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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Good Bye Pia

Yesterday was Pia Sundhage’s last day as the manager of the United States Women’s National Team.   The USWNT sent her out in style with a 6-2 win over Australia.  There are many reasons to laud her tenure as coach, but this is what I believe to be the most important: a capacity crowd came to watch and to send Pia Sundhage off with gratitude, admiration, and love.

Thank you Pia, for giving us our team back.  We will miss you.

Assessing Pia Sundhage

Pia Sundhage, the coach of the US Women’s National Team, announced today that she is stepping down.  Then it was announced that she would take over as head coach of Sweden’s Women’s National Team where she was once a star player.  This is not exactly a surprise; it has long been known that Sundhage wanted to return to her native Sweden to coach.  That she waited until the end of her contract–that she was successful enough to be able to wait until the end of her contract–makes her departure nice and neat.  Sundhage was able to leave on her own terms, and as a winner with an 89-6-10 record, a World Cup silver medal, and two Olympics gold medals.  The US is firmly fixed atop the FIFA world rankings, and no one argues that this is a suspect position.  Sundhage has done a terrific job, and to my mind her success is at least equal to that of Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco, despite not having won the World Cup.  What must be recognized about Sundhage’s tenure is that the US was the most successful team of the last five years even though the world has caught up and in some respects surpassed the US.  We are a long way from the days in which only Norway could rival the US.

Coaching of the USWNT may not be not as stressful as coaching of the Brazil men’s team (with its 200 million critics), but the USWNT job comes with equally high expectations.  A victim of its own success, a USWNT that posts any result less than total victory is considered a failure; each team lives in the shadow of 1999.  And the coach is always the first to get blamed. Despite her success, Sundhage has not had the smoothest of tenures, and no doubt there were times that US Soccer was close to giving her the axe.  Had she not previously coached the USWNT to gold at the 2008 Olympics (beating Brazil), it is quite possible that she might have lost her job in 2010.  The US lost the Gold Cup that year for the first time (a shocking semifinal defeat to Mexico), and barely qualified for the World Cup as a result.

Sundhage’s tactical and personnel decisions were often called into question, really until after her team won its second consecutive Olympic gold.  In fairness, there is a truth to this second guessing.  While the rest of the world was inspired by the technical superiority of Spain and Barcelona, the US stubbornly clung to the same power game that it played two decades ago.  The US players do not lack technical ability or creativity (think Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan), but Sundhage, who was practically wedded to a 4-4-2 formation, clearly felt more akin to the English kick-and-run, bully style than the more aesthetically pleasing Spanish one.

Sundhage’s team selections were often times equally frustrating.  New talent was hard to break in; Sundhage stood by the same players throughout her tenure.  Now the old guard–Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone–are on the verge of retirement and whoever comes next has a lot to do.  We all have our favorites who were left out (Yael Averbuch is mine), and angry fans called for Sundhage’s head when certain players started.  Amy Rodriguez came in for particularly rough (and often unfair) criticism.

On the other hand, no one can fault the way Sundhage (wo)man-managed her players.  She was famously mellow and every more famously sung and played guitar.  Sundhage got the best out of players, sometimes by leaving them out of the starting lineup.  During the World Cup both Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan began as substitutes, and after amazing performances, both assured their starting places in the Olympics.  After the World Cup, Carli Lloyd lost her starting place (an injury to Boxx brought her back to the starting XI in the Olympics), and Lloyd scored both goals in the gold medal victory over Japan.   And most importantly, when Mount St. Solo inevitably erupted, Sundhage managed to keep the team intact.

There are two types of legacies, one is the deeds performed during one’s tenure, and the other, far rarer, is what has been set up for the future.  Very few coaches are future thinkers, especially at the international level–Rinus Michels certainly, Luis Aragones arguably, Pia Sundhage not at all.  Sundhage’s successor will need to majorly restructure the team lest the 2012 gold medal be the last hurrah.  The US is the last vestige of an Ancien Régime that has been otherwise supplanted.  Despite the fact that players like Morgan, Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, and Sydney Leroux have all become fixtures during Sundhage’s watch, one would hardly call her a visionary.

But for deeds performed, Sundhage’s wild success is undeniable.  Beyond her tournament victories though, Sundhage greatest legacy may be the one that she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for.  From 1999 until 2008, the USWNT program had been regressing, hit by one loss after another: (1) the retirement of Michelle Akers; (2) the loss of the Olympic gold in 2000; (3) 3rd place at the 2003 World Cup; (4) the end of the WUSA; (5) the retirement of Mia Hamm and the core of the 1999 team; (6) the controversial tenure of April Heinrichs; and finally (7) the humiliation to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup.  The only bright spot was the 2004 Olympic, and even then the US was lucky to have won.  Sundhage took a team on a nearly decade-long decline back to the top of the world.

Thank you, Pia Sundhage, and good luck to you and Sweden at next year’s Euro.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 6: Golden Girls

For the fourth time in five Olympics, the United States Women’s National Team won the Olympic gold medal, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land.  But the US defeat of Japan leaves one question unresolved.  Have Nadeshiko done enough to be bumped up to first class for the plane trip home or will their federation continue to treat them like second-class citizens?

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The Olympic semifinals, final, and bronze match were the best of all possible match-ups.  Each semifinal pitted two teams with similar styles against each other.  On one side of the bracket, the United States and Canada, two very physical team knocked the stuffing out of each other for 120 minutes.  On the other side, France and Japan fought an intense, technical battle that was akin to a footballing game of chicken–the side that blinked in their high stakes game of perfection lost.  Unsurprisingly, the US and Japan, the two top-ranked teams at the tournament came out victorious.

In contrast to the semifinals, the final and bronze medal match pitted teams of opposing styles against one another, and the results were no less enthralling.  Both matches were grudge matches of a sort.  At the World Cup, we all remember the incredible final between the US and Japan.  However, in the group stages of that tournament Canada played France and was beaten badly (4-0).  That match did three things–it (1) eliminated Canada from the tournament; (2) announced France to the world as a potential title challenger and future world power; and (3) effectively ended the reign of Canada’s coach Carolina Morace.  Morace had done wonders for Canada’s level of play, but her contentious relationship with the Canadian footballing authority had severe ramifications for the World Cup.  After the match against France, Morace was out and John Herdman was in.  Canada abandoned the more technical game it had been trying to play and returned to a more physical style.  The Olympics result seems to validate that change.

Canada desperately needed the bronze medal.  The loss to the US in the semifinals was heartbreaking because they were so close to both the final and to finally beating their bogie team.  Canada had never before been in the top three of either the World Cup or the Olympics (they were 4th in the 2003 World Cup, losing the final match to, shock surprise, the US).  And the World Cup in 2015 will be held in Canada, which means the expectations on the team will triple–at least.  The bronze medal was a way to redeem the tournament and to motivate for 2015.

France too had something to prove.  Les Bleus want to be seen as world beaters, but they have yet to beat any of the top teams when it counts.  They also have the loss of the 3rd place match in the World Cup hanging over their heads.  By all rights, the French should have beaten Sweden, not just because they are a more talented side, but because Sweden were a woman down.  That France beat Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals last week is an indication that France are in fact better.  Did France choke at the World Cup?  I don’t think so, but they certainly were not at their best.  Maybe they were moping over their loss to the US (in their minds an inferior team) while Sweden really wanted a medal.

For the vast majority of the 90 minutes in Coventry, France were the better side.  They had better ball possession, they were better passers, they had more shots on goal.  Yet a goal from Diane Matheson just before the end of second half stoppage time (literally, there were about 10 seconds of the match left) made all the difference.  This is an example of why football is a game maddeningly resistant to statistics.  On paper, everything pointed to a French victory, but in the end the Canadians were draped in bronze.  This is apparently the first time since 1936 that a Canadian team won a medal in widely played team sport at the Summer Olympics.

For good measure, the awe-inspiring Christine Sinclair was the tournament’s top scorer.  One hopes that Sinclair will be seriously considered for player of the year at the FIFA Oscars in December.  This match was her much earned redemption.  But Sinclair as Player of the Year would require the voters and nominators to actually know something about women’s football, and I don’t have that much faith in them.

As for the French, I wonder where they go from here.  I also wonder if they keep their coach.  Bruno Bini has done an excellent job of pulling the French close to the ranks of the elite, but I have my doubts that he is the right person to take them to the next level.  What is Carolina Morace doing these days?

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Oh, Carli Lloyd, all is forgiven.  For the second Olympics in a row, Lloyd scored all the US goals in the final, therefore winning the gold medal both times for team and country.  In 2008, Lloyd scored the only goal in the match between the US and Brazil.  This year she scored both US goals in the 2-1 victory over Japan.  Carli Lloyd is not everyone’s favorite player, and probably unfairly maligned at times, but she comes through in a major way during the Olympics.

The final was a match of exceptionally high quality, as good an advertisement for the game as any.  The two best teams in the world (absent Germany is the third member of the triumvirate) play completely different styles, which makes their matches all the more interesting and intense.  This was a narrower 2-1 than the score suggested.  Japan could have had more goals had luck been with them.  The US could have had more goals had they been a little luckier.  There were some questionable calls (the Tobin Heath handball that apparently wasn’t), but that’s football.  But there was also moments of brilliance, especially Hope Solo’s incredible saves.  This was a match with two teams who deeply respect each other playing their absolute best.

The traditional rival of the United States had been Norway, the only team to beat the Americans in the Olympics.  Norway and the USA play a similar muscular style, but the history of animosity between the two national teams led to some intense clashes.  Now Norway’s time has passed, and they will continue to fade as the new challengers to the US rise.  Japan do not have as long a history with the US, but I believe they are the rivals of the future.  Norway’s decline is abetted by the rise of more women’s teams in Europe.  In contrast, the more teams that Asia develops, the strong it will make Japan on the world stage.  Unlike the US/Norway rivalry, which was made compelling by the mutual animosity that arose from the battle for early supremacy in the women’s game, the nascent rivalry between the US and Japan will be made compelling by the contrast in styles and the quality of the matches.

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 Over the past year, the US and Japan have battled back and forth for the title of best women’s team in the world.  I’m not sure that the Olympics settled the debate, but the gold medal does make a strong argument for the US.  As I have argued before, the USWNT are not chokers or big game bottlers.  They are arguably the best team in the world, and at this Olympics they proved it.

I am going to make a not-so-bold pronouncement.  There is no women’s football program in the world as successful as that of the United States.  Since the beginning in the 1991, the US has never come in less than third in the World Cup, and has never gotten less than silver in the Olympics.  Two World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals.  That is unmatched success, especially when compared with the other teams who have won any of those two titles: Germany (2003 and 2007 World Cup), Norway (1995 World Cup, 2000 Olympics), and Japan (2011 World Cup).  No women’s nation has repeatedly replenished its talent as successfully as the US has, from Michelle Akers to Alex Morgan.  Norway and China faded, Brazil does not seem interested in replacing Marta, Japan is a relatively new arrival at the top, and Germany suffers through dramatic peaks and valleys.  In all this time, the US has remained at the top of the game.

I know I say this a lot, but it is worth repeating over and over again.  The women’s international game is far more interesting than the men’s international game.  Spain aside, the men simply do not bring to the international game what they do to the club game.  In contrast, every elimination round match in the women’s Olympic tournament and many of the group stage matches were exceptional in their level of intensity and excitement.  I don’t care if O Fauxhawk and Brazil win their first gold medal, and I haven’t cared all tournament.  In contrast, I deeply cared about the entire women’s tournament, about how all the teams do, and about how they will be received by their countrymen and women.

As much as I trash English football, I must admit that the venues in Great Britain are unmatched in terms of history and tradition.  It was great to see women play at Hampden Park, Old Trafford, ans St. James’ Park.  And of course Wembly Stadium.  That over 80,000 spectators crammed into Wembly to watch a women’s football match is a great credit to the sport.  I cannot recall any Olympic women’s football tournament getting this kind of attention before.  Perhaps this is the moment when the world finally embraces the sport.

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Because I read the forums at BigScocer, I know there are a lot of people who dislike Pia Sundhage and her style of management.  When asked about whether he would renew her contract, Sunil Gulati, the head of the United States Soccer Federation, was evasive and somewhat cool to the idea.  It also, of course, depends of whether Sundhage wants to stay.

But it is unquestionable that Sundhage’s tenure has been a rousing success.  The facts speak for themselves.  Before she arrived, the USWNT were at the lowest point in the program’s history (at least since the start of tournament play).  Before Sundhage took over, the US were eliminated by Brazil in that match with that goal at the 2007 World Cup having suffered the program’s worst defeat ever (4-0).  In the three major tournaments Sundhage coached, the US finished first, second, and first.  For the majority of her tenure, the US have ranked first in the FIFA rankings.  She is the first coach in the women’s game to win two Olympic gold medals.  She took a broken team at war with itself and turned it into an irresistible force.

I hope that US fans recognize what Pia Sundhage has done with the team and appreciate that.  For my money, she is just as successful as Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco.

The US women have now won four of the five Olympic tournaments.  That’s quite a record, and only the US basketball teams can compete.  Each Olympic victory has had its own special feel.  The 1996 was about the team announcing itself to the nation.  2004 was the swan song of the Fab Five (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, and Kristine Lilly). 2008 was the rebuilding year, moving on from the humiliation, turmoil, and disaster of the previous year’s World Cup.  2012 is something difference, and more complex.  This is the first major tournament since 1991 in which the US won all of its matches (penalty kicks are officially draws).  It may also be the turning point.  Japan and Canada pushed the US to the limit and although the US survived, this may be the sign that the time has come to adapt.  2012 should about closing the book on the past and looking at the best way to live in the future.

Astoundingly, there may be a future after all for women’s football in the United States.  A new professional league has been announced.   Maybe, just maybe, this time it will work?

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Anyway, this has been a lot of fun.  I love writing about women’s football, and hopefully I will not have to wait until 2015 before I can write again.  I hope you have enjoyed these posts too, and will continue to read this blog.  Thank you.

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.

Women’s World Cup Day 15: Rising Sun

The final of the World Cup saw the Japan beat the US on penalty kicks 12 years after the 1999 final, proving that I should never ever make predictions again.

Japan v. United States

The problem with following sports is that when your favorite player or team loses you get irrationally depressed.  Chances are you don’t know the player(s) except maybe through media such as Twitter.  Most likely you have more loyalty to the team than the players do.  Unless you work for the team, and very few of us do, the result on the field has no bearing on your daily life.  Yet being a fan is like being in love, and therefore you invest a part of your heart and soul into your team’s performance.  When they win you rejoice; when they lose you ache with pain.  It’s a communal love shared with the players, but even more so with the other fans who for that instant become an extended family.  There is no good reason for this.  It’s not logical.  it just is how it is.

Today the United States Women’s National Team lost in the World Cup final to Japan on penalty kicks.  Technically they drew 2-2, but only one team lifted the trophy.  I, like my fellow fans, share the tremendous sadness of the US Women, because I too love them.  This is the worst I have ever felt after a football match.  The only team I have ever been this invested in is Barcelona who generally win, but I cannot imagine I would feel any worse if Barcelona lost.  I am not the only fan who is depressed today; Julie Foudy looked near tears afterwards.

Another reason for the tremendous sadness is because I worry about the fate of the WPS.  While a US win may not have saved it, one wonders if the loss is a deathblow.  I hope not.  The US Women played a tremendous tournament, fought well in a tough match, possibly the greatest match women’s football has ever seen, and came up just short in the end.  They have given us far more than the US Men ever have, yet MLS is secure while the WPS is not.  It just doesn’t seem fair.  For all the attention that the US Women got over the past few weeks (God bless ESPN), one wonders if that attention will be refocused onto the league, which does not have major network exposure.  For myself, I will gladly buy an Alex Morgan jersey if they make it in a men’s size, but I am a focus group of one.  The sad thing is that there is no reason the WPS should be flailing.  If anything, this World Cup has shown that women’s football can be of very high quality.  At the international level, the women can put on a better show than the men.  Yet for a whole host of reasons, the women’s game cannot get the same kind of attention and respect.  If that is not enough to make one cry, I don’t know what is.

On to the actual match.

In as much as anything is fair in football, this was a fair enough result.  What the Unites States did to Brazil, Japan did to the United States.  The US had chance after chance in the beginning but could not convert those chances.  Japan fell behind twice but came back twice.  One cannot talk about US tenacity–getting outplayed and still fighting for the win–without giving that same credit to Japan.  They beat the #1, #2, and #5 ranked teams in the world.  The entire tournament Japan played with a style that up until this point was practically unknown in women’s football.  They are the first team from Asia to win a World Cup.  They are the first team not from Europe or the Americas to even win any World Cup, men’s or women’s.  Samurai Blue have nothing on Nadeshiko Japan, and no Japanese player, male or female, will ever have Homare Sawa’s legacy.  Givenf the horrors Japan has faced in the past five months, how can you not be a good sport and feel at least a little happy for Japan?  Even through the tears, there is a small smile.

Both teams would have been worthy winners.  It was an incredible match, from beginning to end, but once Sawa got Japan’s second goal near the end of extra time though (thereby earning the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, and probably World Player of the Year come December), it felt like Japan was going to win.  There was something in the air, and the US seemed deflated.  Sure enough, in the penalty kicks the US fell apart.  Penalty kicks are a cruel but necessary way to end a knockout match.  Most teams are unlucky to go through one.  The US had to go through two.  Penalty kicks are as much a matter of luck as skill, and this time luck was not with the US.

Although the officiating in this tournament was suspect tonight was very good (a pleasant change from last year’s “Three Stooges” reenactment.)  Everything about this final was pretty clean, save for Azusa Iwashimizu’s red card, and even that was very much in the spirit of the game.  She sacrificed herself to save her team.  There is something noble about that, aggravating as it is.  But that was the story of the match.  The Japanese defense saved the team as it did against Sweden and Germany.  If I could remake my team of the tournament, I would change one position: Saki Kumagai instead of Faye White; Kumagai kept Abby Wambach at bay for almost the entire match.  Another person who deserves to be singled out is Japan’s goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who was stellar during the penalty kicks.

For all the Nike ads about pressure, for all the pressure that the US overcame in the past few weeks, tonight they faltered under the pressure.  The US outplayed Japan, they even dominated possession (or so it seemed), their record against Japan is ridiculously good, and they had the lead twice.  Yet, the pressure of being so close to victory did them in.  In the first half hour the US could not convert any of their many chances.  Some of this was due to positioning, some of it was due to plain bad luck.  But both Japanese goals came because the defense, which was rock solid for most of the tournament, fell to that pressure.  Spare a thought for Christie Rampone.  That’s a tough way to end a distinguished career.

One person who cannot be blamed is Pia Sundhage, who was also holding back tears.  This entire tournament she has done nothing but instill confidence in her side and out-coach her opposition.  If not for her, the US would never have gotten past Brazil or France.  Today the result could have gone either way.  She did not control the penalty shoot-out and had no reason to think that her players would not be able to perform.  If she does not keep her job, there is something seriously wrong with the USSF.  We US fans owe her a debt of gratitude; she took a team in conflict and brought them an Olympic title and a World Cup silver medal.  Thank you, Pia Sundhage, you are in our hearts.

If there is one bright spot for this US team, it is the knowledge that we can continue to be competitive in years to come, especially with players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.  Given the way the US played today, I have faith in the future.  Perhaps in four years, the US will finally take back the World Cup.  One hopes so; these players need to get the monkey of 1999 of their backs.  Mia Hamm has long retired, and US Women’s football has a new galaxy of stars.  It is up to us Americans to recognize and appreciate them.  They have merited our love and affection; let’s give it to them.

So now I am going to go cry myself to sleep.  Thank you, dear readers for being with me on this journey.  You have made me feel like a real writer.  I hope you come back when I write about other things, whether football related or no.

The Awards: 

FIFA’s Team of the Tournament:  See for yourself.  Some of those choices (and some of the absences) baffle me.  But never think that FIFA choices make sense.

Golden Glove: Hope Solo

Golden Boot: Homare Sawa; Silver Boot: Marta; Bronze Boot: Abby Wambach

Golden Ball: Homare Sawa; Silver Ball:Abby Wambach; Bronze Ball: Hope Solo

Fair Play Trophy: Japan

Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord

Women’s World Cup Day 13: Am I Bleu?

Day 13 of the Women’s World Cup saw . . . aw, the hell with it . . . USA! USA! USA!

[Ed. note: In my first draft of this post, I realized I did not actually put any scores in.  Both the US and Japan won 3-1.]

United States v. France

I have never been so glad to be so wrong.  My throat is raw and sore from all the screaming, and I fear I may never recover.  I blame Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.  I completely lost all composure after Morgan’s lovely chip goal–set up by Rapinoe–in the 82nd minute.  Over and over again the US defy all logical analysis.  You know how the English talk about heart as an excuse for a lack of proper technique?  The US Women actually have heart (and unlike the English men, they play well and win.)  The USWNT never give up.  They can be behind, outplayed, down a player.  The refs can have it in for them.  The US just win.

The US began strongly, but France start slowly and build up (see: Nigeria, Germany, England.)  In the 9th minute, the US took the lead.  Heather O’Reilly’s passed to Lauren Cheney who finished beautifully.  US up 1-0, which was comforting because the US have a ridiculously good record of winning competitive matches after scoring the first goal.  Ridiculously good, as in the US never lost a match after scoring first.

That goal woke up France, who seemed to realize that they were facing a better team than England.  This was a fascinating match on a tactical level because in addition to the 4-4-2 of the US against the 4-2-3-1 of France (and Jonathan Wilson believes that the latter is designed to beat the former), it was a really a battle between a team with a strong defense, Hope Solo, and an offense that is good in spurts (US) and a team with a dynamic offense and an awful defense (France).  With the exception of Sonia Bompastor, who scored France’s lone goal in the 55th minute, France’s back line is woeful.  And the goalkeeper Sapowicz is very poor.  But that offense–Necib, Abily, Thiney, and Delie–that is a murderers’ row right there.  Fear Les Bleues at the next World Cup and at the Olympics.

For most of the match, France looked like the were going to win.  Bompastor’s goal was really an inevitability.  The US could not maintain possession, and after Cheney’s goal the US had very few chances on goal.  But then Pia Sundhage made some smart substitutions and Abby Wambach channeled her inner Michelle Akers (who got deserved love from Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain in the penalty booth), put her team on her back, and carried them to victory.  When I said yesterday that I debated not putting Mia Hamm in my all time XI, it was because I was thinking about using Wambach instead.  Her goal changed everything against France, and the French wilted.  It was like air being let out of a balloon.  They saw what happened to Brazil and they must have known, “We can’t beat them; they just keep coming.”  Although I have said over and over that I believe Homare Sawa deserves the Golden Ball, if the US beats Japan, Wambach certainly made an eloquent case for herself.

Nike must be loving this.  Their whole “Pressure Makes Us” ads?  Dead on.  It completely makes up for their “Write the Future” campaign from last year which imploded in hilarious fashion.

Both matches today were a battle of the established class against the up-and-comers.  The US and Sweden have been at the top of the game since the 1980’s while France and Japan are both relatively new, at least in terms of being in the upper echelons of the game (Japan has been around forever, but never like this.)  The young Turks are pounding at the door, and they can’t be kept out forever.  The US were able to beat back their opponents, but Sweden were not.  Given that France has Clairfontaine, one wonders how long the US will be able to maintain supremacy.

There is always a question of what is the American style.  When we think of style, we think of the jaw-dropping Brazil’s samba flair, or the easy-on-the-eye passing/possession games of France and Japan.  The USSF desperately wants an American style, and I cannot imagine that Pia Sundhage (who, as I have said all along, has been a wonderful coach for the US) is unaware of that.  The truth is that there is an American style, which Sundhage has helped to foster.  It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing style out there, but it uniquely American.  There are no tricks.  It is a very direct, muscular, and physical style of play.  More important, it is a never-give-up attitude.  The US Men have it in spurts, but it is the US Women who have perfected it.  They showed it even before the World Cup when they fought back after a demoralizing loss to Mexico to claim the last spot.

Perhaps more than any other US sports representative, the USWNT are the quintessential American team.  Perhaps now Americans will finally and permanently appreciate them.

Japan v. Sweden

Let me just say upfront, I am so glad I will not have to see Sweden’s stupid little goal dance anymore (okay, so maybe the 3rd place match, but really who cares about that one?)  I wanted them out even if I picked them to win.  It may well be even more irritating than Norway’s train from 1995.  Good bye, Sweden; take your goal celebration to Let’s Dance, and leave the football to more interesting teams.

Homare Sawa is my hero.  Granted, I have had a few of them this tournament, Christine Sinclair and Marta to name two, but Sawa, a veteran of five World Cups led Japan to a place it has never been before.  She is a rock, and an inspiration  All this unexpected success just four months after natural and man-made disasters have brought devastating havoc and misery to her country.  Listening to Adrian Healey and Kate Markgraf talk about how little Japan could prepare for the tournament because of what happened was so sad, and this team and their absolute graciousness have been so heartwarming.  Their banner, which the entire team carries around the pitch, always brings a tear to my eye.  If you want a team to adopt, you could do far worse than Japan.

You could do far worse because their style is so different from anything that has ever existed before in the women’s game.  Markgraf (correctly) noted today that the Barcelona comparisons need to stop, but those comparisons diminish what Japan has done in its own right.  Despite not having the physicality of other teams, despite not having an effective goal scorer, and of course despite all the hardships of the past few months, Japan beat Germany and Sweden in succession, two teams that were heavily favored contenders to win–especially Germany.  Japan never beat European opposition before at the World Cup and this week it beat the top European teams in succession.

In both matches, Japan, led by Sawa, played calm and collected.  They kept their heads and possession, constantly probing for the opening that would give a goal (or three).  They kept their defensive shape.  Nothing Germany did could break them.  Even after Sweden got the first goal, Japan remained calm and simply struck back.  Like the US, Japan never lost the belief that they were going to win, and eventually Sweden fell apart under the Japanese pressure.

In the process, Homare Sawa scored her fourth goal of the tournament, which ties her with Marta for the lead in the Golden Boot chase.  Wambach, who is now tied with Akers on 12 World Cup goals, is just a goal behind.  Sawa’s four are one more than she scored in her other four World Cups combined (the other three coming in 2003.)  Granted three of her goals this year came in her match against Mexico, but it speaks to how good Sawa is that 16 years after her first appearance, she is the player of the tournament.

Final Thoughts:

Pia Sundhage and her coaching/training staff have their work cut out for them.  Somehow they are going to have to limit Japan’s possession game because unlike France, Japan is most definitely not shaky at the back.

The Golden Boot tally is really low this year.  The previous low was six in 1995.  Michelle Akers holds the record with ten in 1991.  Every other year the Golden Boot winner(s) netted seven.  The closing of the gap has also lowered the Golden Boot tally, just as it has in the men’s game.  No doubt this has something to do with how close all the games have been.  There have been two 4-0 routs, and that is it.  Even the men’s World Cup last year had one 7-0 blowout–Portugal over North Korea

As an American, I am thrilled to see the US back to where they belong, and hopefully they can win it all.  Nevertheless, this does bring up another point: how the hell are you supposed to root for Japan to lose?