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.

Good Bye, Pep

Pep Guardiola has announced that he will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.  This is not a shock; in fact, I would have been surprised if he had chosen to stay.  He seems completely drained, and he needs to recharge his battery.   That will not happen at Barcelona.

So, I wish you much success wherever you go and whatever you do next, Pep.  You brought Barcelona its greatest period of glory, and you will always be a legend.  A toast to you, Pep; you deserve it.

Please Don’t Go, Pep!

Now that André Villas-Boas has been sacked, Chelsea is looking for a new manager.  Again.

I never quite understood why Villas-Boas went to Chelsea to begin with.  Well, obviously I do understand; money talks.  But at the time he signed I felt like Villas-Boas was shooting himself in the foot.  Had he stayed at Porto, he would have gotten some Champions League experience, and probably another league title.  Chelsea paid better and was higher-profile, but there were far too many pitfalls.  If the England manager is a poison chalice, than how much worse is Chelsea manager?  Not only do you have to deal with the press and the inflated expectations to win everything, you also have no time to settle in before someone is calling for your head–even when you are winning.  On top of that the players control the locker room, and really who wants to be subservient to a loathsome human being like John Terry?  Then there is the shadow figure of Roman Abramovich who expects nothing less than total domination in England–a feat that may be more and more unlikely as Manchester City can now match him dollar for dollar–and the Champions League.  Above all there is the memory of José Mourinho.  It’s unfair of course, Mourinho never won the Champions League at Chelsea either (and lest we forget, Mourinho was also sacked), but Mourinho brought Chelsea to heights it had never before scaled and has yet to attain again–even if Chelsea actually did won the League/Cup double under Carlo Ancelotti.

Villas-Boas definitely did himself no favors, and as the pressure ratcheted up on all sides, he cracked.  A deity in Porto and a laughingstock in London.  It’s almost Shakespearean in tragic scope.

So now Abramovich is looked for a new manager and his eye is firmly fixed on Spain, at least if we are to believe the British press.  Mourinho’s name is being thrown around, which is not a surprise given his (inevitable) unhappiness in Madrid and the fact that his name is always thrown around whenever Chelsea need a new manager.  Rafa Benitez has also been mentioned, which boggles the mind given (1) how long ago his success was, and (2) he much of a buffoonish figure he has become.

But for me, the most alarming name mentioned is Pep Guardiola who has (again) been hedging about signing a new contract for Barcelona.  Guardiola is the best manager Barcelona ever had.  In not fully four seasons he won 13 of a possible 16 titles, and possibly could have won more if not for an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland.  He is the epitome of the Barcelona system; he grew up in the academy, played for the first team, captained the team, managed Barcelona B, managed Barcelona proper, and is now the city’s most favored son.  Pep Guardiola is Barcelona.

Managing Barcelona is not easy.  It has aged Guardiola very rapidly.  No doubt Guardiola is also a man aware of history.  While I wouldn’t agree, there are so many pundits who believe that if Guardiola wants to be considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, he has to go and coach and win at another club, and in another league.  Additionally, the Alex Ferguson type manager, the man who spends decades at one club as an absolute authority, is not really a viable model anymore.  If Guardiola wants to go, I wish him the best. And thus my open letter to Pep Guardiola.

Dear Pep,

If you choose to leave Barcelona, may the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.  May sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.  You’ve given so much, Pep.  You’ve turned this Barcelona team into possibly history’s greatest side.  I want you to stay, but if you feel like you’ve given all you could, then no one can ask for more than that.

But don’t go to Chelsea.  I’m thinking about you, Pep.  The Barcelona backroom may be bad, but how much worse is Chelsea where you have no allies, only the whims of Roman Abramovich?  At Barcelona the players are devoted to you, and those who are not are traded.  At Chelsea, a few over-the-hill players rule the roost.  Terry, Lampard, Drogba, they run Chelsea, not the manager.  And they won’t let you do anything to jeopardize them.  You saw Raul at Madrid and you know about Totti at Roma.  Imagine three of them instead of one.  The team needs an overhaul, and there is no La Masia production line to provide replacements.  You only have the transfer market, and no recent additions will replace the unholy trinity in the fans’ eyes.

Barcelona has aged you, but Chelsea will kill you.  Please don’t go, Pep!  Please stay, but if you can’t stay, go somewhere else where you will be the boss.  You are not some title collector like Mourinho; you are an architect and a builder.  You create, you mold, you shape, and football is all the better for it.

Pep, whatever you choose to do is fine by me.  But for your sake, please don’t be tempted by Abramovich’s money.  Look at Villas-Boas; he was on the verge of greatness, and now his career is in tatters.  I’m thinking only of you, Pep.

Sincerely,

Solitary Muser

Another Day, Another Clásico

Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.

For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal.  And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead.  The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins.  The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field.  It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate).  Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss.  At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses.  (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.)  Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.

Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season.  Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league.  Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible).  The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.

Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry.  It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou.  The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals.  Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.

On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!”  The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards.  Too many draws.  Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won.  No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces.  Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it.  Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans.  This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down.  Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner.  When Madrid shut down the  Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.

(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol.  In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them.  In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws.  It’s pretty incredible.  Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)

This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof.  Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona.  Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou).  Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.

Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona.  But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse  Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season.  At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat.  He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies.  He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play.  And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving.  Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking.  So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.

Mourinho’s response was fascinating.  His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.  His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else.  At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this.  The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.”  On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager.  On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss.  It’s unfair.”  If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility.  Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know.  I claim no neutrality.  I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good.  I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.

Footnotes: 

* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League.  Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts:  (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago.  (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans.  (3)  So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are.  (4)  The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality.  For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years.  So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.

** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost.  The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing.  I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot.  For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.

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.

¡Campeones! ¡Campeones!

I had trouble sleeping the night before Barcelona was to play Santos in the Club World Cup.  As often happens before a big match that I am nervous about, I dreamt about the score after the match.  In my dreams Barcelona won 4-2, 4-1, and 3-1 (the score never stayed constant.)

Of course, Barcelona won the match 4-0.  It was probably the most flawless Blaugrana performance in a big match since the 5-0 result last year against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.  (When will non-Madrid teams learn not to wear white when playing Barcelona?  It only enrages the Blaugrana.)  Even the Champions League final against Manchester United, beautiful as it was, was not quite that perfect.  To the naysayers (who tend to be British) the Club World Cup is inconsequential.  Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports and World Football Daily is particularly vociferous in his dislike for the tournament.

The critics do have a point.  The Club World Cup is a FIFA invention, and like all FIFA inventions, it is deeply flawed and designed primarily to make FIFA money.  For example, although confederation champions, the likes of Aukland City and Al-Sadd would not be competitive in the Copa Libertadores let alone the Champions League (not that clubs from San Marino and Malta are world beaters.)  Calling Al-Sadd the third best team in the world is grating when the club is at this tournament solely by accident of geography.

Nevertheless, that does not negate the value of the Club World Cup.  What the critics don’t get is that there is a larger world outside of Europe.  Just because non-European clubs compete at a lower level than the European super clubs, that does not make them worthless.  The South Americans feel this snub most acutely because the success of the Champions League is built largely on the shoulders of their best players at the expense of the South American leagues which lack the money and resources to keep the best players.  The Club World Cup is a a way for the non-European leagues to get a foot in the spotlight, even if just for one or two matches.  Sometimes there is even a pleasant surprise.  Remember TP Mazembe?  Internacional of Brazil will never forget them.

The Mazembe upset aside, the Club World Cup is otherwise just an updated version of the old Intercontinental Cup, the champion of Europe against the champion of South America but with some preliminaries.  The real difference though is that during the International Cup era sometimes the world’s best teams really did play in South America, especially in the early years of the competition.  The Europeans (specifically the Northern Europeans) gave up on taking the Intercontinental Cup seriously, but the South Americans never did.  The Intercontinental Cup was a way for them to prove that football was their game and the Europeans were only playing it.  The Europeans’ disdain for the Intercontinental Cup and the Club World Cup enrages the South Americans.

The recent results however, have only proven the European correct.  The European clubs have won the last five Club World Cups.  The two before this run, won by the Brazilian clubs Inter and São Paulo, were both won by lesser sides.  The Brazilians parked the bus, waited for the right counterattack, got their one goal, and then parked the bus again.  It was their way of acknowledging their opponents’ technical superiority.

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Ever since it won the Copa Libertadores, Santos planned for the final against Barcelona (not an unusual tactic for a Brazilian side after it wins the Copa Libertadores).  Unlike its recent–successful–predecessors Santos wanted to play Barcelona the “right” way because it believed it could beat Barcelona.  Santos let its Brasileirão form suffer safe in the knowledge that already qualified for the next Copa Libertadores.

Santos bought into its own hype, probably because of all the historical coincidences following the Peixe on this campaign.  Santos won its third Copa Libertadores title ever, the first since Pele played.  The opponent in the Libertadores final was Peñarol, whom Santos beat for its first title way back in 1962.  Next year is Santos’s centenary year (as Tim Vickery is so fond of saying, the club was founded the day the Titanic sunk).  And in O Fauxhawk, the Santos faithful believe they finally have an heir to Pele (a real one this time, not some false messiah.)  The Brazilian press (followed by the world press) went overboard in its estimation of Santos for reasons I have explained previously.  Pele himself opened his mouth (never a good thing), and claimed Santos was better than Barcelona and Neymar was better than Messi.  Neymar, of course, was Pele’s stand-in for himself, for Pele is a jealous god who sees Messi as a false idol.

Santos made a fatal error; it underestimated how much Barcelona wanted this title.  This was not an unreasonable assumption because the European teams have historically not cared about the tournament.  It also came a little over a week after the most significant match of Barcelona’s season.  This assumption was even made by Tim Vickery, perhaps the most astute observer of football anywhere.  Last week in his BBC column, Vickery wrote:

Barcelona… have been in competitive action right up to Saturday night. Compared with the trip to Real Madrid, this tournament in Japan is almost an afterthought. For Santos it has been in every thought.

Yes, last week was the latest installment in the eternal struggle between Barcelona and its arch-nemesis, and yes, there was much at stake for Barcelona.  But the Club World Cup was never an afterthought for Pep Guardiola; it is a tournament he is obsessed with.  If you doubt that, watch his reaction to Barcelona’s victory over Estudiantes de la Plata two years ago.  Granted, Guardiola is not a taciturn man.  Once a match begins he scowls and yells, and gesticulates until it is over.  Barcelona could be up 5-0 and he never loses that intensity.  Only after his team wins the trophy does he smile.  He never cries though.  Nevertheless, after Barcelona beat Estudiantes, Guardiola broke down and sobbed.

Before 1992, Barcelona had never won the European Cup, the predecessor of today’s Champions League.  In fact, Barcelona was probably the best club never to have won.  Barcelona had won European glory elsewhere but never the biggest prize of all (although it lost in the final round twice).  All the more galling was how many times Real Madrid won.  In 1992, under the guidance of Johan Cruyff, Barcelona finally won the European Cup.  Among the players on the field was an elegant Catalan midfielder named Josep “Pep” Guardiola.  That year, Barcelona lost the Intercontinental Cup to São Paulo.  In 2006, when Barcelona (sans Guardiola) finally won the Champions League a second time, again it lost the Club World Cup, this time to Internacional.  Knowing that Real Madrid won three such titles only added salt to the wound.  Without the title, Barcelona could never truly call itself the world’s best team.  Ergo, Guardiola craves this title and what it represents.  What he wants his devoted players (particularly those who, like him, were brought through La Masia) want so badly to give to him.  He was, after all, the childhood idol of several of them.

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Guardiola is utterly devoted to Barcelona.  He may even be the apex of the Barcelona system.  He was a ball boy for the club, a youth player, a senior team player, team captain, youth manager, and finally the manager of the senior team.  As both player and manager he brought the club titles and trophies.  Now he is Barcelona’s most decorated and greatest manager, winning a supernatural 13 of 16 possible trophies in a mere three and half seasons.  He has given his all to the club, and each year he looks tremendously older, like the United States President.
In as much as the media loves to compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, the media also loves to compare Guardiola to Jose Mourinho.  Stylistically the two managers are near polar opposites (a subject that I have written about before) and currently they are each other’s primary rival.  That was before Mourinho arrived in Madrid.  Prevailing opinion (at least according to World Football Daily) is that right now Mourinho is the better manager.  Any armchair analyst has his own explanations for why Guardiola cannot be considered one of the greats yet: he hasn’t been a coach long enough, he’s only been with one team/country, he took over Frank Rijkaard’s team which any fool could manage, etc.
One has to put Guardiola’s accomplishments in context to understand why it is so unfair to disrespect him this way.  It is true he has only managed one team, but, excluding his apprenticeship in charge of Barcelona B, this is his first coaching job.  Ever.  If one’s criteria for greatness is coaching in more than one place, then wait for Guardiola’s second job before talking about him.  Otherwise, discussing his merits is akin to building a straw man simply to knock down (and to extol Mourinho.)
The Rijkaard criticism is especially galling.  Rijkaard was sacked because he had let the team fall apart and the inmates run the asylum.  His final season was disastrous for the club, and the final match at the Bernabeu was a humiliation that no doubt still burns the players who played that day.  Worse, Ronaldinho, once the hero of Catalonia, had become a dressing room poison and the symbol of everything wrong with the club.  Guardiola came in and got rid of Ronaldinho, Deco, and Giovanni Dos Santos, players he deemed not committed enough.  Guardiola has used the Barcelona reserves to perhaps its greatest effect; of the 13 players who were on the field in the Club World Cup final, 11 came through La Masia.  Most importantly, he refined and perfected Barcelona’s identity and ethos.  Under his watch, the team is everything, and all individual brilliance is a way to serve the team.  No matter how expensive a player (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), if he puts himself above the team, then he is out.  This is not Rijkaard’s team even if many of the players are the same.

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The real difficulty with comparing managerial greatness is that (unlike for players) there are different criteria to becoming a great manager.  Titles are the most obvious way to judge greatness because of their quantifiable nature; managers like Mourinho, Carlos Alberto Parreira, and Alex Ferguson will go down into history for their success at winning titles.  Generations from now they will be remembered for their dazzling array of silverware, although not much else.  Although commentators repeat it as though it were a mantra, it is simply not true that fans forget how the trophy is won.  Fans may not care, but they never forget.  For managers like Mourinho, there was no unifying philosophy beyond victory at all costs, no aesthetic to boggle the eyes, nothing to excite the pulse or caused the jaw to drop in wonder.  Judging by titles though can only really be done properly once a career is over.

The other way to judge managers is qualitatively.  What were their teams like while winning?  What imprint did the manager leave on the game?  This is how to best judge managers such as Rinus Michels (considered by many the greatest ever), César Luis Menotti, Béla Guttmann, Herbert Chapman, Hugo Meisl, Valeri Lobanovskiy, and Johan Cruyff to name a few.  As managers, they were successful, but as thinkers, innovators, tacticians, and philosophers, they were in a class by themselves, and the game remembers their contributions.  The football philosophers offers something beyond a full trophy case.  Rather than just being remembered, they will be studied.  Most importantly, they touch the heart of the football romantic.

It is the football romantic who remembers the beautiful losers as much as, and sometimes more than, then winners.  Everyone knows the Hungarians of 1954, but who outside of Germany remembers the winners?  It is the same with the football philosopher.  We want Marcelo Bielsa to succeed because he is so innovative.  He singlehandedly gave Chile an identity.  That same romantic impulse is why Arsenal fans still adore Arsene Wenger even though they have gone so many seasons without a solitary title.

 However many trophies Guardiola ends up with, he has already joined that second group.  He is the Aristotle to Cruyff’s Plato and Michel’s Socrates.  Guardiola’s Barcelona is steeped in Dutch perceptions of space, yet it is radically his own.  The midfield is the kingdom, and possession and passing are rule of law.  This season Guardiola has pushed the boundaries of his philosophy even further by experimenting with a three-man defense and a more expansive midfield–as much Bielsa as Cruyff.  The fruits of this labor paid off thus far in Barcelona’s two most important matches of the season; in the match against Madrid last week he outthought and outwitted Mourinho by adapting his tactics.  Yesterday Barcelona side demolished Santos.  So thorough was his side’s domination, that after the third goal, just before halftime, Guardiola allowed himself a smile.  On his watch, Barcelona joined the legends, teams who like the Ajax of the early 1970’s, Milan of the late 80’s, and Pele’s Santos, are spoken of with a hushed reverence.  (Yes, I know.  Wednesday night.  Stoke.  Funny.)

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Guardiola’s legacy as a philosopher is already being felt, and in the most unlikely of places: Brazil.  Even before the destruction of Santos, and the resulting horror of Brazilian fans and media, Barcelona had been on the minds of the nation’s football cognoscenti.  Tim Vickery described the scene:
The emergence and consolidation of the Catalan school has shaken Brazil, robbing it of something seen as a birthright – Brazil’s place as the spiritual guardians of the beautiful game. Be honest now – who would you prefer to see – the Barcelona of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, or the Brazil of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo which Dunga took to the last World Cup?

Last week Rio played host to the eighth annual version of Footecon, an annual conference of coaches organised by Carlos Alberto Parreira. As a veteran of all eight, I can confirm that this one was different.

Last year Parreira gave a splendid lecture dissecting the football of Barcelona – inspired by the excitement the team generated in the players he had been coaching with the South African national side. This year Barcelona’s presence was not confined to one lecture. Their shadow hung over the whole event – a process enhanced by the fact that one of the club’s directors had crossed the Atlantic to explain their philosophy of youth development.

It was a lecture that packed the hall, and to which Brazil coach Mano Menezes paid special attention. The debate afterwards – indeed much of what followed over the two days of the event – focused on similarities and especially differences between approaches in Barcelona and Brazil.

The whole article is a fascinating read, and it’s a theme he continued this week in his column for the BBC.  What Vickery did not mention, and what I would love to bring up with him if I ever get the chance is whether he thinks Santos’s defeat to Barcelona will be a turning point in the evolution of the Brazilian game the way that the loss to the Netherlands in 1974 was.  Following the latter, Brazil abandoned its ethos as the guardian of the beautiful game.  Perhaps now, Brazil will try to reestablish it.  What better compliment could a club and its manager be paid than understanding that they changed the football culture of the world’s most prominent football nation?

Women’s World Cup Day 6: Banzai!

Japan equaled France’s amazing performance yesterday in a match that featured hat trick scored by someone’s grandmother and a philosophy born thousands of miles away.  New Zealand was foiled in its attempted act of matricide; the Football Ferns nearly beat an underperforming England, until Jill Scott (no, not that one) broke Kiwi hearts.

Japan v. Mexico

All honor to Japan for their domination of Mexico.  Whereas Mexico fought back against England, and even looked the better side, Japan suffocated the fight out of El Tri (La Tri?)  Pity poor Maribel Domínguez, the rock of the Mexican team, who watched her World Cup ambitions fall apart under the force of the divine wind that is Japan’s passing game.

What makes Japan so dangerous is that they can score for everywhere.  If they are in their opponent’s third, do not under any circumstances let them get a set piece.  Like their male counterparts (particularly Keisuke Honda), Japan’s women have mastered the velocity of the World Cup ball, which makes them far more threatening on set pieces than most of the other sides.*  What they lack in height, they make up for in precision, which is far deadlier.

The star of this match was the decrepit Homare “Grandma” Sawa, who at the ancient age of 32, rose from her deathbed to score three of Japan’s four goals.  Or so I gathered from ESPN, which harped on Sawa’s age and noted about fifty times that she is the oldest player to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup.  Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement, but not because of her age.  My God, 32 is not old!  In terms of sheer awe, Sawa’s hat trick was not in the top ten greatest ever.  Sawa was able to score two of her three goals because for once Japan had a height advantage–Mexico is the shortest team of the tournament.

The real reason why Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement is because of what it says about Japan.  Japan is an incredible well-trained, well-organized, well-coached, skillful team, who has only started to realize its potential.  Sawa’s goals were the culmination of all of these positive team attributes.  It is fitting that Sawa should score all of those goals (and as a result leads the Golden Boot chase.)  She is the team’s leader and in her fifth World Cup.  She is the most capped player and the highest scorer in Japan’s national team history, male or female.  Unlike Birgit Prinz, also in her fifth World Cup, Sawa has performed exceedingly well, and is the not the focus of criticism from her national press.  Nevertheless, Sawa’s shots were the culmination of spectacular team efforts, especially the terrific last one.

Japan has almost certainly won Group B, only a loss to England will prevent that.  As for Mexico, all is not lost, although they no longer control their own destiny.  Too many things have to go right.  Japan has to beat England and Mexico has to beat New Zealand (not a guarantee.)  Even if all that happens, Mexico will also have to make up a five goal differential, which, given the way this tournament has gone thus far, is highly unlikely.

One has to wonder if Japan even wants to win the group.  Both Group B quarterfinalists will have battles on their hand because they are guaranteed to meet either Germany or France.  Japan v. Germany, possibly Japan’s nightmare scenario, will be a study in contrasts.  Germany is a far more direct and high-powered team that relies extremely effectively on physical size, strength, and individual talent.  In contrast, Japan is shorter, faster, and a better team.

Japan v. France has the potential to be extremely fascinating or extremely boring.  Both sides play a quick, skillful passing game, and both have been compared to Barcelona.  Both were also extremely impressive in their respective 4-0 victories.  Even if the comparisons to Barcelona are overblown (any France team should be compared to Arsenal first, right?), the success of Japan and France has shown that women’s football is fully engaging in the dialogue going on in men’s game right now.  This debate can (perhaps sloppily) be called Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism.  Although those coaches did not invent the debate, they are the two most prominent voices of their respective styles.

Guardiolism (the ethos of Barcelona if not the style) is attack, attack, attack and then attack some more using short passes while in possession (tiki taka style) and exhaustive pressing to win back possession.  Guardiolism at its most basic has one single tenet: you cannot score if I possess.  Mourinhoism is a well-organized defense, effective usage of the counterattack and set pieces, no concern about possession, and disrupting the opponent’s flow with a strong physical presence.  (I should stress that this debate is not either/or.  Only a limited number of teams play these styles, and not necessarily exclusively.  The long ball style, for example, is neither Guardiolist or Mourinhoist.)

There are two prominent examples of Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism from the last year.  The more recent of the two is the series of matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  The other one is the final of the World Cup between Spain and Holland (or Spain v. all their other opponents except Chile and Germany.)  Not surprisingly, many of the players on Spain’s side were from Barcelona although there were a few from Madrid.  In both the Champions League and the World Cup, the Guardiolist side was the superior side, and in both tournaments came out on top.

Guardiolism is the more appealing style, which does not mean it is always more effective.  It is also the far more difficult one to institute, because it requires supremely talented and intelligent players merged into a cohesive team over a sustained period of time.  Mourinhoism is a far easier style to impose on a team because it does not require the same amount of time or the same quality of player.  Unsurprisingly, the men’s World Cup last year was dominated by Mourinhoism–unsurprising because international sides have a limited player pool and extremely little time to come together as a team.

In this Women’s World Cup, the triumphs of both France and Japan signal that Guardiolism can exist in the international game outside of Spain.  The commentators are wrong when they say France and Japan are like Barcelona.  What they are trying to say is that both sides subscribe to the same basic tenets of Guardiolism, which they can do because both side have skillful and intelligent players molded together over a long period of time.  (The women’s international game affords more opportunities to play together than the men’s international game.)  Surprisingly, at the 2011 World Cup, the sides that have used Mourinhoist tactics (Nigeria) have already been found wanting.  While Guardiolism is only one of many styles on display, right now in the women’s game it is carrying the day.

England v. New Zealand

One cliché that never dies is that defense wins titles.  This is a pernicious lie designed to excuse those teams who suck the joy out of sport by being overly defensive.  Good defenses are only a starting point; they can get you draws but not wins. To win, one needs a good offense.  The first round of this tournament showcased plenty of good defenses.  In the second round, good offenses have started to shine though, and it is becoming readily apparent which teams are for real and which are pretenders.

This is the problem with New Zealand.  The back line was incredibly steady.  They were smart and organized, and they successfully contained Kelly Smith.  An early goal on a good counterattack left them  with a 1-0 lead and the momentum.  But after that first goal, New Zealand could not score.  Their scrappy play won them a host of fans, including me.  Before the match started, I thought New Zealand were headed from the same humiliation as Canada and Mexico.  Instead they led a match for the first time in their history.  If sport were fair, the Football Ferns would have pulled out at least a draw.  Unfortunately, sport is not fair.  New Zealand gave it their all, but they didn’t have the experience to pull out a result.

The good news for New Zealand is that the best is yet to come.  The reason why New Zealand dominates rugby is because they put the resources into it.  The All White’s performance at last year’s World Cup and the Ferns performance this year show that New Zealand have what it takes to make a difference if the resources are put to good use.  New Zealand may never win a non-Oceania tournament, but that doesn’t mean they cannot always be contenders.

England has no excuses.  As with the men, the women are dramatically underperforming.  Had Jill Scott not put the team on her shoulders, they could have fallen victim to the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.  The one positive takeaway though is that England can still win even when Kelly Smith has a bad match.  Unless they majorly fall apart against Japan, the Three Lionesses will move on to meet either national nemesis Germany or wildly talented French.  I cannot decide which would be worse for them.

Final Thoughts:

Teams from Europe have utterly dominated so far.  None has lost, and only one (England) has drawn.  There are two ways to look at this, and both are right to an extent.  The first and more Eurocentric explanation is that UEFA is the toughest confederation and European teams have the best overall quality.  The second explanation is that only France and Germany, arguably Europe’s two best squads, have met a top non-European team.  As fun as they have been to watch, Mexico, New Zealand, and Equatorial Guinea are not the US, Brazil, and Japan.

Finally, the Copa America starts tonight, and alas, I will probably only see highlights.  I may write some thoughts as the tournament progressed, but nothing like my dispatches from the Women’s World Cup.  If only they weren’t being played at the same time.

Footnotes:

* Set pieces have been somewhat disappointing this tournament.  Everyone once in a while there is some brilliant display, such as Christine Sinclair’s wonder goal against Germany.  Unfortunately, more often than should happen at an elite level, a player will squander a corner by kicking it into the side netting.  This is especially a problem with New Zealand.  Corner kicks may not be particularly sexy, but wasting chances is just stupid.

Barcelona Tactics

I discovered a fantastic video about Barcelona’s tactics.  Some of these I described earlier, but I am not nearly the astute follower that the creator of this video is (although there is some stuff missing, particularly about how Guardiola drills his players to see the pitch as 8 squares and each square must be filled at all times.)  But it also shows that for all the plaudits Messi (deservedly) gets, the goals and the wins are truly a team effort.

Taking the content of this video as a whole, this goes back to something that I have been saying for quite some time, the style that Barcelona plays is more than just a series of tactics.  Rather, tiki-taka is an entire philosophy, a completely unique way to see and play the game, just as Total Football was.  Spain’s victory at the World Cup was in a way a redemption of the Holland team of 1974.  Barcelona : Spain 2010 – Ajax : Holland 1974.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe is kind.

The Once And Future Cesc

Try not to seemed shocked, when I tell you this.  Are you sitting down?  Cesc Fabregas wants out.  According to Arsenal teammate Bacary Sagna, Fabregas wants the move to Barcelona.

This is obviously a saga that has been going on for at least three years.  Barcelona is not just where he developed skills, it was his childhood team.  In addition to being a fan, Fabregas spent his formative years in La Masia (the same class as Messi and Pique.)  His family is from Catalonia, and he has friends at Barcelona (as well as some Spain teammates.)  His idol, Pep Guardiola is the coach as Barcelona, and it is rumored that this will be Guardiola’s last season in charge.  Get in while the getting is good, because who knows what will come afterwards.

Barcelona did not want to let young Fabregas go.  He was too talented, and Arsenal would pay nothing because he was too young to be under contract.  Fabregas left because he did not think he would get any playing time at Barcelona.  His decision makes sense because both Xavi and Iniesta stood in his way as they do now for Spain.  Nevertheless, the club desperately wants him back.

I am not tactician, but I do not understand why Barcelona is so desperate to get Fabregas back.  Xavi and Iniesta are still fundamental to the squad.  It would take a supreme effort to dislodge either player from the starting XI.  Although theoretically, no one’s starting spot is safe (or in truth 10 of the 11 spots are not safe–no one at Barcelona would dare displace Messi), even at 31-years-old, Xavi is still the conductor of the Barcelona engine.  Iniesta has even more playing time left, and both men work extremely hard.  Fabregas would be going back to play a supporting role.  Meanwhile, at the same time Fabregas is waiting out Xavi and Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara and his brother Rafinha will be breaking down the door to the main squad.

The Guardiola years have been marked by some bad transfers, but the overwrought hang-wringing about it (see: Bleacher Report, or better yet, don’t) generally overlooks the fact that (a) there have also been some excellent signings such as Pique and Dani Alves, and (b) Guardiola has done an excellent job at developing players from Barcelona B who end up displacing their more expensive teammates.  Unless Barcelona begins a rotation policy, which is possible given how thin the side has been, Fabregas will be another bench player.

In other transfer news, Barcelona want to bring in Giuseppe Rossi from Villarreal.  While he is an excellent player and would be a great fit, this column still holds a grudge against him for choosing to play for Italy rather than the United States.  Watch this space to see which side wins the battle.  Like Fabregas, Rossi will have to fight for his spot, this time with David Villa and Pedro.  Although both had dry spells in terms of goals, they were also very important to the Barcelona attack.

Barcelona has also been linked with Javier Pastore, Alexis Sanchez, and as of today Thiago Silva.  Javier Pastore is a pipe dream, I think.  The same problems that acquiring Fabregas present would also plague Pastore, perhaps more so because he did not grow up in La Masia.  And Palermo is not letting Pastore go cheaply.  They want Cristiano Ronaldo money, which is ridiculous, but that club is in serious trouble.

Alexis Sanchez.  It appears that Manchester City (or perhaps United) will get there first.  Great potential, but he has not quite lived up to his hype yet.  Personally, I would like to see him stay with Udinese because otherwise the Italians will tumble out of the Champions League next season. One year of performing well in the Champions League is all he needs to prove himself.

Thiago Silva is an interesting one.  Barcelona desperately need to build up the back; Puyol’s knee problems throughout the season are evidence of that.  Thiago Silva is also one of the best defenders in the world right now.  I would love to see his move to the Camp Nou, but I cannot imagine Milan letting him go.

As for who to sell, the no-brainer is Bojan.  Guardiola has given him chance after chance, and he just hasn’t been able to get it done.  It’s a shame, because he is dyed-in-the-wool Blaugrana.  I think he wants out too.  Jeffren Suarez also looks like he is gone; injuries have played havoc with his career, and while I would be sad to see him go, it looks like Barcelona would rather have the money.  Furthermore, he needs to play full-time, and that is not going to happen when Messi, Villa, Pedro, possibly Rossi, and maybe even others are standing in his way.  Some have suggested selling Villa and Pedro, which seems incredibly short-sighted.  Barcelona are also trying to quash rumors that Thiago Alcântara is on his way out. That would be a huge loss–shades of Fabregas, but this time the club would be responsible.

Whatever the case, the arms race with Madrid has just begun.  Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.  And if you are new to football, welcome to the silly season.

Weekend Football Roundup: You’re Always Hurt By The Ones You Love

Fallout from FIFA’s idiotic and corrupt decision to host the World Cup in Qatar continues this week.  The anger of the English media and public seems to have abated a little, but we shall see if that holds; the Qataris have decided that since they are now future World Cup hosts, they should buy world football too.

First came the news that the Qatari ruling oil-garchy, the Al-Thani family, is looking to buy a Premier League club of their very own. No doubt this is due to their passionate following of the English game. Their choices are allegedly Newcastle, Everton, and Tottenham.  Purchasing the latter would be extremely disappointing because Tottenham has long been associated with its large Jewish following. In Europe, it is very rare for Jews to be openly embraced (I have yet to see FIFA condemn anti-Semitism the way it does racism.)  Tottenham is second only Ajax is term of embracing a “Jewish” identity, even if that identity is that it once had a large Jewish following.  I wonder if that Jewish association would be scrubbed away should the Qataris buy Tottenham.

Billionaire takeovers has been the way of the English Premier League for some time.  The superrich bought clubs to show their importance and business-savvy–never for love of the game.  The list of superrich owners include the Glazer family at Manchester United, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, Daniel Levy at Tottenham, John Henry and New England Sports Ventures at Liverpool (replacing Tom Hicks and George Gillette), the Indian poultry company Venky at Blackburn Rovers, and so on and so forth.

Roman Abramovich the owner of Chelsea was different.   Chelsea was not so much a business for him, but a plaything.  At Chelsea, his is the last word.  If a manager could not give him what he wanted (European titles and style) the manager was out.   By that standard, there has yet to be a successful Chelsea manager.  With Abramovich showing the way, Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the the Abu Dhabi royal family bought Manchester City, a perennial underachiever/self-destructor of English football.  City has tried to replicate Chelsea’s experiment, but with far less success and inevitably more humorous results–unless you are a City fan (the latest in City’s unending litany of woes is that its star player Carlos Tevez wants out.)

Now the Qataris are getting involved.   I imagine it will only be a matter of time before the Saudis, Omanis, and Bahrainis do too.  Because of all the money involved in the modern game, the lesser clubs in the Premier League need sugar daddies to compete with Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal.  If one of those clubs should falter (should United’s debts catch up to it or Abramovich decides he is bored with Chelsea) the floodgates will open and the established order of English football will be turned on its head.  Liverpool has already been reduced to midtable mediocrity, at least in the immediate future.

Acutely aware of the criticism over their World Cup blunder, FIFA has managed to dig the hole even deeper.  Not that FIFA cares what the little people (fans) think.  First Franz Beckenbauer and now Michel Platini–both members of FIFA’s selecting executive council– have suggested that the World Cup 2022 be played in January instead of June/July. Then Sepp Blatter said that maybe Qatar’s neighbors could also host some of the World Cup 2022 matches (after having dismissed the merits of joints bids during the bidding process.)   These suggestion are grating for so many reasons, but first and foremost is that it underscores how meaningless the bidding process was.   Winter tournaments and participation of neighboring nations was not part of the Qatari bid.  It is a post hoc way for FIFA to insulate itself from criticism about choosing a clearly unsuitable host.

These suggestions demonstrate FIFA’s arrogant unilateralism. In order to change the World Cup from 2022 (which they have never done before, despite holding the World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere on numerous occasions) the clubs will have to agree.  Clubs hate international football.  They have to let go of their best players (whose exorbitant wages they pay) and risk uncompensated injury.  The clubs bitterly complain about the African Cup of Nations, which is usually held in January.  How much more will they complain when their biggest stars risk a season-ending injury in the middle of the season?  International football may be the biggest honor, but the clubs still foot the bills.  The World Cup 2022 is a no-win situation for the clubs.  As far as I know, none have commented on this ludicrous idea.

Blatter, who has yet to learn that silence is golden, laughably insisted that FIFA is not corrupt and the English are just sore losers (which they are, but this time they are right.)  Blatter will not be satisfied until every region in the world has hosted a World Cup, whether they want to or not.  This is about “legacy”.  By unofficial FIFA definition, legacy involves the following: (1) white elephant stadia; (2) crippling debt for poorer host nations; (3) national laws eased so that FIFA can do whatever it wants; (4) official FIFA sponsors get to push out all competition whether international or local; (5) FIFA and its ruling class get richer.  Blatter’s real legacy is to make FIFA and football a multinational conglomerate that does not just have a presence in every country, it supplants every other sport.

This story crushes me.  My beloved FC Barcelona has reached a sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, and will wear the logo on their strips.   The rules of Spanish Football are different than in England.   In England clubs are like what Americans think of when they think of sports teams–a business.  In Spain, clubs are actually, you know, clubs. They have members (socios) who, like shareholders, select a president and a board to run the club.  They can vote the president out too.  In England the fans think they own the club, in Spain, at clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, they actually do.  The reason I bring that up is because this type of ownership prevents oil-garchs and the other superrich from buying a club.  Otherwise, I have no doubt the Qataris would be trying to take over Barcelona as they have done with Málaga CF–right now the gem of Europe and arguably the greatest side of all time. Therefore, the Qataris will take over in another way.  Barcelona is the last major club to resist sponsorship on their kits (Barcelona has a socially responsible image.  I am sure if it were possible, the Camp Nou would be powered by only the sun and cule song.)  The blaugrana kit has an almost holy resonance. A few years ago, Barcelona broke with tradition to advertise an organization on its jersey. That organization however, was UNICEF, and Barcelona paid UNICEF for the right to advertise, not the other way around.  A perfect way for Barcelona to promote its own image.

Now however, in addition to UNICEF (and a small Nike logo) there will also be some kind of advertisement for the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit. What the articles that I linked to above do not mention is what exactly the Qatar Foundation does. I checked out the website of the Qatar Foundation and this is what is listed under the “What We Do” section.

Qatar Foundation is leading Qatar’s drive to become an advanced knowledge-based society. It is transforming Qatari society by educating the rising generation to the highest world standards – these will be the skilled professionals who will be the country’s future leaders. It is turning Qatar into a producer of knowledge by building a research base. Some of the new ideas will reach the stage of commercialization, helping diversify the economy. Qatar Foundation is also reaching out to individual sectors of the community and addressing social issues to accelerate the human development process in numerous directions.

This entire paragraph says absolutely nothing.  Education?  Is that what this is?  It is fair to ask what non-profit could support a sponsorship deal that the Qatar Foundation is offering.  FIFA, after all, is also a non-profit.

The writing was on the wall once Sandro Rosell took over Barcelona. He opened the books, and it turned out that the club, thought to be well-run by his predecessor (and enemy), Joan Laporta was actually deeply in debt.  I understand why Rosell did what he did.  I cannot blame him, but I still do not like him. His treatment of Johan Cruyff and the clear unease that Pep Guardiola has with him were troubling signs of his leadership.  However, what pushed me over the edge was when Rosell changed the rules for new would-be-socios, basically making it impossible for potential new members to join (also having the intention of limiting foreigners.)  Rosell closed the club that Laporta (a Catalan nationalist) offered to the world.  I will never be a Barça socio unless the next president changes the rules again, and that makes me sad. This blog post is a very good read from another non-Catalan Barcelona fan.  Between the new socio rules and the sponsorship deal with a shady Qatar oil-garch foundation, I do no like the direction that Rosell is taking the club in.

Barça has for years been the perfect club for the liberal football supporter. It has a myth-making ability that could compete with any side in history, even the Brazilian National Team.   Barça is a cosmopolitan club. Barça is Catalunya. Barça plays a unique beautiful style: the greatest in the world. Barça was the resistance to the central authority of Franco and his (allegedly) favored side Real Madrid.  Barça is més que un club.

All of this is true to an extent (although the Franco/Real Madrid connection is more legend and circumstance than proven fact.) It is also a mythologized view of Barcelona’s past.   I am not the best person to distinguish between fact and legend, which is already a gray area, but I know enough to love Barça even knowing its flaws.   FC Barcelona was founded on November 29, 1899 by Swiss expatriate Joan Gamper (Hans Kemper) and 11 other football enthusiasts of Britis, Swiss, and Spanish origin (city rivals RCD Espanyol was founded the next year to be an exclusively Spanish football club, a reaction to the international nature of Barça.)  Despite its international origins, the club quickly adopted a Catalan identity and became associated with Catalan nationalism.  Most famously, this Catalanism asserted itself during the Franco regime when the central government in Madrid attempted to destroy regional, non-Castilian identity across the country.  The Barcelona stadium was the only place where the Catalans could let off steam against the regime, use their own language, and wave their flag.  FC Barcelona was more than a club; it was a the representation of a collective, communal identity and a vehicle to remain Catalan.

Despite such a strong association with Catalan nationalism, Barcelona has always fielded foreign players, as opposed to Athletic Bilbao and its famous (but very loose) Basques-only policy.  In the late 50’s, the Herrera-managed Barcelona side that won La Liga twice fielded such non-Catalans players as the Hungarians Kubala, Czibor, and Kocsis, and the Galician Luis Suarez.  Although it never won Europe’s ultimate prize, it did win its fair share of prizes and was the first ever side to eliminate Real Madrid (the legendary team of DiStefano, Gento, Santamaría, and Puskas) from the European Cup.

European Cup came late to Barcelona, but the club still attracted some of the the greatest foreign players in the world: Messi, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Neeskens, Eto’o Romario, Rivaldo, Stoichkov, Koeman, Laudrup, Deco, Figo, Kluivert, Hagi, Saviola, Schuster, Lineker, and, above all others, Cruyff.  It is Cruyff who changed the direction of the club to what it is today.  As a player, he brought Barcelona the  league title after a long drought.  As manager he led the Dream Team to Barcelona’s first ever European Cup title.

Cruyff’s most enduring legacy was his vision that La Masia become a youth academy similar to the Ajax Academy.  Now this vision has come into fruition as Barcelona, whose starting XI is made up almost entirely of La Masia graduates is considered the one of the greatest side is football history. Those same La Masia graduates made up the majority of Spain’s World Cup starting XI which finally answered the question “What if Holland won the 1974 World Cup?”  (winning, ironically, over the Dutch.)  No matter who win the Ballon d’Or next month, it is guaranteed to be a victory for Barcelona and La Masia and a vindication of Cruyff’s vision. As Catalan as Barça tries to be, in cannot hide the fact that its international influences are every bit as important as its Catalanism.  Despite fielding a largely Spanish team and pushing a Catalonian ethos, Barcelona is perhaps the most cosmopolitan side on the planet.

Which brings me back to the rest of the football roundup. Barcelona’s ancient enemy, Real Madrid, is at a crossroads. For the past two and a half years they have been beaten by Barça, sometimes dominated by them. Every decision that was made in terms of personnel was done with an eye towards Catalonia. This is especially true of the additions of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and above all Jose Mourinho. And yet on November 29, 2010 Barcelona humiliated Madrid 5-0. I read two news stories today that made me wonder if Mourinho (who has his own long and bitter history with FC Barcelona) has stopped trying to bait the Blaugrana and begun to emulate them. The first is a story that Mourinho is trying to sign his former striker Samuel Eto’o away from Inter. Now assuming that Inter lets him go (which they will not), why would he even want to? Although Eto’o and Guardiola did not get along, which led to the ridiculous Zlatan Ibrahimovic transfer, Eto’o was and is very popular among Barcelona fans.   Going to Madrid would be a slap in the face to them.   Furthermore, Eto’o was at Madrid, and from what I understand, his time there was not particularly happy.

The other more interesting story is this one.  Real Madrid is the world’s wealthiest team and buys the world’s best players.  At the most recent edition of El Clásico, only one starting player from the Madrid side (Iker Casillas) came from Real Madrid’s youth system.  Compare that with eight starting players from Barcelona and another two who came on as substitutes.  Perhaps this is Mourinho’s acknowledgement that the best team is not always the one that buys the highest profile players.  That was the folly of the first Galacticos era, but Madrid and Florentino Perez did not learn the lesson. The biggest problem for Mourinho–if he is indeed trying to emulate Barcelona by tapping the Madrid youth system–is that it takes time, a luxury a Real Madrid coach does not have, no matter how high profile he is.

The demolition of Madrid also shatters the belief espoused by some, particularly Steven Cohen at World Football Daily, that Mourinho is the best coach of all time because of the titles he has won.  Mourinho is a great coach, there is no question.  He is remarkably successful, a skilled man-manager, and a great tactician.  However, has always relied on a well-tested overly defensive style.  A truly transcendent coach, like a Rinus Michels, a César Luis Menotti, an Arrigo Sacchi, or a Gusztáv Sebes does more than just take great players to victory; he is a philosopher who creates a style that influences future generations. He molds a team, or teams, that live on in memory.  I do not think Mourinho will do that. His eye, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s, is on the immediate victory not the long term impact. I do not know if Guardiola could manage another team as successfully he does Barcelona (the side he was born to manage), but he, with Cruyff, has molded something special that has already inflamed the poetic in football fans. Tiki-taka, like its predecessor Total Football, will long be remembered.  Although I (reluctantly) admit that Guardiola has not yet approached the Michels/Sacchi pantheon, he has, like the greats, introduced a philosophy that goes far beyond tactics into the football dialogue.

The World Cup 2010 was, in a way, Guardiolaism versus Mourinhoism.  Most squads used very defensive styles inspired by Mourinho.  Fewer teams played attacking football.  Only one squad played tiki-taka: the champions.

Rounding out the rest of the news.

Italian players do not go on strike after all. Hopefully the union will have got what it wanted. I would much rather see the spoiled but talented millionaires who bring joy to fans win than the ruthless billionaires who just bring misery and money.

Finally, in a fascinating story that is not getting much airtime, a legal panel wants the election of the head of the Chilean Football Association overturned. The defeated head, Howard Mayne-Nicholls, brought in the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.  Bielsa gave Chile a style and an identity that it never before had in football.  Chile were a joy to watch in the World Cup, but were unfortunately eliminated all too soon (but had their best tournament in decades.)  Although the vast majority of Chileans wanted Mayne-Nicholls to stay (and also Bielsa, who threatened to go if Mayne-Nicholls was defeated), the Chilean clubs–who vote for the FA head–wanted him gone.  The clubs voted in a Spanish businessman Jorge Segovia who they believed would be more favorable to their interests than Mayne-Nicholls was.  Bielsa quit.  Now a legal panel says that Segovia was ineligible to run and recommends overturning the election.  This is simply a fascinating story.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Esa-Pekka Salonen “Wing on Wing”; Enya “Pilgrim”; Ike & Tina Turner “River Deep, Mountain High”; Bingoboys “Sugardaddy”; Achinoam Nini “She”; Billie Holiday “I Love You Porgy”; Johnny Cash “I Still Miss Someone”; Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta “A-ba-ni-bi”;