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.

Thoughts On The Ballon d’Or

Individual awards in a team game like football is ridiculous, a clear attempt to cash in on Oscar fever.  While it is relatively easy to be somewhat objective about “the best” in sports (as opposed to say literature or film), it is not foolproof, even in direct competition.  When judging the comparative merits of individual players, you might as well admit that it is largely based on opinion and taste–and hype.  Although football position are more fluid than those in other sports, players still very clear duties.  As such, when talking about “the greatest individual player,” this usually means attacking players.  Defenders and goalkeeper (or defensive midfielders) get little love and respect in comparison to the scoring greats.

The team and the star player cannot function without one another, although this is often forgotten.  The team requires the individual to be brilliant, while the individual relies on the team to let him be brilliant.  No one player illustrates this symbiosis better than Lionel Messi; he is (unless you work for a Madrid-based tabloid or English sports commentary) far and away the best player of his generation.  Depending on who is praising him, he is the greatest since Zidane, the greatest since Maradona, or the greatest ever.  (Or if you live in Madrid, you might grudgingly concede that he is currently the second-best player after Cristiano Ronaldo.)  No matter where Messi plays he would probably be the greatest player on his team.  All that is missing from his resume is major international team success (i.e. the World Cup).

Yet, Messi would not be the player that he is today without Barcelona–or more accurately, without the other players of Barcelona.  The IX on the field work in tandem to create a machine (a Máquina as it were) unlike any that football has ever seen.  Even the Spanish National Team, great as it is, is a lesser reflection of Barcelona–primarily because Messi plays for Argentina.  Messi is a magician; Messi is a wizard; Messi is a genius.  Messi is not however, his team’s playmaker.  That is what separates Messi from Maradona.  Messi does not take lesser teams, put them on his shoulders, and will them to victory.  The reason for that is because in playing for Barcelona he has not had to.

Xavi is the playmaker on the team.  Until recently, Xavi has been the under appreciated workhorse of Barcelona.  In the last two years, he has become increasingly recognized as the spark that ignites the machine.  He passes, passes, passes, and passes some more–rarely scoring goals himself, but laying the groundwork to ensure that one his teammates (usually Messi) does.  Xavi took over the Guardiola position and, under Guardiola’s tutelage, shaped it into his own.

I bring this up because the Ballon d’Or, which was given to Messi today for the second straight time, is perhaps the most egregious example of failing to recognize what makes Barcelona (and football) great.  It is possible to distinguish but not to sever Messi from Xavi from Iniesta from Villa from Valdés from Piqué from Puyol, etc., etc., etc.   Messi is the face of the team, and surely his teammates know they play with one of the all-time greats, but it is Barcelona that lets Messi be Messi–Argentina is the proof of that.  Tiki-taka is the style that Messi was trained in since he was 13.  For all his brilliant individuality, his individuality is second to the team play.  Unlike certain other superstars, Messi has no problem passing instead of scoring.  In fact, I would not be surprised if Messi was bemused by his win.

This year for the first time the Ballon d’Or was combined with the FIFA World Player of the Year.  All three finalists were graduates of Barcelona’s storied academy La Masia.  Two of the three finalists, Xavi and Iniesta, were integral to Spain’s victory at the World Cup with Iniesta scored Spain’s winning goal in the final.  In World Cup years, the winner of the Ballon d’Or and the World Player of the Year almost always comes from the World Cup winning side.*  This year, the trend was bucked in a most extravagant way.  Not only could Messi’s two teammates claim a better year, any player from Inter Milan, Wesley Sneijder especially, could convincingly argue that they had far more a successful 2010 than Messi.  Unlike the Netherlands’ Johan Cryuff, who won the 1974 Ballon d’Or over Franz Beckenbauer, Messi’s Argentina neither reached the final of the World Cup nor set the tournament alight with its innovative style.  The most notable thing about Argentina 2010 was Maradona, both for his unwittingly sabotage of the national team and for his embarrassing displays of his Maradona-ness on the sidelines.  (In defense of Messi, he did not actually have a bad World Cup.  Given Argentina’s top-to-bottom tactical failings and the fact that every opponent’s primary goal was “Shut Down Messi,” he had actually had a rather good tournament.)

So Messi won, and Cristiano Ronaldo is no doubt trying hard to swallow back his bile.  But I am not sure what to make of this award.  If it is for the best player in the world bar none, then yes Messi deserves it.  But if it is for the player who had the best year, which it traditionally has been, then Xavi (or maybe even Iniesta) deserved it more.  If it was for recognition of Barcelona’s greatness, then it should have been a 3-way tie.

What is most interesting about this year’s awards, although I am positive that this is not FIFA’s intention, is that it shows the growing unimportance of the World Cup.  The winner of the player’s award was not on the World Cup winning side.  The winner of the coach’s award (Jose Mourinho, who deservedly won it for his treble with Inter) was also not the World Cup winner.  The World Cup, while still a spectacle, is not as respected as it once way because the international game is rapidly losing prestige due to globalization, the influx of money into the game, and the dominance of the superclubs.

Running through the other awards that I have not yet mentioned:

Marta waltzed to yet another victory (her 5th in a row–take that, Platini!), and it is difficult to argue with that.  With the glaring exception of the Olympics and the World Cup, she has won everything there is to win (proof that the individual alone cannot win tournaments when the team is not fully functional.)  This year she dominated the WPS as FC Gold Pride ran over all competition en route to a title–and then promptly folded.  She won the MVP award and the Golden Boot.  Currently Marta is playing for the Santos women’s team, just in case you had the audacity to forget that she is the Pelé of the women’s game!!!! Most likely, this is a way for Marta to play with and against other Brazilians (women who may be her teammates at this year’s Women’s World Cup), given that the Brazilian squad will probably not play a competitive match until their first round in Germany.

And now for the award that I don’t understand at all, which is the women’s coach award.  Silvia Neid, the coach of the German women’s national team won it over Maren Meinert, the coach of the German women’s U-20 side and Pia Sundhage, the coach of the USWNT.  Now, I have nothing against Neid; she has done a great job with the German team, but what did she actually do this year that was special?  At least Meinert won the U-20 World Cup, and Sundhage’s USWNT beat Neid’s Germany at the Algarve Cup.  Furthermore, the USWNT is currently FIFA’s top ranked team (for what it’s worth.)  This year FC Gold Pride won the WPS, Santos won the 2010 Copa Libertadores de Fútbol Femenino, 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam won the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and South Korea won the U-17 World Cup.  Therefore, all of the coaches of these sides had a more successful year than Neid (and arguably Sundhage), and were not even considered.  It’s almost as if FIFA wasn’t watching the women’s game.  Try to look shocked.

The World IX is solid and unsurprising.  It’s a 4-3-3 and Spain/La Liga/Barcelona heavy: Casillas, Maicon, Lúcio, Puyol, Piqué,  Sneijder, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, C. Ronaldo.

The Puskás award was given to Hamit Altintop of Turkey and Bayern for an amazing goal that he scored for the national team against the powerhouse that is Kazakhstan.  If I cared more about this award I am sure I would say something, but I don’t so I won’t.

The FIFA Fair Play Award went to the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team for what I can only guess is existing after the earthquake.  I wonder if there is money attached to this award because that is what Haiti and this team really need.

The FIFA Presidential Award was given to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his scoring a terrific goal against Nelson Mandela.

Footnotes:

* This actually needs to be explained a little bit.  The Ballon d’Or used to be a European player award, meaning it was available only to European players at European clubs.  When a European nation won the World Cup, the Ballon d’Or winner was (with the exception of Cruyff in 1974) from the World Cup winning side.  When the World Cup was won by a South American nation, then that year’s Ballon d’Or was a free for all.  In 1995 it was opened up to all players who played for European clubs regardless of national origin.  Prior to this year, the FIFA World Player of the Year was always won in World Cup years by a player from the World Cup winning side.

Music I listened to while writing this: NPR Interview with Eric Johnson.

Messi! Xavi! Iniesta!

Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, and Andres Iniesta made the shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or.  This means that the the Ballon d’Or is guaranteed to stay in Barcelona (Messi won last year after Barça’s annus mirabilis.)

There are a lot of people grumbling about the shortlist, notably in Milan, and perhaps with good reason.  Inter won the treble, yet no Inter player was considered good enough.  No doubt that the Madrid tabloids AS and Marca are secretly fuming at the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo (as is, I am sure, Cristiano Ronaldo.)

There are enough people to bash the shortlist, so I want to defend it.  It is really a recognition that (a) the three best players in the world are Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta (possibly in that order); and (b) this Barça side is quite possibly the best club side to ever play the game.  Even though Inter won the Champions League last season, it is Barça that has captured the hearts and minds of the football romantic.

Oddly enough if there is one questionable candidate on the list it is Messi himself, almost universally acknowledged as the greatest player in today’s game.  The reason why this is curious is because of the World Cup.  Xavi and Iniesta were integral players on the winning side (a Spain team that is going to go down in history as one of the greatest national teams ever.)  Undoubtedly, the lack of World Cup success is what kept the Inter players and Cristiano Ronaldo off the shortlist.  In a World Cup year, a World Cup winner usually wins the big awards.  Messi, by sheer virtue of his talent, got the final spot despite a disappointing World Cup for Argentina (which, I hasten to add, was not Messi’s fault.  Argentina would not have done nearly as well as it did had Messi not been pulling the strings.  The fault for Argentina’s subpar performance lies with its Maradona, and everyone knows it.)

Although any of the three would be a worthy winner, I cannot image the Ballon d’Or going to anyone other than Xavi–sort of a lifetime recognition award.  He is Barcelona’s midfield general.  He creates the attacks and controls the pace of the match.  Xavi was behind Barcelona’s sextuple  and Spain’s Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 triumphs.  If it were fair, the award would go to both Xavi and Iniesta.  They have a symbiotic relationship in the midfield–while both are great, together they are divine.  It is the Xavi Iniesta combination that sets Barcelona and Spain apart from the competition.  They will be forever mentioned in the same breath like other great artistic duos: Lennon & McCartney, Astaire & Rogers, Peanut Butter & Jelly.

As every Barça fan is all too aware, Xavi is not getting younger; eventually he will retire.  There is almost no doubt that La Masia’s production line is preparing for that.  In fact, La Masia already produced an heir for Xavi: Cesc Fabregas, the one that got away.  Although the majority of boys who go to La Masia do not end up on the Barcelona first team, Fabregas eventually would have.  He was being groomed for greatness.  However, he was lured to Arsenal with the promise of playing time–something which Barcelona could not offer him at the time.  Arsene Wenger kept his word; Fabregas is the star of Arsenal, whereas he would probably be a substitute for Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona (as he is for Spain.)  The Barcelona midfield may be too clogged for a Fabregas right now.  But Barça and the cules want him back; they feel his return is destiny.  Fabregas himself has indicated that he wants to go home.  Barça tried to bring him back this summer, but to no avail.

A part of me wonders why Fabregas is anxious to return.  He may be the heir apparent, and he will fit into the team wherever he plays, but he will probably not start.  Nor will he be the leader that he is at Arsenal.  On the other hand, Fabregas is very much an equal to Xavi and Iniesta, as he proved at the World Cup and the Euro 2008.  Perhaps he is at a crossroads, either he returns now or never.  Maybe he is okay waiting for his turn to lead just so that he can be a part of one of the greatest club sides ever.

As a Barcelona fan, I want to see Fabregas as a part of the Blaugrana.  And after Xavi retires, I want to see a Ballon d’Or shortist of Messi, Iniesta, and Fabregas.