Guttmann, Herbert Chapman, Hugo Meisl, Valeri Lobanovskiy, and Johan Cruyff to name a few.  As managers, they were successful, but as thinkers, innovators, tacticians, and philosophers, they were in a class by themselves, and the game remembers their contributions.  The football philosophers offers something beyond a full trophy case.  Rather than just being remembered, they will be studied.  Most importantly, they touch the heart of the football romantic.

It is the football romantic who remembers the beautiful losers as much as, and sometimes more than, then winners.  Everyone knows the Hungarians of 1954, but who outside of Germany remembers the winners?  It is the same with the football philosopher.  We want Marcelo Bielsa to succeed because he is so innovative.  He singlehandedly gave Chile an identity.  That same romantic impulse is why Arsenal fans still adore Arsene Wenger even though they have gone so many seasons without a solitary title.

 However many trophies Guardiola ends up with, he has already joined that second group.  He is the Aristotle to Cruyff’s Plato and Michel’s Socrates.  Guardiola’s Barcelona is steeped in Dutch perceptions of space, yet it is radically his own.  The midfield is the kingdom, and possession and passing are rule of law.  This season Guardiola has pushed the boundaries of his philosophy even further by experimenting with a three-man defense and a more expansive midfield–as much Bielsa as Cruyff.  The fruits of this labor paid off thus far in Barcelona’s two most important matches of the season; in the match against Madrid last week he outthought and outwitted Mourinho by adapting his tactics.  Yesterday Barcelona side demolished Santos.  So thorough was his side’s domination, that after the third goal, just before halftime, Guardiola allowed himself a smile.  On his watch, Barcelona joined the legends, teams who like the Ajax of the early 1970’s, Milan of the late 80’s, and Pele’s Santos, are spoken of with a hushed reverence.  (Yes, I know.  Wednesday night.  Stoke.  Funny.)

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Guardiola’s legacy as a philosopher is already being felt, and in the most unlikely of places: Brazil.  Even before the destruction of Santos, and the resulting horror of Brazilian fans and media, Barcelona had been on the minds of the nation’s football cognoscenti.  Tim Vickery described the scene:
The emergence and consolidation of the Catalan school has shaken Brazil, robbing it of something seen as a birthright – Brazil’s place as the spiritual guardians of the beautiful game. Be honest now – who would you prefer to see – the Barcelona of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, or the Brazil of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo which Dunga took to the last World Cup?

Last week Rio played host to the eighth annual version of Footecon, an annual conference of coaches organised by Carlos Alberto Parreira. As a veteran of all eight, I can confirm that this one was different.

Last year Parreira gave a splendid lecture dissecting the football of Barcelona – inspired by the excitement the team generated in the players he had been coaching with the South African national side. This year Barcelona’s presence was not confined to one lecture. Their shadow hung over the whole event – a process enhanced by the fact that one of the club’s directors had crossed the Atlantic to explain their philosophy of youth development.

It was a lecture that packed the hall, and to which Brazil coach Mano Menezes paid special attention. The debate afterwards – indeed much of what followed over the two days of the event – focused on similarities and especially differences between approaches in Barcelona and Brazil.

The whole article is a fascinating read, and it’s a theme he continued this week in his column for the BBC.  What Vickery did not mention, and what I would love to bring up with him if I ever get the chance is whether he thinks Santos’s defeat to Barcelona will be a turning point in the evolution of the Brazilian game the way that the loss to the Netherlands in 1974 was.  Following the latter, Brazil abandoned its ethos as the guardian of the beautiful game.  Perhaps now, Brazil will try to reestablish it.  What better compliment could a club and its manager be paid than understanding that they changed the football culture of the world’s most prominent football nation?