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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Euro Day 16: A Comedy Of Errors

The football gods have a dark, ironic sense of humor.  The British football media and fans have complained endlessly about Spain’s tiki taka style.  Therefore, those same complainers were forced to watch an England team that could not keep possession, could not pass, and could not score.  And then they lost in that most English of ways.  Penalty kicks.  Again.

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The first twenty minutes of this match were surprisingly entertaining; the next hundred were unbearable.  Italy were woeful; England were worse.  Neither team could score, and all attempts (particularly those from England) were almost a parody.  But beyond the shooting, at least Italy looked like a football team–albeit a mediocre one.  England’s players are supposed to be elite; instead they looked like a group of toddlers who had never actually seen a ball before.  The passing in particular was horrendous.

Based on all available evidence, one must conclude that the football gods hate England.  Or maybe not hate exactly.  More like they take pleasure in the suffering of England.  The more ironic the punishment, the better.  This is the only conclusion I can draw from the six years I have been watching the sport.  At the 2006 World Cup, England were ignominiously dumped out by Portugal and a winking Cristiano Ronaldo, then one of the rising stars of the Premier League, who got Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney red carded for stamping on another Portuguese player.  England didn’t even make the 2008 Euro, and had to hear the rest of the world extol the 2008 Euro as the best ever.  In 2010, England finished second in their group to the United States, were booed of the field by their fans after a lackluster draw against Algeria, and then lost 4-1 against hated enemy Germany after a legitimate England goal was disallowed (calling to mind the famously controversial English goal from the 1966 final against West Germany).  The entire Fabio Capello era was a just a big joke at England’s expense, ending in his abrupt resignation just before the Euro.  And in the years before I watched there was the 1-0 loss to the US in 1950, the dog that urinated on Jimmy Greaves in 1962, the World Cups England did not qualify for in 1974, 1978, and 1994, the other Euros England failed to qualify for in 1964, 1972, 1976, and 1984, all the losses to German opposition (especially those in penalties) who barely think of England as a rival, the 1998 loss on penalties to England’s other hated enemy Argentina (after a red card for a petulant David Beckham), all penalty kick losses (5 out of 6), and, of course, the Hand of Diego.

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The American football fan must at some point come to terms with England.  Given the closeness of the UK and US politically, culturally, and linguistically, it is unsurprising that most Americans fans generally see England as something of a big brother to be emulated.  I tend to see them as the drama queen neighbor with whom I am constantly forced to interact and whom I resent for it.  But there is really no other frame of reference for most monolingual Americans because outside of the UK there is very little in the way of football coverage in English (save for American coverage which varies dramatically in quality).  Additionally, the English Premier League is the richest and glitziest league in the world and the one with the best marketing arm, which means everyone around the world watches it.

Look at any American media outlet that has a section about soccer/football.  If there is a writer from another country, the chances are that said writer is English (even if he or she writes about another country that is not England).  Because of the language barrier, Americans, when they read coverage in the foreign press, are more likely to read the British newspapers.  Likewise, American blogs and newspapers are more likely to follow the lead of British media.  ESPN learned that for international tournaments, it is a good idea to have at least one football announcer with an English accent.  It may seem chauvinistic and insulting, but this comes following the failures of many different American announcers, one of whom had never watched a game of football in his life prior to calling a World Cup.  (As I side note, I was really bothered by the cheerleading and excuse making coming from Ian Darke and Steve McManaman in the booth.  It was not until the absolute end that either would admit that England were awful.  It’s one thing to cheer on the US team for an American audience, but it another to cheer on the English team for an American audience.)

As a result we in America are inundated with the opinions of the British.  Trust me when I say it is claustrophobic, especially for me who sees the English ideal as the enemy of football.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am really tired of hearing the English media drone on and on about how boring Spain are.  Tiki taka is the opposite of the English ideal which holds that technique is suspect, possession is cheating, and short passes are beneath contempt.

So the gods of football delivered their latest ironic punishment to England.  England’s players displayed no technique whatsoever, their passes went wrong more often than right, and Italy routinely stripped them of possession.  (And to rub it in just a little bit more, England took the lead in the penalty shootout only to blow it.)   Sure the result was technically a 0-0 draw, but England were thoroughly outclassed and shown up as utterly awful.  One cannot even blame Roy Hodgson given how little time he had to work with the team.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the bias against tiki taka, no?

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Italy meanwhile have just come off an emotionally and physically draining match that showed up their weaknesses and pushed them to the physical limits.  Germany, their opponents in the next round, will have had 48 hours longer to rest and were on cruise control against Greece.  Germany also have a far more talented squad.  The odds are incredibly stacked against Italy.

Expect an Italian victory.  Germany never beat Italy.