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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

Advertisements

Paying For Broken Plates

Last week Barcelona beat Osasuna 8-0.  That annihilation came on the heels of two consecutive disappointing 2-2 draws, first to Real Sociedad in La Liga and then to AC Milan a few days later in the Champions League.  In both cases, Barcelona held leads and arguably should have won (especially against Sociedad.)  The media talked of a “mini-crisis” at the Camp Nou, creating a story where none really existed.  But the talk clearly got to the Barcelona players who needed to show that they were in fact okay.  Hence the 8-0 destruction of Osasuna.  The Osasuna massacre was predicted over at ESPN by Eduardo Alvarez in his weekly Quiniela column, where he employed the Spanish phrase “pagar los platos rotos” (to pay for broken plays).  This expression was subsequently applied to the match in reports by Phil Ball and Sid Lowe, two of the great commentators of Spanish football.  I think even the Osasuna manager used it both before and after the match.

In the middle of the week, Barcelona again drew 2-2, this time to then league leader Valencia.  Therefore, today’s opponents Atletico Madrid had to pay for broken plates.  Unlike last year Atletico had actually started the season well.  Even though talisman Sergio Aguero went to Manchester City and the unhappy Diego Forlan went to Inter (where he can be unhappy all over again as club crisis has followed him to the San Siro), Atletico added the stellar Colombian Radamel Falcao (from Porto) who has brilliantly led Los Colchoneros and greatly impressed.

It probably hurt Atletico’s chances that their crosstown rivals over at the Bernabeu (who had their own broken plates that someone needed to pay for) beat Rayo Vallecano 6-2.  I imagine that the Barcelona players needed to prove that despite the draws, they were still the better side than Real Madrid.  And so, Barcelona beat Atletico 5-0 with a(nother) Lionel Messi hat trick.

Barcelona’s season thus far has been both interesting and troubling.  It has been interesting from a tactical point of view because, with both Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique out injured, there are effectively no center backs on this Barcelona side.  It was rumored that Pep Guardiola wanted to buy one this year, but the acquisitions of both Alexis Sanchez and (especially) Cesc Fabregas effectively halted that.

The biggest knock against this Barcelona side over the past couple years has been that it is a thin squad.  The doomsday scenario is that if a Messi or a Xavi or an Iniesta got injured then the season is in trouble.  This is especially true about Messi who is an irreplaceable player.  This scenario also applies to the back line, and it was tested last season (Eric Abidal’s illness and Puyol’s injury.)  There are other players who could fill in for the full backs, Adriano and Maxwell come to mind, but there is no real backup for either Puyol or Pique–save for Abidal the left back.  Andreu Fontàs is probably not ready yet, and so Guardiola has been using  one of his two central midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano as makeshift center backs.  Sometimes he used both.  (It’s not a completely alien concept.  Last season both filled in for Puyol and in the Barcelona system, when the full backs move forward, the central midfielder moves back to become a third center back.)  To accommodate the absent Puyol and Pique, Guardiola switched his system from an ostensible 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, and that has come under major scrutiny.  There have been times when the only true defender on the field was Abidal.  Given that even Barcelona’s three forwards can play as midfield players, in the 3-4-3, Barcelona has become one giant box-to-box midfield.  The draws against Sociedad and Milan were both results of not being strong enough at the back and not quite used to this system.  And also a dearth of true defensive players.

I do not question Guardiola.  He is a brilliant tactician and a true visionary, and he also can only work with what he has.  Fabregas and Sanchez were supposed to allow for squad rotation and decrease the burden on the team.  Yet this season already the following players have been out injured: Inieta, Puyol, Pique, Sanchez, Ibrahim Afellay, and Maxwell.  Dani Alves has also missed the odd game this season.

So that is the concern.  Obviously though when Barcelona beats Villareal 5-0, Osasuna 8-0, and Atletico 5-0, there is also cause for marvel.  The primary reason is the Messi/Fabregas partnership, which has already been stunningly brilliant at times.  I had wondered aloud on this blog why Barcelona would pursue Fabregas with such vigor, especially given the glut of talented midfielders.  I had also said that I thought this year would be devoted to making the Iniesta-Fabregas partnership ready for when Xavi inevitably retires.  In both cases I was wrong.  Fabregas has already proven that not only was he worth every penny, but Barcelona got him for a bargain.  (Arsenal must be livid right now.)  But what makes Fabregas so exciting is not his potential to replace Xavi, but rather the creative partnership that he has with Messi, forged years ago at La Masia but brought to a whole new level now.

Additionally, Thiago Alcântara is proving himself to be an incredible talent.  If he is still a lesser light on a marquee that showcases Messi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, and David Villa, that is going to change very soon.  Whatever the defensive frailties, one cannot fault the attack which is the best in the world.  (The defense, when everyone is fit, is also at the top or at least very close.)

The season is still young.  There are 38 games in a league, and that does not count the Copa del Rey or the real prize, the Champions League (or the Club World Cup.)  Because of injuries and transfers, and a limited preseason, Barcelona is not where it should be or can be.  This is not to say that it will ultimately win everything or even anything.  What it is saying is that a season is a long time, and at this juncture nothing has been decided yet. In a few months we will see what happens when the system is more familiar and/or the absent players recover.

I make only one prediction.  Real Betis, the current league leader, will not be in that position come May 2012.

 

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.