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.
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.

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.