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.

Euro Day 3: All Tik And No Tak

I have a math equation for all you football fans.  Spain = Barcelona – Lionel Messi + red shirts.

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Day 3 of the 2012 Euro showcased what is arguably the highlight match of the first round: Italy v. Spain.  It was this match-up four years ago in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Euro that propelled Spanish football to its current Golden Age.  After Spain’s youngsters beat Italy in penalty kicks, they massacred Russia in the semifinals and dominated Germany to win the nation’s first international title since the 1964 Euro (this excludes all youth tournaments and the 1992 Olympics which is not a major tournament in men’s football).  Following 2008 win, Spain, exuding confidence from every pore and terrifying opponents into submission, won every match in World Cup qualifiers, broke or tied records for win streaks and unbeaten streaks–streaks broken by the USA in the Confederations Cup semifinals–and promptly lost to Switzerland in the first round of the 2010 World Cup.

Of course Spain went on to win the World Cup, but in the Switzerland match something changed.  Tiki taka football, once the darling of the cognoscenti, started to look stale and boring as Spain ground out a series of 1-0 wins en route to the title.  Suddenly, many of the same people who once toasted Spain (and Barcelona) complained about how boring their dominating style was.  Spain and Barcelona though are not a fair comparison, because while the two teams played the same style and shared many of the same players, the Spanish lacked something, a scoring threat.  The difference of course is that Spain does not have Lionel Messi, and to a lesser extent Dani Alves running down the wing.  (Messi, for his part, scored a hat trick last night for Argentina in a 4-3 victory against hated rival Brazil–quite possibly the first player to do that to the Brazilians since Paolo Rossi in 1982.)

All styles of play and all great teams eventually end.  No Golden Age lasts forever.  Whether or not this tournament marks the end of the Reign in Spain remains to be seen, but the national team’s tiki taka was already on the wane in 2010 when Switzerland, Portugal, Paraguay, and especially the Netherlands, figured out that the way to stop Spain from scoring (if not winning) was to play organized defenses and rough the Spaniards up.  Without a Messi to terrify opposing defenses, tiki taka lacks its killer edge.  That has been Spain’s problem, all the more so since the injury to David Villa and the vanished confidence of Fernando Torres.  Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets are all great and intelligent players, but they are midfielders, and when things get tight, they prefer to pass rather than shoot.  Or, in a tortured analogy, they unlock the door but cannot walk through it.  Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque must share some of the blame.  He has a quality forward at his disposal, Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, but instead he chose to start instead a midfield sextet rather than use an actual forward–a fact that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman could not stop talking about during the match.

None of this of course tells you the score of the match, which was actually a 1-1 draw.  To Spain’s credit, when Italy went up 1-0, Fabregas scored four minutes later.  They held their nerve and got better.  But watching the match, I got the feeling that given Spain’s difficulties in scoring and the departure of Guardiola from Barcelona, the sun has finally set on the era of tiki taka.

There are other reasons why Spain merely drew, and the top one of those is the good play of Italy.  Italy is the most maddening national team in world football.  They come from the land of Michelangelo and Verdi but their play reminds you that they also come from the land of Silvio Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra.  Whenever one complains about their cheap fouling and diving, the Azzurri faithful complain about the critic being “anti-Italian.”  Add whining fans and players to the list of things to hate about the Italian National Team.

By all rights, Italy should be done and dusted as a footballing nation.  Yet again, their national league has fallen to scandal (is it coincidence that this happened the same year Juventus finally won the league again?).  Their economy is falling apart (like Spain’s, I might add), and their political system is so broken that the European Union (i.e. Germany) had to replace their dysfunctional but elected government with one that might actually govern.  Ironically, when the nation is in crisis, Italy is at its footballing best, and the Azzurri win tournaments–most famously the World Cups of 1982 and 2006.  Equally aggravating is that Italy play at its best when it faces top teams.  This is why Italy are the bogeyman of both Spain and Germany; neither of those national teams have ever been able to actually beat Italy.  Even Spain’s 2008 win was officially a draw as the victory came as a result of a penalty shoot-out.

Spain were a pre-tournament favorite, Spain has dominated the world, Italy is in crisis, Italy exited the World Cup in ignominious fashion.  Yet today Italy played the better game.  Somehow Spain still managed to eke out a draw.  Perhaps that is progress, or perhaps the era of tiki taka has come full circle and ended where it began–with a draw to Italy.

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In other Group C news, Croatia beat Ireland, the whipping boys of the Group.  I was not able to watch the match.  The problem with working during the week is that during the weekend, I have to make sure that all the chores are done.  While I could reasonably get away with watching Spain v. Italy, Croatia v. Ireland just did not have the same urgency.  Till next weekend.

They Should Know Better, But…

I have often wondered whether football clubs employ only people with no sense or if only people with no sense try to get jobs at football clubs.  Time after time, clubs, particularly very wealthy clubs, go after players who had already proved that despite their talent, their tenures would inevitably end badly.  Manchester City is probably the most egregious recent example with Robinho, Tevez and Balotelli all coming and exploding in spectacular fashion.  City is not the only offender though; off the top of my head I can think of very prominent flops at Barcelona and AC Milan, and there are many more (Brazilian clubs are equally bad).  I could have called every single one of those failures (and often did) even with my limited football experience.  How come if I can see it, then people who spend their lives around the game cannot?

Liverpool FC is definitely run by the football foolish.  Not just for the Suarez/racism debacle, or for overspending for untested players simply because they are British, or for letting the fans make the important decisions, or for keeping Kenny Dalglish as coach even though he hadn’t been a coach in about two decades.  Liverpool’s follies could fill an entire book let alone one paragraph of one blog post.

But this story caught my eye.  Now that Damien Comolli is no longer the director of football at Liverpool, owner John W. Henry is considering none other than Johan Cruyff.  Yes, that one.  Now in fairness, this is a story that came out of Soccernet (that most reliable of sources), and even according to the story Cruyff is not the only man under consideration.  Among the others under consideration are Louis van Gaal and Txiki Begiristain (both of whom, like Cruyff, have a Barcelona connection).  But Cruyff is the standout name.  He would be an utter disaster.

Now you may be thinking about Cruyff’s admirable record as coach and wondering if I am crazy.  He had some success with Ajax in the mid-80’s and then brought Barcelona to its greatest pre-Guardiola era ever.  Under Cruyff Barcelona won its first European Cup.  He gave Barcelona Guardiola.  More importantly, he instilled his philosophy in Barcelona, a philosophy that two decades later birthed this current team of legends.  In some ways, this is a good position for him; as director of football, most of his glaring managerial deficiencies such as hubris and a lack of tactical acumen (ironic given his role in Total Football) would not be an issue.

But Cruyff is still wrong for Liverpool for one simple reason: his ego.  Now there are other good reasons he would be awful: his dedication, his temperament, his lack of recent experience (apparently not a problem for Liverpool), the fact that his philosophy doesn’t fit in to the English/British game, his dislike of the English/British game, and the fact that his philosophy requires a long view and patience which do not jibe well with the modern money-based, instant gratification game of the present day.  Sure Liverpool need some kind of change, but Cruyff’s vision is too radical.

But it is his ego that will ensure he is a horrible fit for Liverpool.  Cruyff is a very cranky old man who demands nothing short of total devotion, and he takes umbrage and vengeance against those who oppose him.  Ask the former Ajax board of directors.  If Liverpool were willing to cede him total control than maybe, just maybe, it would be a workable fit.  But that is never going to happen, and Kenny Dalglish is the reason.  At Ajax and Barcelona, Cruyff is a legend, almost a deity, and was before he managed the clubs.  What would he be at Liverpool where he never had any connections?  And what happens when he inevitably clashes with Dalglish, whose philosophy is almost the complete polar opposite of Cruyff’s?  When push comes to shove, the fans will choose King Kenny over Cruyff every time.  And the fans control at Liverpool.  If Cruyff becomes director of football, it will be a miracle if he lasts a year.

Cruyff at Liverpool is insanity.  The foolish delusions of a senseless old man who refuses to accept reality.  In other words, the exact kind of person that a football club hires.

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And speaking of foolish old men, Pele has spoken again, and that is never a good thing.  Because Pele is a jealous god, he cannot handle the plaudits that Lionel Messi receives week in and week out.  This is not a new thing, and I’ve written about it before.  Pele’s latest dart is that Messi is not only not the greatest player ever, he’s not even as good a player as Neymar (who plays for Pele’s old club Santos.  What are the odds?).  Never mind that Neymar himself would say that Messi is better right now–no doubt all the more so since the humbling of Santos at the Club World Cup.

Because Pele had an opinion, it was inevitable that Maradona would get involved to (1) defend Messi and (2) attack Pele.  Maradona called Pele “stupid” because El Diego has such a way with words.  Messi v. Neymar is really just another way to have Pele v. Maradona Round MIV.  It’s the song that never ends.

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.

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.

Messi Versus Neymar

For the past four years or so, the big media “debate” has been whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player.  It’s not a battle that the players have participated in (Messi couldn’t care less), yet it has been argued around the world.  The truth though is that except for Real Madrid (club and fans), its mouthpieces Marca and AS, certain segments of the British media, some random idiots who refuse to accept reality, and the nation of Portugal, the Messi/Ronaldo debate was decisively settled last season–perhaps earlier.  The truth is that the Messi v. Ronaldo comparisons tend to come out only around Los Clásicos and then sink away again.  During the rest of the year, the majority of the world accepts the fact that Messi is the superior player who will go down in history as one of the all-time greats.

In Brazil, the press has completely forgotten about Cristiano Ronaldo.  In Brazil they have no time for Cristiano Ronaldo because in Brazil, they have Neymar.  The Brazilian press knows Messi is the best player in the world; in a fit of nationalist pique they propped up their own starlet and turned him into something that he is not.  Pele, that shameless hack, has given his imprimatur to the charade by declaring that Neymar is better than Messi.  However, while a football ignorant audience that doesn’t know any better and a Brazilian audience that wants to delude itself may accept Pele’s pronouncements at face value, the rest of the world knows that Pele cannot be trusted.  if he tells you the sky is blue, check for yourself (or as Sid Lowe so succinctly, eloquently, and accurately put it on The Guardian‘s December 15, 2011 Football Weekly podcast “Pele doesn’t know shit!”).

The Brazilian obsession with Neymar is so packed with psychological baggage, that it would take a Ministry of Therapy to sort it out, and none of it has to do with him being actually better than Messi.  (Whether or not Santos wins this weekend, Barcelona is still the best team in the world.  Sorry.)  I’ll try to unpack the baggage a little, but I make no promises about being comprehensive.

First, Neymar is a teenage phenomenon from Santos–Pele’s club!  Every Santos teenager who could kick a ball anywhere near a net has been tagged with the “next Pele” label, but Neymar spearheaded his team to a Copa Libertadores win, which only compounds the pressure.

Second, Brazil, still thinking it is the world’s greatest footballing nation, desperately wants the world’s top player to be a Brazilian.  Ronaldinho squandered his ability in spectacular fashion, Kaka was always a stopgap measure, and Robinho never lived up to his promise.  Ronaldo ain’t coming back.

Third, Neymar plays in Brazil, and this cannot be underestimated.  Brazilians feel deeply insecure that their league is second-tier behind Europe.  The fans demand their players go abroad but then resent them for leaving (calls for an only home-based national team surface every World Cup.)  The Club World Cup means so much to them–more, I would wager, than the Copa Libertadores–because their best gets to play the best from Europe.  Brazil’s league has gotten stronger in the last few years, but it is nowhere near Western Europe.  Santos may be able to keep Neymar and Paolo Henrique Ganso for now, but that won’t last forever.  If those two players want to be considered among the elite, they need to play in Europe.  They know it, and so do the Brazilian fans in their heart of hearts.

Finally, Messi is Argentinian.  It eats into the souls of Brazilian fans that the best player in the world is a native son of their national team’s greatest rival.  Messi v. Neymar is a replay of the tedious Pele v. Maradona arguments that have plagued the sport and continue to do so.  The difference though is that Pele/Maradona is a legitimate argument (sort of) whereas Messi/Neymar is not.

For all these reasons, Neymar has been propped up to levels that he hasn’t merited.  Whatever he may be, and he has the talent, he is that not now.  He is untested at the highest level, i.e. a competition where a better class of defenders will get in his face and where the referee will not award him a foul every time he throws himself on the ground.   His deification is a sign of Brazilian insecurity, arrogance, and nationalism mixed together, and the European media has fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

The Club World Cup will not make Neymar the best player in the world.  In four years or so we can reevaluate his position.  Until then, he is a terrific footballer, and a worldwide brand in the making.  But he is not Messi.

L’Shana Tovah

For all of my Jewish readers out there, I wish you a happy and sweet new year.

Today the new year began extremely sweetly for one non-Jew.  Lionel Messi scored his 194th goal for Barcelona (the second of two he scored in today’s Champion’s League match at BATE Borisov), thereby equaling the record of Barcelona legend Ladislao Kubala.  What Kubala took 12 years to do, Messi has done in seven.  Messi is only 42 goals or so away from breaking the record held by Cesar Rodriguez, which means that barring the horrendous (injury or transfer), that record should be Messi’s within the next two seasons at most.  Now certain caveats do apply: football is a team sport, goals are a relatively overrated statistic, and different eras cannot be compared and all that.  But for a club that also had Cruyff, Maradona, Romario, and Ronaldo, none of their tenures with the blaugrana compare to Messi’s.  He is probably the greatest talent that Barcelona ever harnessed, and the rewards have been plentiful.

Long may the reign of Lionel Messi continue.