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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Magical Marta

It’s been some time since I wrote about Marta, who has moved back to Sweden, although she is now with Tyresö.  I was under no delusions that she was going to stay given that when she left the WPS was hanging by a thread.  I have regrets that she left but no anger.  Marta paid her dues; it was the league (and the public at large) that couldn’t keep up its end of the bargain.

Back in Sweden, Marta is doing what Marta does best.  Watch the video.  It’s the second goal (although you don’t need me to tell you that). The question is not whether any female player has ever been able to play like Marta; no one has.  The real question is how long it will take before another player can do something like this in the post-Marta world.  (After all, how long did it take after Maradona for Messi to appear?)

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.

WPS Talent Drain

Verónica Boquete is going to FC Energy Voronezh, a club I had never heard of before, but is, according to Wikipedia, the most successful club in the Russia’s top women’s league.  (Brazil’s Aline, Cristiane, and Fabiana will also be going to Russia to play for WFC Rossiyanka.)  I adore Boquete; she plays for the team that I love, the Philadelphia Independence.  According to Equalizer Soccer, Independence coach Paul Riley expects her to be back, akin to WNBA players who go to Europe during the offseason.  I hope she returns because she is an amazing and elegant player.  Nevertheless, I fear this is a permanent departure given the general chaos that is the future of the WPS.

Boquete was named the league’s player of the year (the Michelle Akers Player of the Year.)  She was a major reason why the Independence made it to the title game, losing to the Western New York Flash on penalties.  It was not an unexpected result; the Flash has the much vaunted attacking prowess of Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, and of course, Her.  Despite the Flash’s big names, in my eyes Boquete was the revelation of the year, at least from a league view.*  She’s a tough, ridiculously gifted, never-say-die midfielder who deserves to be treated like any star in the men’s game.  Because she is Spanish, she (ironically) does not play for a high-profile women’s national team, which means she will not get the same worldwide recognition as other gifted non-Americans such as Louisa Necib, Fatmire Bajmaraj, Homare Sawa, and Marta.  Fortunately, WPS fans got the chance to appreciate her brilliance, even if the rest of the world–including the Spanish–did not.

But now she’s going to Russia and will get a salary that the WPS cannot compete with (about $114,000).  The influx of money into the Russian game is a mirror of what is happening in the Russian men’s game, which is why Samuel Eto’o is now the world’s highest paid player, despite moving to a team that was 11th in the Russia’s top league last year, and is no fixture of the top league.  (This is the same team that also now employs the former Brazilian great Roberto Carlos.)

The amount of money funneled through the Russian top leagues is a statement of intent, at least by the billionaire robber barons of the post-Soviet era who want Russia to be a football powerhouse.**  If said billionaire robber barons are willing to spend the money, I am not going to begrudge them the right to build a strong women’s national league.

Still, I can be sad about it.  Boquete’s departure portends bad things to come for the WPS and probably a mass exodus, at least among the top players.  Boston Breakers are on the verge of collapse (again), the attendance of Sky Blue FC did not improve despite a post-World Cup bump around the league, the WPS is fighting with magicJack (formerly Washington Freedom) owner Dan Borislow, and the second WPS commissioner has left her position only a year after taking the job.  The WPS is without a sponsor because Puma did not renew.  The 2012 season will see the international players leave for the Olympics.  Swedish international Caroline Seger is going back to her home country to play for Tyresö FF, and Marta’s future is up in the air.  If Marta goes elsewhere that would be devastating, and a real blow to the WPS’s claim that it is the best women’s league in the world.

There are also bright sides (although regular season attendance was down that trend was reversed by a post-World Cup bump, and the playoffs were the best attended ever.***), and I strongly advise you to read the Equalizer Soccer post I linked to above about the WPS offseason.  At the moment though I am not feeling very hopeful.  I blame Hurricane Irene.

Footnotes:

*  The revelation of the year in the entire sport was Homare Sawa, which is why she will deservedly win FIFA female player of the year award.  In my eyes, the top three players of the year in order are Sawa, Boquete, and Marta.  I doubt FIFA will see it that way, but FIFA has even more of an ignorance about the women’s game than it does the men’s game.

**  Even when their money is not in Russian clubs.  Roman Abramovich, the owner of the English club Chelsea put a lot of his own money into the Russian National Team and was behind Guus Hiddink’s tenure there.  Abramovich also seems to have some connection to the Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg although I cannot figure out what it is.

*** Even though WPS figures are not particularly thrilling, it should be noted that leagues across Europe would be envious of WPS numbers.  Look at the attendances for Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Europe’s premier league.  The WPS 2011 average was 3,535.  During the playoffs it was 5,982.

Women’s World Cup: Team Of The Tournament

In the days before the final (and third place match), there is little to write about, and I am not quite ready to risk predictions today. Instead I am going to pick a team of the tournament (which I think will remain the same even after the final two matches.)  I went with a 4-3-3 even though no team actually used that formation.

Agree?  Disagree?  Want to give your own team of the tournament?  Please leave comments.

Team of the Tournament

Hope Solo

Ali Krieger – Christie Rampone – Faye White – Sonia Bompastor

Camille Abily – Homare Sawa – Louisa Necib

Genoveva Añonma – Abby Wambach – Marta

Super Sub: Megan Rapinoe

Alternates:

Precious Dede, Ali Riley, Lauren Cheney, Lotta Schelin, Cristiane, Kerstin Garefrekes, Maribel Domínguez, Heather O’Reilly, Aya Miyama

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is the best in the world, and in my opinion the best there ever was.  She saved the Americans time and time again, never more so than in the quarterfinal match against Brazil.  Her only competition, and this is a distant second, is Precious Dede of Nigeria, who let in a grand total of only two goals the entire tournament–one to France and one to Germany.  Not a bad showing.

Right Back:  This was actually the hardest position for me to pick, because there were so many good candidates.  Ali Krieger was the class of the tournament, but not far behind her was Ali Riley of New Zealand who was the brightest spot of a developing team. (and who is also generally excellent for the Western New York Flash.)  Special mention to Equatoguinean right back Bruna, she of the now infamous Hand of Oh My God!  It is not that Bruna was a class above everyone else consistently (hence she did not make my alternates bench), but her man-marking of Marta was a class for most of the match.  She shadowed Marta so effectively, that she kept the Brazilian quiet until the very end.  How effective was it?  When Marta went to talk to her coach, Bruna followed her, (and since Bruna speaks Portuguese, it prevented any kind of communication.)

Center Backs:  I admit the choices here were somewhat sentimental.  It was hard to choose center backs because unlike the outside backs, center backs tend to get singled out more for their few mistakes than the (many more) times they successfully stop the attack.  The center back takes more abuse from the goalkeeper than anyone else because they are always at the back (unlike the full backs who charge down the flanks).  Center back is not a glamorous position, but it is an extremely important one.  Being a center back requires intelligence and leadership.  The center backs keep the shape of the defense, and it is no surprise that center backs make the best captains.  With that in mind, my center backs were Christie Rampone and Faye White, two very successful veterans.  Few could argue with my choice of Rampone, who has been a rock at the back, but White is tougher to justify.  Overlook the missed penalty kick that will probably haunt her forever.  The truth is that England’s defense was very good, and White, as captain, was responsible for that.  England just came up short against a far superior team, and even that superior team only won because of the roulette wheel that is penalty kicks not because they broke down White’s defense (and she was hobbled by the end of that match.)

Left Back:  Right back offered too many good choices, but there is only one choice for left back: Sonia Bompastor.  She was the only good part of France’s defense, and her charges down the left were a terror to all teams that opposed her.  She was also the only person to truly beat Hope Solo on goal, a goal that made Solo furious.  Bompastor is the best left back in the women’s game.

Right Midfield: This was another really tough position.  Camille Abily scored only one goal this tournament.  Nevertheless, her contributions were tremendous to an excellent French side.  It was very hard to decide between Abily, Heather O’Reilly, and Kerstin Garefrekes, but in my opinion, Abily just ekes out O’Reilly.  O’Reilly was very important to the US side; when she sat out with an injury, the US lost.  Garefrekes was  one of the few bright spots of an imploding Germany.  Blame Silvia Neid and Birgit Prinz, but Garefrekes was blameless.

Central Midfield:  Homare Sawa.  Because Japan are such a great team, and each player makes the others better, it is very difficult to separately honor any of the Japanese players individually, and I have done them a disservice by not including more on this list.  One Japanese player stands head and shoulder above everyone though: Sawa.  She is the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual engine behind her team’s machine, and she is the player of the tournament.  She is the only player in the tournament thus far to score a hat trick, and her assist for Karina Maruyama’s goal gave Japan its most important win ever.  Alas, there is only one choice, because there are so many good contenders.  Lauren Cheney deserves some appreciation; when she is at center, she is one of the most creative US players.  (The problem was that she often started on the left and then moved into center, which is why she is not more competitive on this team.)  Had Germany done better, Simon Laudehr would be on my list somewhere.  Give a little love for the veterans Formiga and Kelly White who are playing in their last tournament; if there were a lifetime achievement award, both would get it.  Finally,some mention should go to Kim Kulig of Germany and Nilla Fischer of Sweden, who proved that when the starting center midfielder is not playing, a team can go south very quickly (especially when the opponent is Japan.)

Left Midfield:  This is cheating a little bit I suppose.  Louisa Necib was an attacking midfielder for most of the tournament, but she is one of the breakout stars of this tournament, and I had to include her.  Therefore I am moving her to left with the understanding that at some point in the second half Megan Rapinoe, another break out star, will come in for her.  Necib is one of the most graceful players out there, and was repeatedly compared to her countryman Zinedine Zidane who is also of Algerian heritage, as was repeated ad nauseam.  Hopefully she will not get crushed under the weight of that comparison because Necib has talent, creativity, and ball striking ability to spare.  Rapinoe lost her starting spot, but rather than sulk a la Prinz she became the best substitute of the tournament.  She was responsible for both Abby Wambach’s tying goal against Brazil, and Alex Morgan’s beautiful chip goal against France, and she scored a goal of her own against Colombia (Born in the USA!.)  Another great player is Aya Miyama whose mastered the art of the set piece.  How the Japanese produce such consistently good players in that department is beyond me.

Right Wing:  One of the other major breakout stars of this tournament was Genoveva Añonma.  She only scored two goals, a brace against Australia, but they were her team’s only goals.  That pretty much describes Equatorial Guinea.  Añonma kept that team afloat.  She was their everything.  Even though Equatorial Guinea was eliminated, Añonma announced herself as one of the world’s attackers.

Center Forward: Abby Wambach.  It’s hard to remember now that coming into the tournament, Abby Wambach could not score a goal to save her life.  This was exacerbated in the match against Colombia where attempt after attempt refused to go in no matter how well she struck the ball or how fortuitous the opportunity.  It was not until after her should-have-been-illegal, off-the-shoulder goal against Sweden that the floodgates opened.  It’s not  that Wambach scored so many goals though as much as when she scored: the tying goal against Brazil and the winner against France.  Wambach’s ability to carry her team is second only to Sawa.  There is no one else who could be the center forward.  There are however, honorable mentions.  Maribel Domínguez and Lotta Schelin, although not high scorers carried their teams.  Domínguez is a particularly poignant case.  If she were ten years younger, Mexico would be a force in the foreseeable future.  Hopefully the team will be able to live in the house Domínguez built, but unfortunately Marigol has to move on.  Special mention must also be given to Christine Sinclair who kept Canada in contention against Germany and then played through a broken nose.  Canada deserved better than its finish and so did Sinclair. Because they didn’t, Sinclair missed out on the team.

Left Wing: Marta.  The best player in the world and possibly of all time.  Brazil exited early but that is the fault of federation and coach, not of Marta who scored four goals, two in spectacular fashion that only Marta could pull off.  That is not to mention her the other parts of her game: (1) her assists, and (2) by virtue of being Marta, she kept opposing defenders occupied long enough for her teammates to score.

Women’s All Time XI (Take Two)

Now that I am getting more views on this blog (thank you all so much for reading; I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it), I want to ask a question that did not receive any responses the last time I asked it.  Who you would put on a greatest ever women’s team?

One of the most enjoyable things about following sports is those endless pub debates about who is the greatest ever.  It’s completely meaningless, but so much fun.  On SI.com, Jonathan Wilson just published the last part of his Greatest Ever Team Tournament (Ajax ’72 over Barcelona ’11 3-2 in the finals–probably a fair result), and although I have expressed some reservations about it, I think these kinds of debate that Wilson has engaged in is a fundamental cornerstone of a successful fan culture. Sometimes the arguments can be very persuasive and other times less so.  Even when the results are less convincing, the effort reveals a passion and energy that is admirable.  Even in sports I don’t normally follow (cricket, Australian rules football, hurling), I try to find out who the greatest ever is when those sports cross my path–even if I don’t know or care about such basic things as the rules.

That is why I am a bit surprised that I have not been able to find this kind of debate among followers of women’s football.  I think it will make the fan culture a richer experience.  So for the sake of the growth of the women’s game, I am hoping to start a trend.  Please leave your own selections below in the comments section, and tell your friends too.

Now a caveat: I am no expert on women’s football.  There are experts, lots of them, but I am not one of them.  My knowledge is particularly woeful outside of the USWNT.  I so adamantly state my non-expertise is because I need to explain why my list has only a few non-Americans.  In fact, this list is probably closer to being an All-Time American Women’s XI with some foreign influence.  Not only is it mostly American women, but specifically American women who played on the 1999 World Cup winning side.

I have no excuses for this other than it is what I know.  There are not many books on the modern history of women’s football, and YouTube can only take you so far.  News on foreign women’s leagues and tournaments is hard to come by, and I am holding out judgment on the current crop of American women.  So take this with a grain of salt, and please join in if you can.

My Starting XI: 

Solo

Chastain-Markgraf-Overbeck-Fawcett

Lilly-Akers-Sun

Hamm-Prinz-Marta

Now this is probably an awful list, but having said that let me explain why I made the selections I made.

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is currently the best goalkeeper in the world.  Is she the best ever, I don’t know, but I suspect yes.  This was not an easy choice.  Briana Scurry was a great goalkeeper for the US, with the 1999 penalty shootout as the highlight of her career.  But she also had a few lows: the 2007 semifinals, of course, but she also fell out of form after 1999, lost her starting place, and had to get back into shape.    The other goalkeeper I considered was Nadine Angerer because it is very hard to side against the only keeper ever to go an entire World Cup without letting in a goal.  Still, I believe that Solo is the best bar none; aside from her talent, she has that insanity that great keepers have.

Defenders:  Of all the choices, these are the ones I am most uneasy about, first because all four are Americans (granted, multiple title-winning Americans), and second because all of them were on the 1999 team.  Three of them were on the 1991 team, although Brandi Chastain was not a starter.  All of these four defenders were at the top of the women’s game for around a decade and a half.  (Plus Chastain gave women’s football its single most iconic moment.  What is often overlooked is that although Chastain took the final winning kick, Overbeck and Fawcett converted the first two kicks.)  Markgraf, although only on one World Cup winning squad, won two Olympic gold medals.  I am confident that they are four of the best defenders ever even if not the absolute four best.

Midfielders:  I am on shaky ground with the midfield because Michelle Akers and Sun Wen were really forwards.  I could have used more orthodox midfielders such as Kelly Smith of England (who also played at forward), Shannon Boxx or Julie Foudy of the US, or Sissi of Brazil, but if that were the case, I would have to leave out players who I believe to be better.

Kristine Lilly is a legend of the game.  She is the most capped player, male or female, in history and probably will remain so.  She won two World Cup titles, two Olympic titles in her long, long career.  She was one of the best midfielders in the game bar none.  Michelle Akers is one of the greatest players of all time; only Marta can also lay claim to that title.  Akers was always the strongest, fastest, most monomaniacal player on the field the commentator during the 1991 final gave her what he believed to be the ultimate compliment, “she plays like a man.”)  She was heads and shoulders above her peers, and when her team underperformed she put them on her back and carried them to victory.  No wonder that FIFA named her Player of the Century.  Akers was not the only player named Player of Century.  Akers was honored by FIFA’s technical committee, but Sun Wen of China won the honor by an Internet vote.  What Akers was for the US, Sun was for China.  She was their best player, and one the greats.  She won the 1999 Golden Ball and co-won the 1999 Golden Boot.  China has never been able to replace her, and the Chinese women’s program has sank into mediocrity.

Forwards:  I debated excluding Mia Hamm.  Hamm was one of the all time great, and the sport’s first superstar, but she was also not of the strongest fortitude and tended to vanish in big moments.  Nevertheless, any list that did not have international football’s most prolific scorer (again man or woman) would be worth even less than nothing.  Before her problems this World Cup, Birgit Prinz was an icon.  All she did was score goal after goal for club and country.  Prinz was a feared name in the 00’s and led every team she was on to success, including two consecutive World Cup wins for Germany in 2003 and 2007.  It is a shame what happened at the 2011 World Cup, but that should not diminish her legacy.  Finally the last person on the list has to be Marta, arguably the greatest individual player of all time.  Now tied for Prinz as the record World Cup scorer (and a ridiculous record of 14 goals in 14 matches), Marta has a simply unmatched technique and she can do thing other women simply cannot.  She has been compared to Pele and Messi although comparisons to Garrincha and Maradona would not be that far off either.  Marta is something of a tragic figure.  Opponents cannot stop her, but her own national federation, though its disdain and apathy for the women’s game, has all but ensured that Marta, when she retires, will do so without a world title.

So am I completely off?  Am I right on target?  Who would you put on your starting XI?

Women’s World Cup Day 12: Guh?!?

Day 12 of the Women’s World Cup saw Sweden take apart an Australia hobbled by defensive errors, and Brazil become the most hated side in the tournament as the US won on penalty kicks in what was by far the most controversial and dramatic match of the tournament.

Sweden v. Australia

This match was on too early in the morning for me.  I didn’t watch it.  Australia had a shaky defense, and Sweden punished them for it.  I would suggest that you go here if you want a good summary of the match.  Otherwise, I am wiped out from emotion.  Before I fade, I want to write about the US/Brazil match.

United States v. Brazil

Remember Bruna’s handball against Australia?  Well, the officiating in today’s game would make Bruna watch in horror.  The officiating in this match was so awful, so mind-bogglingly bad, that it threatens to overshadow the entire tournament that already has more than its fair share of questionable officiating.  Calls went the wrong way, handballs went unpunished, an offside goal was allowed, a penalty kick may have been wrongfully given, and a penalty save was retaken for unknown reasons.  Instant replay FIFA, instant replay!  And make the referees talk to the media.

I have no idea where to start with this match, so I will begin with what I always being with: there is no such thing as deserve in football.  (Unlike baseball however, there is crying, and a lot of it.)  Brazil deserved to win because they deserve a world title; they have the best players in the world, particularly Marta who is now tied with Birgit Prinz for all-time leading scorer at the Women’s World Cup.  The US deserved to win because had they lost, it would have been because they were robbed by poor officiating.  Brazil deserved to win because, despite the constant (and deserved) criticism of Kleiton Lima’s tactics, the only goal that Brazil let in all tournament before Abby Wambach’s extra-time, stoppage-time header was Daiane’s own goal at the beginning of this match.  The US deserved to win because they had a more organized system and work better as a team.  Both teams deserved to win because they are fighting for women’s football in their respective countries, and a loss could be fatal.

That is why it is a good thing that deserve has nothing to do with it.

The quarterfinals of this Women’s World Cup have now given us three extra time stunners, two of which went to penalty kicks.  As I said yesterday, penalty kicks are a horrible way to decide who moves on even if there is no better alternative.  It is a shame too, because the losers go home in a disgrace they didn’t earn.  Officially, any match that goes to penalty kicks is a draw, but the truth is that one side wins and the other side loses.

US v. Brazil was possibly the strangest match I have ever seen.  Seemingly it was a tactical battle between a very good coach with decent players (Pia Sundhage) and a very bad one with spectacular ones (Lima).  Ahead of time, ESPN told us that the match would be all about whose side successfully penetrated the other side’s shaky defense.  It seems like Sundhage got the upper hand in the beginning because Daiane scored an own goal within 74 seconds of the starting whistle.  Following that, the US remained tight and organized, denying any opportunities to Brazil’a attacking trident of Marta, Cristiane, and Rosana.

As is the wont of the Brazilians when they are not allowed to play their game, they got visibly frustrated, Marta especially, whose petulance began to irritate the crowd–not just the Americans, but also the neutrals (re: Germans) who were watching.  Yet, despite Brazil’s frustration, the back line miraculously held together, and as the back line held, the front line gained momentum.  By the end of the first half, Brazil were in control even if they were down a goal and had less possession.

In the second half things started to go very badly very quickly for all involved.  Brazilians are notorious for diving, both the women’s team and the men’s (and there is most certainly diving in women’s football, despite what ESPN says.)  It is because in Brazil almost any contact is called for a foul.  Robinho has had a very difficult time in Europe because he does not get the same kind of protection (coddling) from European referees, and Neymar, possibly the world’s most notorious diver, is sure to have the same problems when he moves.  Whenever you read about Dani Alves of Barcelona, you are sure to see the phrase “Oscar-winning performance” attached to his name.  I have written a half-hearted defense of diving before, so needless to say I don’t find it nearly as egregious as most of my fellow Americans.  Besides which, no one in the American press is going to talk about all the diving Abby Wambach did (Marta’s hypocritical rage at Wambach’s diving was what earned her a yellow card.)  No, no.  Americans don’t do that kind of thing.  Or so we are told by the American media.

It will be interesting to see who is named FIFA player of the year this December.  I wonder if it will be Marta again.  The world votes, yet the world does not know many female players.  Despite scoring four goals and assisting in, I believe, two others (and now being in the lead for the Golden Boot), this has not been Marta’s tournament.  Like Messi last December, a loss in the World Cup does not mean she is not the world’s best.  If it were not for Marta, there would be no Brazil.  Formiga may be the engine that powers the machines, Aline may be the captain, but Marta is the heart and soul of the squad.  They all follow her lead, probably more than they follow Lima’s.  Marta has been criticized for her frustration, for screaming at the officials, for diving, etc. (although she does not dive nearly as much as her teammates or other Brazilian players.)  But the truth that everything Marta does is calculated to pump up her team.  As a result, Marta walks the line between leader and villain.  This dichotomy is exacerbated by the fact that she is the most famous female player in the world.  We want our great athletes to have fire, but then we criticize them for having too much fire.  Marta did not deserve to targeted as Public Enemy #1.

And she did become a villain today.  The crowd jeered the Brazilians, but their loudest boos and whistles were aimed at Marta.  Lord, how they hated Marta.  But the problem with aiming all the venom at Marta and her teammates though is that they were just doing their job.  Their obligation is to win not to please the non-Brazilians in the crowd.  If there were problems with the officiating, and there most certainly were problems with the officiating, then the Brazilians have the obligation to use it to their advantage, unsporting as it may seem.

Which brings us to Brazil’s goals.  The first one is by far the more questionable of the two.  Marta was brought down in the box by defender Rachel Buehler.  Buehler was red carded and a penalty kick was given.  It was debatable whether Buehler should have gotten carded and whether there should have been a penalty at all (supposedly Buehler had a fistful of Marta’s jersey which is a major no-no.)  What happened next though was just strange.  Hope Solo saved Cristiane’s penalty, but then the referee called for a retake.  Apparently one of the American players encroached on the penalty area, or perhaps Solo came off her line, it is not very clear and the referee was not telling.  If the latter, the call was horribly wrong.  Solo was given a yellow card, probably for dissent.  Marta took the penalty, converted it, and instantly became the villain.

According to a strict interpretation of the laws of the game, the referee was correct if there was encroachment.  But every time that kind of decision is made, there is always cause for question because the infraction is so minimal and the consequences so major.  It was the same last year in the World Cup quarterfinals in the match between Spain and Paraguay.  Spain converted a penalty, the referee called it back, and the penalty was saved the second time.

By the end of regulation time, Brazil was spent.  At the beginning of extra time Marta scored another goal, once again a goal that probably should not have been allowed because of an offside infringement from Maurine.  But the goal was of such spectacular quality that any lover of beauty in sport would overlook that.  It was a goal that only Marta could score.

After that goal, the US looked like they had been beaten.  They attacked and they attacked, but could not penetrate the leaky and yet impenetrable Brazil defense.  Set piece after set piece was turned back.  The Brazilians, sensing victory, could not hold the ball.  Instead of using smart and fair tactics like Japan did yesterday against Germany, the Samba Queens took to diving, which inflamed the crowd all the more.  Every time a Brazilian, especially Marta, touched the ball, a chorus of jeers, boos, and whistles rained down on the field, and no doubt from the ESPN studio where Brandi Chastain was set to explode.

And then Brazil made an error that came back to haunt them.  Érika took a dive that required treatment.  She thought she was killing time, but the referee put that time back on the clock.  Two minutes into the stoppage time that Érika created, that is the 120 + 2 minute, Abby Wambach broke through the defense that no other team could break through.  She headed a ball, perfectly delivered by Megan Rapinoe, past the goalkeeper Andréia.

Once it got to penalty kicks, it was clear the US would win.  Andréia is good, but Hope Solo is better.  Andréia kept out Shannon Boxx’s opening goal, but the referee made Boxx retake it; Andréia was off her line.  Boxx converted this time.  Although Cristiane, Marta, and Francielle converted their kicks, the sweeper Daiane, the woman responsible for the earlier own goal, kicked timidly and Solo stopped it.  The US players all converted their penalties.  Twelve years to the day after the USWNT’s greatest moment, the final against China in the 1999 World Cup final, the US again won on penalty kicks.

If nothing else, Pia Sundhage should keep her job.  The squad made it to the semifinals, and beat one of their biggest rivals in the process.  They won in a spectacular Hollywood fashion that put to shame Landon Donovan and the US men’s heroics against Algeria last year–both matches coincidentally called by Ian Darke.  Yet, I sense that today is the end of the line for the US squad.  Despite all the heroics, despite the crowd adoration, despite the great advertisement for US Women’s football, and hopefully the WPS, the world has caught up.  Maybe Brazil couldn’t do it today, but there is France next and after that Sweden or Japan.  The US squad won an emotional victory and a physically draining one.  One wonders if the US have anything left to give or if their energy has reached its peak.  Now that Brazil is out, I back my home country, but one can only wonder if they have enough.  For all their talent and physical ability, Sweden has already beaten the US, and France and Japan have improved at a frightening pace by using a game of technical virtuosity completely unknown in the United States.

I wonder if this tournament is a swan song for the US Women’s National Team.  They won a great victory, but what happens after next week?  Is the USSF properly developing the next generation of female football stars?  I suspect that even more than the men’s program, the youth development for the women’s program has been met with little outside of apathy and incompetence.  That would be a catastrophe.  The US has the resources to contend for every tournament, but the rest of the world has been caught up, as evidenced by this tournament.  The US will no longer coast to the later rounds by virtue of a legacy built by Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, two World Cups victories, and three Olympic gold medals.  If the USSF does not prepare the next generation properly, then the US Women’s Team like its oldest and most bitter enemy Norway, will find itself relegated to football oblivion.