FIFA Oscars 2013: ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi! ¡Messi!

Ah the annual pageant of the Ballon d’Or.  Every year the spectacle becomes ever more bloated, which means that every year I appreciate it all the more as a camp spectacle, or more accurately, only as a camp spectacle.  Like the real Oscars, the FIFA Oscars are less about the awards themselves and more about big names vying for media attention.  It’s so tacky, that one can only laugh at it.  Which is why Lionel Messi’s polka dot tuxedo (he apparently gets his fashion tips from El Diego) may represent the epitome of the ridiculousness that is the Ballon d’Or.

As with any year, there are a whole bunch of little awards that FIFA wants me to care about, but I don’t.  I feel like FIFA keeps adding awards just to stay relevant–if you can consider giving an award to Franz Beckenbauer, a man who has not kicked a ball competitively in decades, relevance.  And of course there is the annual Puskas award for best goal, which never seems to go to the most interesting goal, but rather to a long ball volley from a player who either plays in or for Turkey.  If you want to know about those other awards, the Guardian has a nice live blog.  Otherwise you are on your own.

Women’s Player of the Year

Every year I wonder whether people who vote for these awards actually watch women’s football.  This year is no exception.  Given that the US team won the Olympics, the only important international competition in 2012, it is no surprise that two US players–Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan–were nominated.  What is something of a shock (if you follow women’s football, that is) is that the third player in the final three was Brazil’s Marta.  I am a big fan of Marta, as I have made clear numerous times on this blog.  I have called her possibly the greatest individual player the women’s game has ever seen (or second behind Michelle Akers), but this year was not a particularly good year for Marta.  Last year when she was also somewhat surprisingly a top three finalist, at least it made sense because of her good club season and because she played well at the World Cup was stellar (if her team did not).  But this year?  By Marta’s standards it was pretty mediocre.  Nevertheless, Marta is a name and a known international commodity while the person who should have been in the top three in her stead, Canada’s Christine Sinclair, is not.  (One might also suggest that FIFA look beyond the international game into the club game where Lyon won a second Champions League in a row, but that may be asking too much.)

I have no complaints about Abby Wambach winning.  She is certainly deserving.  Over the past two years, the US got to the finals of the World Cup and the Olympics almost sheerly by Wambach’s will alone.  But for Homare Sawa’s incredible World Cup performance last year, Wambach probably would have deserved last year’s award too.  Alex Morgan arguably had the more spectacular year, but Wambach is very close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, one that I thought would stand forever.  Therefore, there is a certain symmetry to Wambach being the first American winner since Hamm.  Alex Morgan will probably win next year because FIFA will not pay attention to women’s football until the 2015 World Cup, and Morgan is the new star.

Women’s Coach of the Year

Unlike Wambach’s win, which was not easy to predict, there was no doubt that Pia Sundhage would win the women’s coach of the year.  And being Pia Sundhage, she sung when accepting the award.  Like with the player of the year, there were two candidates who deserved to be there, Sundhage and Japan’s Norio Sasake, and one candidate who was a complete head scratcher, France’s Bruno Bini.  FIFA’s website says that he was nominated because:

Semi-finalists at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, Les Bleues continued their excellent run of form at the Olympic Football Tournament by again finishing fourth, a few months after their success at the Cyprus Cup. The credit for this new consistency in reaching the semi-finals of major competitions must go to Bruno Bini, who has been coach of the French women’s national team since February 2007.
Notably, France won neither semifinal.  Moreover, I would argue that the teams achieved those two fourth place finishes despite Bini not because of him.  If anything, France is largely made up of players from Lyon, and I would think that Bini’s spot should have gone to Lyon’s manager (according to Wikipedia, it is Patrice Lair, who placed fourth in the voting).  But that would mean paying attention to women’s club football.  Notably, the person who placed 5th in the voting was Germany’s Silvia Neid, whose team did not even qualify for the Olympics.  Le sigh.
Another person sadly overlooked was John Herdman (6th).  This was a man who took a shattered Big Red from last place at the World Cup to third at the Olympics–almost to the final round, barely losing the sport’s best ever match. Probably Herdman’s and Sinclair’s omissions had less to do with merit and more to do with the way they bitterly (and not completely unfairly) complained about the refereeing after their semifinal loss to the US.  Probably the fact that Canada is Jan Brady to the US’s Marsha had something to do with it too.
Men’s Coach of the Year
Vicente del Bosque won the award he should have gotten two years ago for the World Cup.  This year it was for the Euro, the first time a nation won two in a row, and the first time any nation ever won three major tournaments in a row.  Really though the award was for the 4-0 annihilation of Italy, as before that magical match Spain’s performance was yeoman-like at best.  No matter how you slice it, he accomplished something bigger than any other coach, certainly a bigger accomplishment than that of the two runners-up, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.  Why those two men were nominated given that neither the Champions League?  I have no idea.  Mourinho didn’t even show up to the ceremony because he knew he wasn’t going to win.  For anyone else, I could respect that decision, but the Surly One such a bad sport at everything he does, that it is hard not to call him a sore loser in this case too.  Here is the truth about Mourinho–he is incredibly insecure because he knows his wins had less to do with his coaching abilities and more to do with major financial backing of rich clubs and some very lucky breaks.  Now he is self-destructing at Real Madrid as I predicted he would.  Madrid is too big a club with too proud a tradition of winning and too many big names to put up with his insecurity-driven ego.
FIFA XI
If I were a suspicious person, I would think that FIFA was sending a message to everyone, the English especially: “Be like Spain.”  Not only were all three coach finalists and all three Ballon d’Or finalists either Spanish or plying their trade in La Liga (or both), all 11 players of the World XI play for either Real Madrid (Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo), Barcelona, (Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves), or Atletico Madrid (Radamel Falcao).  Whether or not those are the most deserving 11 is some matter of debate (but the answer is “no”), but FIFA has firmly jumped on the Spain bandwagon is not getting off yet.
Ballon d’Or
Five months ago, I was unsure who would win this award.  It was pretty clear that it would be either Messi (best player in the world, possibly ever, who smashed all sorts of scoring records this year), Cristiano Ronaldo (second best in the world, won La Liga), or Iniesta (hero of the Euro).  In fact, I leaned toward Iniesta, who really deserves major recognition.  As of December 2012, I knew it would be Messi.  And all because of a sort-of meaningless statistic–91 goals in a calendar year.
To be fair, Messi was probably going to win all along.  No asks who is the “next Maradona” anymore because of Messi, sub-par World Cup be damned.  The real question is about where his place in history is (the summit) rather than where he is in the hierarchy of today’s players.  Sometimes I like to imagine that Cristiano Ronaldo goes home at night and screams his own name in front of a mirror with a picture Messi taped to it.  He so desperately wants to be the best, and that will forever be a frustrated ambition despite the best efforts of Marca, AS, and certain British tabloid jingoists who cannot fathom that this generation’s great player will never have played in the Premier League.
And yet Messi’s win, while not as baffling as that of two years ago, is still somewhat confusing because it raises a fundamental question about the Ballon d’Or.  What exactly are the criteria for the winner?  Is it for the most accomplished player of the season or the best player in the world.  If the latter, then Messi should win it for the next five years or so.  If the former, then certainly Iniesta would have a better claim to it, since international play trumps club play according to FIFA.  Yet Messi won the votes of a majority of the first place votes of captains, coaches, and journalists–the three groups that vote for the Ballon d’Or.  It was his record-breaking fourth title, which means that Messi has now won more titles than the following players:  Di Stefano, Ronaldo (both), Platini, Zidane, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer (Pele and Maradona were ineligible).  Certainly there is a very solid argument that he is a better player than all of them, but it makes the next few years kind of predictable, especially if Barcelona does to Europe what it is doing to La Liga this year.
And this is why the Ballon d’Or is such a ridiculous spectacle.  I hope that next year Messi take his sartorial sensibilities to its logical conclusion and goes for full-out clown outfit complete with make-up, red horn nose, and oversize shoes.  I cannot imagine a better mascot for the FIFA Oscars.

Paying For Broken Plates

Last week Barcelona beat Osasuna 8-0.  That annihilation came on the heels of two consecutive disappointing 2-2 draws, first to Real Sociedad in La Liga and then to AC Milan a few days later in the Champions League.  In both cases, Barcelona held leads and arguably should have won (especially against Sociedad.)  The media talked of a “mini-crisis” at the Camp Nou, creating a story where none really existed.  But the talk clearly got to the Barcelona players who needed to show that they were in fact okay.  Hence the 8-0 destruction of Osasuna.  The Osasuna massacre was predicted over at ESPN by Eduardo Alvarez in his weekly Quiniela column, where he employed the Spanish phrase “pagar los platos rotos” (to pay for broken plays).  This expression was subsequently applied to the match in reports by Phil Ball and Sid Lowe, two of the great commentators of Spanish football.  I think even the Osasuna manager used it both before and after the match.

In the middle of the week, Barcelona again drew 2-2, this time to then league leader Valencia.  Therefore, today’s opponents Atletico Madrid had to pay for broken plates.  Unlike last year Atletico had actually started the season well.  Even though talisman Sergio Aguero went to Manchester City and the unhappy Diego Forlan went to Inter (where he can be unhappy all over again as club crisis has followed him to the San Siro), Atletico added the stellar Colombian Radamel Falcao (from Porto) who has brilliantly led Los Colchoneros and greatly impressed.

It probably hurt Atletico’s chances that their crosstown rivals over at the Bernabeu (who had their own broken plates that someone needed to pay for) beat Rayo Vallecano 6-2.  I imagine that the Barcelona players needed to prove that despite the draws, they were still the better side than Real Madrid.  And so, Barcelona beat Atletico 5-0 with a(nother) Lionel Messi hat trick.

Barcelona’s season thus far has been both interesting and troubling.  It has been interesting from a tactical point of view because, with both Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique out injured, there are effectively no center backs on this Barcelona side.  It was rumored that Pep Guardiola wanted to buy one this year, but the acquisitions of both Alexis Sanchez and (especially) Cesc Fabregas effectively halted that.

The biggest knock against this Barcelona side over the past couple years has been that it is a thin squad.  The doomsday scenario is that if a Messi or a Xavi or an Iniesta got injured then the season is in trouble.  This is especially true about Messi who is an irreplaceable player.  This scenario also applies to the back line, and it was tested last season (Eric Abidal’s illness and Puyol’s injury.)  There are other players who could fill in for the full backs, Adriano and Maxwell come to mind, but there is no real backup for either Puyol or Pique–save for Abidal the left back.  Andreu Fontàs is probably not ready yet, and so Guardiola has been using  one of his two central midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano as makeshift center backs.  Sometimes he used both.  (It’s not a completely alien concept.  Last season both filled in for Puyol and in the Barcelona system, when the full backs move forward, the central midfielder moves back to become a third center back.)  To accommodate the absent Puyol and Pique, Guardiola switched his system from an ostensible 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, and that has come under major scrutiny.  There have been times when the only true defender on the field was Abidal.  Given that even Barcelona’s three forwards can play as midfield players, in the 3-4-3, Barcelona has become one giant box-to-box midfield.  The draws against Sociedad and Milan were both results of not being strong enough at the back and not quite used to this system.  And also a dearth of true defensive players.

I do not question Guardiola.  He is a brilliant tactician and a true visionary, and he also can only work with what he has.  Fabregas and Sanchez were supposed to allow for squad rotation and decrease the burden on the team.  Yet this season already the following players have been out injured: Inieta, Puyol, Pique, Sanchez, Ibrahim Afellay, and Maxwell.  Dani Alves has also missed the odd game this season.

So that is the concern.  Obviously though when Barcelona beats Villareal 5-0, Osasuna 8-0, and Atletico 5-0, there is also cause for marvel.  The primary reason is the Messi/Fabregas partnership, which has already been stunningly brilliant at times.  I had wondered aloud on this blog why Barcelona would pursue Fabregas with such vigor, especially given the glut of talented midfielders.  I had also said that I thought this year would be devoted to making the Iniesta-Fabregas partnership ready for when Xavi inevitably retires.  In both cases I was wrong.  Fabregas has already proven that not only was he worth every penny, but Barcelona got him for a bargain.  (Arsenal must be livid right now.)  But what makes Fabregas so exciting is not his potential to replace Xavi, but rather the creative partnership that he has with Messi, forged years ago at La Masia but brought to a whole new level now.

Additionally, Thiago Alcântara is proving himself to be an incredible talent.  If he is still a lesser light on a marquee that showcases Messi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, and David Villa, that is going to change very soon.  Whatever the defensive frailties, one cannot fault the attack which is the best in the world.  (The defense, when everyone is fit, is also at the top or at least very close.)

The season is still young.  There are 38 games in a league, and that does not count the Copa del Rey or the real prize, the Champions League (or the Club World Cup.)  Because of injuries and transfers, and a limited preseason, Barcelona is not where it should be or can be.  This is not to say that it will ultimately win everything or even anything.  What it is saying is that a season is a long time, and at this juncture nothing has been decided yet. In a few months we will see what happens when the system is more familiar and/or the absent players recover.

I make only one prediction.  Real Betis, the current league leader, will not be in that position come May 2012.

 

The Once And Future Cesc

Try not to seemed shocked, when I tell you this.  Are you sitting down?  Cesc Fabregas wants out.  According to Arsenal teammate Bacary Sagna, Fabregas wants the move to Barcelona.

This is obviously a saga that has been going on for at least three years.  Barcelona is not just where he developed skills, it was his childhood team.  In addition to being a fan, Fabregas spent his formative years in La Masia (the same class as Messi and Pique.)  His family is from Catalonia, and he has friends at Barcelona (as well as some Spain teammates.)  His idol, Pep Guardiola is the coach as Barcelona, and it is rumored that this will be Guardiola’s last season in charge.  Get in while the getting is good, because who knows what will come afterwards.

Barcelona did not want to let young Fabregas go.  He was too talented, and Arsenal would pay nothing because he was too young to be under contract.  Fabregas left because he did not think he would get any playing time at Barcelona.  His decision makes sense because both Xavi and Iniesta stood in his way as they do now for Spain.  Nevertheless, the club desperately wants him back.

I am not tactician, but I do not understand why Barcelona is so desperate to get Fabregas back.  Xavi and Iniesta are still fundamental to the squad.  It would take a supreme effort to dislodge either player from the starting XI.  Although theoretically, no one’s starting spot is safe (or in truth 10 of the 11 spots are not safe–no one at Barcelona would dare displace Messi), even at 31-years-old, Xavi is still the conductor of the Barcelona engine.  Iniesta has even more playing time left, and both men work extremely hard.  Fabregas would be going back to play a supporting role.  Meanwhile, at the same time Fabregas is waiting out Xavi and Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara and his brother Rafinha will be breaking down the door to the main squad.

The Guardiola years have been marked by some bad transfers, but the overwrought hang-wringing about it (see: Bleacher Report, or better yet, don’t) generally overlooks the fact that (a) there have also been some excellent signings such as Pique and Dani Alves, and (b) Guardiola has done an excellent job at developing players from Barcelona B who end up displacing their more expensive teammates.  Unless Barcelona begins a rotation policy, which is possible given how thin the side has been, Fabregas will be another bench player.

In other transfer news, Barcelona want to bring in Giuseppe Rossi from Villarreal.  While he is an excellent player and would be a great fit, this column still holds a grudge against him for choosing to play for Italy rather than the United States.  Watch this space to see which side wins the battle.  Like Fabregas, Rossi will have to fight for his spot, this time with David Villa and Pedro.  Although both had dry spells in terms of goals, they were also very important to the Barcelona attack.

Barcelona has also been linked with Javier Pastore, Alexis Sanchez, and as of today Thiago Silva.  Javier Pastore is a pipe dream, I think.  The same problems that acquiring Fabregas present would also plague Pastore, perhaps more so because he did not grow up in La Masia.  And Palermo is not letting Pastore go cheaply.  They want Cristiano Ronaldo money, which is ridiculous, but that club is in serious trouble.

Alexis Sanchez.  It appears that Manchester City (or perhaps United) will get there first.  Great potential, but he has not quite lived up to his hype yet.  Personally, I would like to see him stay with Udinese because otherwise the Italians will tumble out of the Champions League next season. One year of performing well in the Champions League is all he needs to prove himself.

Thiago Silva is an interesting one.  Barcelona desperately need to build up the back; Puyol’s knee problems throughout the season are evidence of that.  Thiago Silva is also one of the best defenders in the world right now.  I would love to see his move to the Camp Nou, but I cannot imagine Milan letting him go.

As for who to sell, the no-brainer is Bojan.  Guardiola has given him chance after chance, and he just hasn’t been able to get it done.  It’s a shame, because he is dyed-in-the-wool Blaugrana.  I think he wants out too.  Jeffren Suarez also looks like he is gone; injuries have played havoc with his career, and while I would be sad to see him go, it looks like Barcelona would rather have the money.  Furthermore, he needs to play full-time, and that is not going to happen when Messi, Villa, Pedro, possibly Rossi, and maybe even others are standing in his way.  Some have suggested selling Villa and Pedro, which seems incredibly short-sighted.  Barcelona are also trying to quash rumors that Thiago Alcântara is on his way out. That would be a huge loss–shades of Fabregas, but this time the club would be responsible.

Whatever the case, the arms race with Madrid has just begun.  Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.  And if you are new to football, welcome to the silly season.

Thoughts On The Ballon d’Or

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.

Footnotes:

* 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.

Messi! Xavi! Iniesta!

Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, and Andres Iniesta made the shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or.  This means that the the Ballon d’Or is guaranteed to stay in Barcelona (Messi won last year after Barça’s annus mirabilis.)

There are a lot of people grumbling about the shortlist, notably in Milan, and perhaps with good reason.  Inter won the treble, yet no Inter player was considered good enough.  No doubt that the Madrid tabloids AS and Marca are secretly fuming at the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo (as is, I am sure, Cristiano Ronaldo.)

There are enough people to bash the shortlist, so I want to defend it.  It is really a recognition that (a) the three best players in the world are Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta (possibly in that order); and (b) this Barça side is quite possibly the best club side to ever play the game.  Even though Inter won the Champions League last season, it is Barça that has captured the hearts and minds of the football romantic.

Oddly enough if there is one questionable candidate on the list it is Messi himself, almost universally acknowledged as the greatest player in today’s game.  The reason why this is curious is because of the World Cup.  Xavi and Iniesta were integral players on the winning side (a Spain team that is going to go down in history as one of the greatest national teams ever.)  Undoubtedly, the lack of World Cup success is what kept the Inter players and Cristiano Ronaldo off the shortlist.  In a World Cup year, a World Cup winner usually wins the big awards.  Messi, by sheer virtue of his talent, got the final spot despite a disappointing World Cup for Argentina (which, I hasten to add, was not Messi’s fault.  Argentina would not have done nearly as well as it did had Messi not been pulling the strings.  The fault for Argentina’s subpar performance lies with its Maradona, and everyone knows it.)

Although any of the three would be a worthy winner, I cannot image the Ballon d’Or going to anyone other than Xavi–sort of a lifetime recognition award.  He is Barcelona’s midfield general.  He creates the attacks and controls the pace of the match.  Xavi was behind Barcelona’s sextuple  and Spain’s Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs.  If it were fair, the award would go to both Xavi and Iniesta.  They have a symbiotic relationship in the midfield–while both are great, together they are divine.  It is the Xavi Iniesta combination that sets Barcelona and Spain apart from the competition.  They will be forever mentioned in the same breath like other great artistic duos: Lennon & McCartney, Astaire & Rogers, Peanut Butter & Jelly.

As every Barça fan is all too aware, Xavi is not getting younger; eventually he will retire.  There is almost no doubt that La Masia’s production line is preparing for that.  In fact, La Masia already produced an heir for Xavi: Cesc Fabregas, the one that got away.  Although the majority of boys who go to La Masia do not end up on the Barcelona first team, Fabregas eventually would have.  He was being groomed for greatness.  However, he was lured to Arsenal with the promise of playing time–something which Barcelona could not offer him at the time.  Arsene Wenger kept his word; Fabregas is the star of Arsenal, whereas he would probably be a substitute for Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona (as he is for Spain.)  The Barcelona midfield may be too clogged for a Fabregas right now.  But Barça and the cules want him back; they feel his return is destiny.  Fabregas himself has indicated that he wants to go home.  Barça tried to bring him back this summer, but to no avail.

A part of me wonders why Fabregas is anxious to return.  He may be the heir apparent, and he will fit into the team wherever he plays, but he will probably not start.  Nor will he be the leader that he is at Arsenal.  On the other hand, Fabregas is very much an equal to Xavi and Iniesta, as he proved at the World Cup and the Euro 2008.  Perhaps he is at a crossroads, either he returns now or never.  Maybe he is okay waiting for his turn to lead just so that he can be a part of one of the greatest club sides ever.

As a Barcelona fan, I want to see Fabregas as a part of the Blaugrana.  And after Xavi retires, I want to see a Ballon d’Or shortist of Messi, Iniesta, and Fabregas.