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.
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Women’s World Cup Day 14: How Swede It Is

The third place match saw a brutal, artless match between France and Sweden.  Sweden won it, but the real surprise was my own reaction to Sonia Bompastor’s blatant and unpunished cheating: I wanted Sweden to win.  And dance.

Sweden v. France

The match that no one wants to see lived down to the anti-hype.  This was a snoozer.  If you ever plan on watching the 2011 World Cup matches at a later date, skip this one.  It wasn’t the worst match of the tournament (surely nothing could beat Colombia v. North Korea), but it was anticlimactic, rather than an interesting Germany v. Uruguay type match from last year.  Unless you hate the French team in general and Sonia Bompastor specifically, just watch the highlights.  Sweden won 2-1.

Despite the fact that France was the revelation of the World Cup, since elimination the French side has been doing their best since to erase that good will.  Louisa Necib told every reporter who would listen that France were the better side and deserved to win (there’s that “d” word again), and coach Bruno Bini had the audacity to say that he would rather his team lose beautifully than win ugly–a direct attack on the US.  No doubt this insult was also a way to avoid responsibility for being outcoached by Pia Sundhage and for his horrible substitutions in that match, which swung the momentum decisively in the US’s favor.*  Any team that falls back on that beautiful loser nonsense is just kidding itself.  All those great teams that never won the World Cup (Hungary ’54, Holland ’74, Brazil ’82) would have gladly given up their beautiful style for the win–even if Johan Cruyff will not admit it.  France went into the US match positive that they were going to win.  They cheered when the US beat Brazil because they feared Marta and Brazil and not the US.  That disrespect cost them.

France bought into its own hype.  Yes, they have style, but whenever they faced a team who could out-muscle them, they folded.  First was Germany, when France, thanks to Bini, did not even try to win.  In the semifinal, France fell apart when the US did not fold under their pressure.  Today, Sweden too was not overawed by France’s style, and used their superior strength to beat them.  As well as France did in getting to the semifinals, one should also remember that Les Bleues are, along with Canada and Equatorial Guinea, one of only three teams to have lost three matches at this tournament.

Another problem with Bini’s decision-making was highlighted today.  Throughout the entire tournament, France’s biggest weak spot was the goalkeeper.  Bérangère Sapowicz is not a national team goalkeeper, her decision-making is questionable, and she is particularly poor in the air (that she publicly announced that is shocking but accurate.)  She was not France’s first choice keeper; that is Lyon’s Sarah Bouhaddi.  Since the beginning of the tournament the ESPN commentators have been vaguely hinting about personality conflicts that kept Bouhaddi out of the squad, but never actually said what they were.  Today, Kate Markgraf finally stopped beating around the bush.  Bouhaddi and French captain Sandrine Soubeyrand hate each other, and Bini left the keeper out.  As a result France played the tournament with two sub-par goalkeepers (Sapowicz and Céline Deville who filled in after Sapowicz’s red card against Germany and her injury today.)**

The French need to get off their high horse.  They are not above some unethical or rough play, particularly when Sonia Bompastor is on the pitch.  Bompastor is the best left back in the tournament, but she is also a dirty, dirty player.  In the quarterfinals Kelly White almost punched her.  Today, Bompastor tackled Josefine Öqvist, kicked her, and then put on a show of pain when Öqvist retaliated.  Öqvist was entirely wrong, that is without question.  You never, ever retaliate when you are being goaded like that; your antagonist knows that she will get away with it and you won’t.  That is exactly what happened to Öqvist.  Sort of.  Öqvist was red-carded in the 68th minute for losing her head.  Bompastor was not disciplined, but I think Bompastor did not reckon with the crowd reaction.  She got the Marta treatment only unlike Marta, she actually deserved it.  The crowd was brutal, and I don’t think Bompastor was prepared to be the villain.  She was almost invisible afterwards and furious after the match.

It is important to remember though that France did not lose this match, Sweden won it.  Despite going down to 10 players, they never lost their head and regained the lead in the 82nd minute thanks to a beautiful strike from Swedish defender Marie Hammarström.  Now Sweden have a bronze medal to go along with their bronze from 1991 and the silver from 2003.  Lotta Schelin (who, being the lone Swedish Lyon player, imported Lyon’s stupid goal celebration to her Swedish side) scored the opener, continued her general attacking excellence, if not prolific scoring.  Schelin has been Sweden’s best player this tournament, and probably will be on the FIFA Team of the Tournament (she was an alternate for my team.)

Sweden had an excellent tournament.  Regardless of who wins, Sweden will have a better tournament record than the team that loses the final.  If the US wins, then they can (and will) claim that they beat the best side, with the inference that they were better.  Sweden have not been the most thrilling of sides, but they have been one of the most effective.  For that alone, their bronze medal is richly deserved.  Now please just make the goal dance go away.

Footnotes:

* What is it with French coaches?  They become so philosophical that they border on crazy.  Bini is merely the latest example.  Raymond Domenech (who used astrology charts to choose his lineups) should never have been let near a football pitch.  The only reason his 2006 France team did as well as it did is because Zidane took control of the team and dragged them to the finals.  Without Zidane the team fell apart.  Arsene Wenger, one of France’s best coaches, has also in recent years been afflicted by the beautiful loser syndrome which is why Arsenal is no longer a title contenders.

** Also according to Markgraf, another reason Bouhaddi was kept out was because of her abilities to inflict horrific injuries such as the one she inflicted on Swedish legend Hanna Ljungberg, an injury that helped end Ljungberg’s career (something the Swedes have not forgotten.)