Thursday, 19 July 2012

Time for Wayne Rooney to take his place among the greats

As footballing comparisons go, they don’t get much bigger. To be touted as the second coming of the game’s greatest ever player is some burden, especially for an 18 year old. That Roy Hodgson chose again to invoke the name of Pele when talking about the potential impact of a man suspended for the first two games of the European Championships shows both the high regard in which Wayne Rooney is held and the dearth of other striking options.

Rooney has had to live with such lofty expectations since his earliest steps in the footballing limelight. Elevated to superstar status before he reached the age of majority, there are few who have grown up under such scrutiny. Both on and off the pitch he finds his life subjected to microscopic analysis. Now though is the time for the England forward to finally show what he is all about.

2011-12 was, in Premier League goalscoring terms at least, Rooney’s most productive season in his short career despite the inconsistent (by their high standards) form that Manchester United showed. That should, in theory, suggest that Rooney is about to embark on another golden campaign but his form at the Euros gave little indication that he was ready to step up. Admittedly, he missed the first two games of the tournament, but his conditioning looked woefully short of the required standard given that he had been suspended rather than injured.

Of all the players to travel to Ukraine only Ashley Young and James Milner were more underwhelming than Rooney, and they at least had the excuse of being constrained by the rigid tactics which had been imposed by Roy Hodgson. Rooney, of course, scored  a crucial goal in the victory over Ukraine (how could he miss?), but his failure to link midfield  with attack left some questioning whether he really is the “world class” forward that he is so often touted as.

Unquestionably Rooney has the attributes to succeed at the highest level. He remains a fabulously instinctive striker and has improved on a number of the perceived weaknesses which used to blight his game. Rooney’s much talked about disciplinary problems appeared a thing of the past last season with a solitary yellow card the only stain on his record. For so long critics suggested that by taking away his tempestuous nature you would effectively neuter the young forward, yet he proved categorically that he can be at his best without that side to his game

Meanwhile, whether due to his own hard work or to the fine crossing of Antonio Valencia, Rooney’s heading ability has now caught up with the dexterity demonstrated by his right boot. When United suffered an injury crisis he was able and willing to slot into central midfield and evidenced why many regard him as a frustrated playmaker. That willingness to focus on particular footballing deficiencies has been paramount in Cristiano Ronaldo’s elevation to greatness. If Rooney can do the same could he catch the Portuguese?

The last time Rooney enjoyed such a prolific season in front of goal was prior to the 2010 World Cup. Then injury against Bayern Munich curtailed a wonderful vein of form, and seemed to weigh heavily on the United striker in South Africa. The following campaign saw Rooney struggle in the opening stages of the season, before finally coming good as the fixtures got interesting. Rooney simply cannot afford to allow such a lengthy hangover this time around.

For with his 27th birthday rapidly approaching, now is the time for England’s talisman to justify the hype. Regarded for years as among football’s elite group of top players, he needs to kick on from last year’s heroics with another season of the same calibre. While few genuinely believed the Pele comparisons there was certainly an expectation that Rooney would be a player capable of challenging for the Ballon D’Or. His fifth place in 2011 was his highest placing yet, but in a year where many of the most legitimate contenders (Robin Van Persie, David Silva, Thiago Silva for instance) failed to even make the 23 man shortlist, and where Rooney picked up just 2% of the vote, it was a slightly hollow achievement.

Admittedly, competing with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is not easy. Yet what sets them apart from their rivals is not just the fabulous array of talents that they possess but the unrelenting consistency with which they apply them. Both have now put in a series of seasons operating at an “all-time” level. In contrast Rooney’s fitful brilliance is what has impeded his elevation to their level. To join them in the halls of football’s pantheon Rooney must now seek to emulate that unyielding desire for improvement. If instead he allows another precious year slip away he risks being remembered as a Premier League great rather than one of the world’s finest players. The decision is surely up to him. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 27

 USA 1-0 England (29 June 1950) Independencia, Belo Horizonte

English football history is littered with false dawns. While the national team often suffered setbacks they were quickly forgotten and the air of invincibility was swift to return. After the humbling from the Wembley Wizards and the defeat in Spain of the late 1920s there were morale boosting victories over Austria and Italy to reaffirm the pre-eminence of the English game.

By the late 1930s defeat abroad had become almost commonplace, but victories at home ensured that few saw anything deeply wrong in domestic football. When peacetime returned in 1945 a similar pattern emerged. England were frequently tested and occasionally beaten (away in France in 1946 and Switzerland in 1947), but their form and quality were hard to judge.

On occasion England were able to produce performances that did suggest they could be world beaters. An 8-2 annihilation of Holland in a friendly perhaps pointed more to their international standing at the time than England’s attacking prowess, but the 10-0 destruction of Portugal in Lisbon was a result to be respected. The most impressive of all the post-war friendlies (indeed arguably the most impressive single result England have ever recorded) was a 4-0 win over Italy in Turin. With an Italian side packed full of Torino stars, England were ruthless and took their chances clinically.

A fact recognised more in hindsight than at the time was the introduction of a dedicated England manager. While the players were still selected by a committee, Walter Winterbottom now had the task of shaping them into a team. That was a challenge that was easier said than done given the focus within English football remained squarely on the individual, rather than the collective. Moreover the committee which selected the team, did so with little or no regard for how they might combine together, complicating Winterbottom’s job still further.

Walter Winterbottom
England were though blessed with a number of excellent individuals. Stanley Matthews was well into his thirties, but still possessed the rapid acceleration and body-swerve which had eluded defenders since the 1930s. Tom Finney was as complete and versatile an attacker as England ever produced and was capable of playing in any position across the front line. Tommy Lawton remained the ideal centre-forward for such a pair of wingers, commonly regarded as the finest header of a ball that English football has witnessed. To then be able to call on inside-forwards such as Wilf Mannion of Middlesbrough and Matthews’ colleague at Blackpool, Stanley Mortensen, left Winterbottom in an envious position.

The return of the Home Nations to FIFA following World War II, opened up the opportunity of participating in the 1950 World Cup. The Home Championship was designated as a World Cup qualifying group with the top two teams allowed to travel to Brazil. While international relations had improved since the pre-war era, Scotland decided that they would only travel to the finals if they ended up as the winners of the Home Championship. As it was after beating Wales 4-1 in Cardiff and Northern Ireland 9-2 in Manchester, England travelled to Hampden Park for the deciding game. Scotland were narrowly beaten 1-0 courtesy of a Roy Bentley goal that ensured it would be England making the trip to South America.
England’s World Cup preparations started smoothly. They warmed up for the tournament with a 5-3 win against Portugal and a 4-1 victory over Belgium, both away from home. Yet there were clear signs that a characteristic lack of focus was in place. England travelled to Brazil with just one member of their selection “committee”, Arthur Drewry, alongside them. The FA also sent Stanley Matthews off on an unnecessary tour of Canada which meant he missed the first game of the tournament.

Wilf Mannion

Despite these complications England enjoyed a relatively straightforward victory in their opening group match against Chile. Goals six minutes either side of half-time from Mortensen and Mannion were enough to secure the win, though Chile twice struck the frame of the goal. With that hurdle vaulted England faced what appeared to be a formality for the second group game, this time against the USA.

When compared with England the USA were a marked contrast in both World Cup pedigree and current quality. As semi-finalists in 1930 the Americans were in one respect the side with experience on their side, but in terms of the players they took to Brazil they couldn’t hold a candle to England. The demise of the first American Soccer League had weakened the strength of the domestic game and a 3-1 defeat to Chile in their opener pointed to a side that England might expect to beat. Manager Bill Jeffrey, a Scot, appeared to anticipate the worse when he said before the game “We ain’t got a chance against your boys.”

Quite how one sided the match was remains an open question. Most match reports suggest that England besieged the American goal, hitting the woodwork on a near constant basis and drawing save after save from Frank Borghi. In reality it appears to have been far closer, with England enjoying the majority of possession and chances but vigilant to the US threat.

With half-time rapidly approaching the Americans accomplished the unthinkable and scored. A wild shot from Walter Bahr (occasionally referred to as a clearance) was diverted into the net by the Haitian born Joe Gaetjens and England found themselves behind. Many would later suggest that Gaetjens contribution to the goal was inadvertent (Alf Ramsey suggested he was trying to duck), but Bahr was insistent that it was a deliberate and brilliant diving header.

Joe Gaetjens
In the second-half England thought they had levelled through Mullen’s header, but the referee judged the ball had not crossed the line. Earlier Tom Finney had hit the post, and England also went close through Mortensen but they remained incapable of finding an equaliser. Defeat to the USA should not have been fatal, and victory against Spain in the final group match would have sent England through. Instead they went down 1-0 to a goal from the legendary goalscorer Telmo Zarra. England’s first World Cup adventure ended in ignominy.

Somewhat typically the reaction to this failure at home was rather less apocalyptic than the modern reader might expect. Just as with the defeat to Spain and the continental reverses that followed the fact that the humiliation took place abroad, far away from home, meant that it was out of sight and largely out of mind. It would take more than this setback to shake England’s faith in their position among the world powers. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Zlatan and Thiago Silva – What does it mean?

Every so often a transfer comes along which changes the landscape of football fundamentally. Johan Cruyff’s 1973 move to Barcelona, Diego Maradona’s switch to Napoli, and Luis Figo’s world record transfer to Real Madrid all represented a paradigm shift in football’s history. They marked either a clear break in an existing dynasty or the commencement of a new one. The proposed sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva from Milan to Paris Saint-Germain may just be another example.

On the face of it the transfer doesn’t appear to be in the league of those three. For starters, all were for world record transfer fees at the time, while the Milan duo seem set to move for €65m (roughly £52m), a sum dwarfed by not only Cristiano Ronaldo’s switch to Real Madrid but also Zinedine Zidane’s departure from Juventus to join the same club. In addition Milan’s recent performance, while demonstrating a consistency in the league that was sorely lacking under Carlo Ancelotti, have hardly looked like one of the game’s great teams. PSG are themselves facing an altogether greater challenge in seeking to join Europe’s top table.

For Milan the transfer represents a quite bizarre piece of business. The club were all set to sell Thiago Silva alone to PSG for €47m just weeks ago, before a dramatic U-turn saw the Brazilian centre-back sign an improved  long term deal. To now add Ibrahimovic into the bargain for just €18m seems to represent a fire-sale. The Swede joined the rossoneri for a knock-down price of €24m just two years ago, and has only enhanced his reputation following a difficult first season at Barcelona. To now accept a loss of €6m on a player who led Serie A in scoring this season would be nonsensical.

The club are of course already undergoing a dramatic overhaul with Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo  Inzaghi and Mark Van Bommel among those who have left the San Siro. While those five all had their best years behind them Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva are the heart and soul of the current team. Both players were outstanding in the last two seasons and proved instrumental in carrying Milan’s Scudetto challenge. The club have presented the transfers as a simple cost cutting exercise, but how costly would it be for Milan to miss out on the Champions League next season?

Replacements have been touted such as the vastly talented Dede of Vasco da Gama for Thiago Silva, and Carlos Tevez or Edin Dzeko for Ibrahimovic, but these should surely be signings to improve the existing play staff, rather than expecting them to fill in the gaps. The club pushed Juventus all the way last year, but would have been well off the pace without their two stars. With the Old Lady already having recruited Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla from Udinese,  and speculation ongoing about the potential acquisition of Robin Van Persie, Milan are playing catch up.

Of course the transfer also has clear meaning for Serie A as a whole. The league which largely enjoyed a strangle hold over European football from the return of the stranieri in 1980 to the end of the 1990s risks being left behind. Already relegated to fourth in the UEFA coefficients, the sale of the league’s two leading foreign stars to France surely risks seeing Italian football fall still further behind that of England and Spain. Of course, this isn’t the first time a major star has decamped from Serie A. In 2001 Zinedine Zidane moved from Juventus to Real Madrid, but it was counter balanced by the arrival of Valencia’s Gaizka Mendieta at Lazio, and was part of an unprecedented transfer merry go round which saw the bianconeri acquire Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved and Lilian Thuram.

Now the league faces a drain of talent as it seeks to rectify the parlous state of club finances. Inter allowed Samuel Eto’o to depart last year in order to avoid his stratospheric wages and now talk abounds of a move for Wesley Sneijder from Russia’s free spending Anzhi. Italian clubs have struggled in recent years to attract the very top tier of international talent, but if they allow the existing stars to leave it may be impossible to replace them in the future.

Yet while the sale may be grounds for despair in Italy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that fans of French football should be jumping for joy. No club in France has acquired genuinely top class foreign talent since Marseille under Bernard Tapie in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That era saw the arrival of Chris Waddle, Dragan Stoijkovic and Rudi Voller, but it also saw the league lose its competitive edge with L’OM finishing top on five consecutive occasions. Indeed, French football has historically veered between periods of sustained dominance (St Etienne in the 60s and 70s, Marseille in the 90s and Lyon in the 2000s) and remarkable competition in a way that few other leagues have emulated.

The last five seasons have seen five different champions, yet it now seems difficult to imagine anyone stopping PSG. Champions Montpellier have already lost talismanic striker Oliver Giroud to Arsenal, though there is encouraging news over the future of playmaker Younes Behanda and left-back Henri Bedimo. The sale of Eden Hazard by Lille was largely inevitable though they have recruited well with Marvin Martin and Salomon Kalou arriving to witness a new era at the magnificent Grand Stade Lille Metropole. Marseille have already seen coach Didier Deschamps move on to manage the national team and Lyon, previously French football’s great powerhouse, are prepared to let Hugo Lloris go if the right price is achieved. In short, no side looks better placed to resist the Parisian challenge than last year.

For PSG the transfer looks likely to set in stone their domestic dominance, but surely this season’s real test will come in the Champions League. With Ezequiel Lavezzi already added to an impressive squad that includes the likes of Javier Pastore, Nene and Jeremy Menez, the club do not look likely to struggle in attack. Marseille’s 1993 success remains the only time a French club have lifted Europe’s premier trophy, and even that was achieved under the cloud of match fixing allegations which saw that season’s Ligue 1 title stripped from L’OM. If the club can now secure the capture of the game’s finest (along with Mats Hummels) centre-back and a genius such as Ibrahimovic the sky surely is the limit.

Powered by the Qatari royal family’s petrodollars Paris Saint-Germain stand on the brink of history. No French side has ever established itself as an enduring European force, yet with a manager who has already won two Champions League titles and a squad packed with some of the game’s finest talents they have the tools to mount a serious assault on football’s greatest prizes. The addition of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would certainly catapult PSG to a new level, the longer term question is what it might do to the domestic game in France.  

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Why Messi is the only candidate for the Ballon D’Or

As the nights draw in and the weather gets a touch colder it is traditional for gifts to be showered on deserving candidates, among them top footballers. It is at this time of year that an assortment of media bodies hand out their annual trinkets in recognition of the outstanding performers of the past year in football. As such it is a good time to look back on the year of 2010 and consider who is in line for these accolades and who truly merits the awards to be doled out. When considering the potential winners we must realise that there tends to be a healthy amount of revisionism in all reflections on past seasons (which only grows with time), and as such it is imperative to remember accurately just what did happen in 2010 as these may be the only memories that endure.

First it is worth noting that there has been a major change to the landscape of footballing awards with the amalgamation of two of the most noted prizes. The Ballon D’Or, the oldest of the major footballing awards and inaugurated in 1956, has merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award to form the imaginatively named FIFA Ballon D’Or. The significance of the merger in terms of the likely winner is as yet unclear. Since the FIFA award was created in 1991, they have chosen different winners on seven occasions with only one of those (1994) being due to differing eligibility. The last five years have seen the two awards choose the same victor.

The variances noted between the winners reflect the differing voters who previously determined the year’s premier player. While the Ballon D’Or was chosen by journalists, indeed the award is organised by France Football magazine, FIFA’s gong was initially selected by national team managers and later by managers and captains. FIFA have smoothed out some of the issues that plagued their award (such as Marco van Basten and Carlos Alberto receiving votes some years after retiring), but it remains imperfect and tends to suggest that many of those voting have watched very little of the players eligible. While FIFA’s move to prevent voters selecting their compatriots was a sensible one, it has still not ironed out the issue at a club level. John Terry chose Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack as the top two in the world in 2009 while Yossi Benayoun (then of Liverpool) found room for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

The final major award is that decided by English magazine World Soccer. Created in 1982, it is voted on by readers in an open poll. Since the birth of the World Player of the Year award, there have only been two instances (1994 and 1995) in which the World Soccer prize did not follow that  of either FIFA or France Football.

Given that this is a World Cup year, the importance of that great event will inevitably have a significant bearing on the destination of the famous trophies. Since the Ballon D’Or was created in 1956, World Cup years have almost universally since the award go to a star performer from the tournament. In the intervening years only twice has the recipient not come from a team reaching the semi-finals of the competition. Kevin Keegan won the award in 1978, when England didn’t even qualify, but that reflected the fact that non-Europeans were ineligible until 1995 and so Kempes, Passarella et al were barred from the voting. Equally Maradona was a sure fire winner in 1986 (he romped home in the World Soccer poll), but his exclusion let in Igor Belanov, a star at the World Cup for the Soviet Union as well as a winner of the Cup Winners’ Cup that year. World Soccer in comparison has only seen one winner from a non World Cup winning team, and then it was Paolo Maldini, a losing finalist as well as a Champions League winner in 1994, who scooped the title.

This World Cup focus is increasingly outdated in the modern era. In the earliest days of the awards this level of focus was understandable. For starters there simply wasn’t the availability of footage, even to journalists, that exists today. A journalist in England might only see a Kopa or a Masopust once in an entire season at club level, if that, and so it was natural in a World Cup year to focus on the players who did perform well wehen you got the chance to see them. That simply isn’t the case anymore. Nor does it remain true that the World Cup represents a level above that of top club football. The Champions League knock-out rounds now offer a standard the equal of anything the World Cup can muster. As such, to place seven games out of 60 or so in a season on a pedestal is just not representative of the current status quo in world football. Although we may dislike this overemphasis, we must though remember that this remains a factor in the minds of voters.
Inevitably then the betting currently seems to reflect the heavy bias that exists towards World Cup performances. Paddy Power currently have Wesley Sneijder as the 6/5 favourite with the Spanish cohort of Iniesta, Xavi and Villa close behind. World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan and Holland’s outstanding winger Arjen Robben are also deemed to be in contention by the bookmakers. The only other man deemed in with a shout (at under 20/1) is the reigning champion Lionel Messi, and in my opinion he is the only candidate for the trophy this year.

Before we start we should note that along with the focus on the World Cup, the time periods considered by voters tend to be idiosyncratic. Although the award is nominally for the calendar year voters tend to look at the entire previous season (so in this case the whole of 2009-10) as well as any outstanding performers in the start of this year. This makes the period under consideration effectively 15 months, with the first three of a season being counted in two periods. As such when considering the statistical performance of players I will look at their record in the whole of 2009/10 and also the opening months of the new season.

To look first then at the current favourite, Inter’s playmaker, Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder’s candidacy is obvious, not only did he finish as joint top goalscorer with five at the World Cup he also proved instrumental in Inter’s Champions League triumph. The Sneijder bandwagon started with Inter’s victory over Chelsea in the second round of their European Campaign. It was Sneijder’s through ball to Samuel Eto’o which led to Inter killing off the game, but while his influence was to the fore in both legs it was surely Lucio and Walter Samuel’s shackling of Didier Drogba which proved crucial in the victory (as well as  referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez’s liberal attitude towards contact in the penalty area). In the quarter-final Sneijder again proved his worth against CSKA Moscow with a low free kick which secured a 2-0 aggregate victory, but once more the defence was vital in shutting out their Russian opponents.

Perhaps Sneijder’s most significant club performance of the season came in the semi-final against Barcelona. Certainly he took his goal well, but it was put on a plate for him by the industrious Diego Milito, as was Maicon’s goal in the second half. His “assist” for Milito’s crucial third goal, was in reality a misguided header which only the predatory instincts of Milito turned into a great chance. In the second leg Inter displayed the efficacy of teamwork and the difficulty that any top team (even Barcelona) face in breaking down a well-drilled defence happy to play with limited ambition. In the final his inch-perfect pass allowed Milito to put Inter into the lead, however when Milito returned the favour minute later Sneijder could only fire a tame shot at Hans-Jorg Butt. Finally it was Milito who applied the coup de grace with his neat footwork and fine finish to put the result beyond doubt.

Undeniably Sneijder played a huge role in Inter’s Champions League success, but he was only one part of a well oiled machine. Inter were fortunate to have a whole team that worked in sync to defeat. Julio Cesar produced some tremendous saves during the run, Samuel and Lucio were at their uncompromising best, Maicon and Zanetti could rampage down the flanks, Cambiasso and Motta provided an excellent shield for the defence, Eto’o and Pandev worked tirelessly for the cause and Diego Milito was there to finish things off. To pick out a single player (and to ignore the influence of Jose Mourinho in setting the team up) would be to ignore the collectivism that was the true cause of Inter’s success.

Of course, the game cannot be judged in numbers alone (if it was we could simply count the goals and assists of each player and come up with Ballon D’Or winner easily), but it is worth looking at the statistics to judge the influence of Sneijder on Inter across the season in club football. Sneijder made 26 appearances for Inter in Serie A last term, scoring four goals and providing six assists. In the Champions League he made 11 appearances, scoring three and making six goals. In comparison Milito played 35 times en route to Inter’s Scudetto triumph, netting 22 times and providing four assists. In Europe he also appeared 11 times, and scored six goals with two assists.

Holland’s excellent performances at the World Cup were the other cause of Sneijder’s prominence in the list of likely contenders for the Ballon D’Or. With five goals in the tournament Sneijder ended as joint top scorer, and as such guaranteed that he would be in the reckoning. In considering performances at the World Cup, I think it is important to look at the actions in significant detail. Due to the (in my view) over importance attached to a seven game run in the context of a 60 game season, we have to look at these performances closely because the normal argument that blips even themselves out over the course of a season simply doesn’t apply to such a small population.

Sneijder’s tournament scoring started against Japan when Robin Van Persie’s miscontrol saw the ball break free to Sneijder on the edge of the box. While his crisp strike was certainly hit with venom, it was a soft goal for the Japanese to give away. Kawashima actually dived past the ball as he let it in and in normal circumstances it should have been a routine save. Against Slovakia Sneijder did play well, with a fine pass to release Robben and a clean finish of his own to wrap the game up. It was in the quarter-final against Brazil though that Sneijder really boosted his claims to recognition. Holland went into the game as underdogs, despite their perfect record in the tournament so far (not to mention an excellent qualification campaign), but managed to come back from a goal down to shock the Brazilian and progress to the semi-finals. Sneijder’s two goals in the game marked him out as Holland’s star man, but in reality each was the result of major errors in the Brazilian defence. His first was a hopeful cross into the box which Felipe Melo and Juilo Cesar conspired to allow in the net, the second an instinctive header which the Brazilians allowed to an unmarked man of 5’7 inside the six yard box. Certainly Sneijder was clever to take it, but the Brazilians were the architects of their own downfall in the game with Felipe Melo especially culpable.

In the game against Uruguay Sneijder was especially fortunate to find his name on the score sheet. His shot appeared to be going wide, before taking a deflection off Walter Gargano and then going under the legs of Van Persie who had been stood in a marginally offside position. The final saw Holland’s run come to an abrupt end, but Sneijder did come close to playing a crucial role when his pass allowed Arjen Robben to run in on goal only to fluff his lines at the crucial moment. That miss might just have cost Holland the cup. So, of Sneijder’s five goals scored in the tournament, two took crucial deflections, one was a major goalkeeping error and two were well taken. It knocks some of the lustre of his joint top goalscorer accolade.

In summary, Sneijder has had a superb year in 2010, however it is just not as good as is often being made out. He was one of many crucial players for Inter in their run to a magnificent treble, and in fairness to him his influence is perhaps not adequately reflected in his statistics (especially in Serie A). However, on national duty he is flattered by his goal tally and his performances in no way merited his receipt of the Bronze Ball in the tournament.

Next, to the Spanish trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Villa. With Spain’s victory in the World Cup the likelihood that one Spaniard would lift the Ballon D’Or raised significantly. As the scorer of the only goal in the final Andres Iniesta was catapulted to the top of the list (at least with the bookmakers) for the year end awards. He is though surely not a serious candidate. In the last two years the cult of Iniesta has taken hold among many observers, but the Ballon D’Or is a leap far too far.

For all his artistry, and Iniesta does possess a sublime first touch and dazzling footwork, he just does not deliver enough. Last season he only managed to start 20 games in the league (making nine substitute appearances) and mustered a single goal to add to his five assists. For a midfielder of his supposed level that is a criminally poor level of output. In the Champions League he featured on nine occasions and did not supply a goal or an assist. Unquestionably this fails to take account of the way that Iniesta links play in midfield, of his dribbling ability that shifts defences around or of the number of passes he makes which lead indirectly to goals. But none of that makes up for his lack of personal contribution. While he took his goals well in the group game against Chile and in the final against Holland, his overall performances were not earth shattering. He certainly played his part in the relentless passing machine that is the Spanish midfield, but so did Sergio Busquets and nobody has put him forward as a candidate. His neat footwork helped to undo both the Paraguayan and Portuguese defences at crucial moments, but his club form was not on the level needed of the supposed best player in the world. In short, if Iniesta did triumph in the Ballon D’Or it would be the least deserved recipient in history.

Many struggle to separate Iniesta from his partner in crime Xavi. Certainly the diminutive pair share similarities, composure on the ball and the precision of their passing foremost among them, but their contributions in the last year have been markedly different. While Xavi, like Iniesta, suffers from the fact that numbers cannot do justice to his overall impact his was a far more tangible contribution last season.
Xavi’s greatest strength remains his ability to retain possession and by doing so to push and pull defences until an opening (however small) might present itself. For a player to make more than 100 passes in a game is an astonishing milestone, for Xavi that is a common occurrence. At the World Cup Xavi led the way yet again with his passing. He completed more passes than any other player and averaged over 95 passes attempted a game. It was this control of possession that acted as Spain’s greatest defensive asset. Even teams (like Germany) whose gameplan was based on the counter-attack struggled against Spain because they just couldn’t get the ball, and by the time they did they were too tired to do anything with it.

So to try and judge Xavi purely on his output is not enough, but there are a couple of notable figures which may help our analysis. Xavi led La Liga last season in assists with 14, and also made three goals in the Champions League. In the World Cup though he was only directly responsible for a single goal, his pass to David Villa against Portugal was a sublime flick of his boot, but it did not represent an adequate return on the levels of possession that Xavi enjoyed. Admittedly, almost all defences held a very deep line against Spain, content to let them pass the ball interminably with a lack of penetration, but Spain surely would have expected more goalscoring chances to have been created.  

David Villa’s contribution to Spain’s success in South Africa was obvious. The team only scored eight goals in their seven games, and Villa netted five of them. Their reliance on his predatory instincts was tremendous, and indeed in the early stages their tactic appeared to be to pass the ball until Villa got a chance and then expect to keep a clean sheet. His first goal against Honduras in particular, a slaloming run followed by a sliding finish into the top corner, will live long as one of the highlights of an uninspiring tournament. There was a tremendous economy of his goals, only his second against Honduras was not responsible for a victory. If there was a fault to be found in his play at the World Cup it was the drop off in his productivity past the quarter-finals. The much maligned Fernando Torres (who was extremely poor in fairness) did his best work as a central foil, allowing Villa to cut in from the left. Once Torres was withdrawn and Villa was asked to occupy a central role, he found goals far harder to come by.

In club football Villa’s performances need to be put in context. Compared to his previous season where he hit 28 in the league, or his first season at Valencia where he scored 25, a return of 21 league goals was a disappointment. However, given the financial difficulties facing Valencia and the importance that those goals played in lifting Los Che into third place (admittedly miles behind both Barca and Real Madrid) not a great deal more might have been expected. In light of the fact that Messi scored 34 league goals can a pure finisher like Villa really expect the Ballon D’Or with just 21? His claim is far stronger than that of Iniesta, but there is a more deserving candidate than David Villa.

As the winner of the Golden Ball at the World Cup, Diego Forlan must have a strong claim. Forlan’s performances in South Africa (along with Luis Suarez’s goalkeeping abilities) played a huge part in Uruguay’s dramatic progress to the semi-final. With a brace against South Africa, as well as goals in the quarter-final, semi-final and third place play-off Forlan finished the competition as joint top scorer. Furthermore the range of Forlan’s goals placed him among the star performers in the competition. However, as with Sneijder we need to look behind the raw numbers at the goals themselves. Forlan got off the mark with an audacious strike from 30 yards out, but the ball took a wicked deflection off Mokoena leaving Khune in the South African net flat footed. His second in the game was a penalty. Against both Ghana and Holland, the venom in Forlan’s long range blasts was considerable but in both cases the ball was largely straight down the middle of the goal and it was only late swerve that deceived the keepers. Both were great strikes, but there would have been few on the receiving end who would not have hoped for more from their goalkeepers. Forlan’s goal against Germany, named the goal of the tournament, was beyond reproach as he steered his volley powerfully into the net. Forlan’s tournament was a fine one, but he has his elements of luck along the way.

For Atletico Madrid Forlan’s form was mixed. In light of his incredible 32 goals in La Liga the previous season, a return of just 18 was a let down. The decline in output of Forlan (along with the fifth leakiest defence in the league) saw Atletico finish a lowly ninth, a staggering 52 points behind champions Barca (Atleti finished with just 47 points themselves). Where Forlan did come alive last season was in the Europa League, particularly the latter stages. The Uruguayan hit a goal against.Valencia in the quarter-final, and the followed it with an injury time winner against Liverpool in the semi, and a pair in the final against Fulham. Certainly impressive stuff, but putting the calibre of opposition to one side (neither Fulham nor Liverpool could even manage a top six finish in England last year) we must realise that the Europa League remains a second-tier competition. Forlan’s goals were vital to Atletico’s success, but their presence in the competition only came about by their failure in the Champions League. Is that really the basis for a Ballon D’Or winner?

Arjen Robben is another who, like Diego Forlan, performed well on multiple stages. With his club, Bayern Munich, Robben completed the domestic double and was crucial in their road to victory. Featuring in 24 league games, Robben scored a startling 16 goals and provided seven assists, a fine return for a right winger. In the Champions League Robben’s performances were equally crucial. His astonishing goal against Fiorentina in the second-leg of their tie, a mazy dribble before unleashing a thunderous drive, not only sealed the victory it must also rank among the goals of the year. Equally his volleyed winner against Manchester United in the quarter-finals was a stunning display of the quality of his technique. To show these efforts were no flukes, Robben repeated the trick with another wonder strike against Lyon at the semi-final stage, giving the diving Hugo Lloris no chance.

At the World Cup Robben missed the early stages through injury, but his return in place of the impressive Eljero Elia made Holland even stronger. Robben’s goal against Slovakia in the first round was virtually a carbon copy of his strike against Lyon, cutting inside defenders from the right and driving a low effort into the bottom corner. In the semi-final against Uruguay Robben showed his versatility with a rare header to help the Oranje into the final. However, in the most important game of all the flying Dutchman squandered a golden opportunity when one on one with Casillas to put Holland into a crucial lead. To discount Robben for the major awards on the basis of that miss alone would be churlish, but his absence in that game as well as a low key Champions League final weaken his case for victory. The most notable problem for Robben is that he was only able to start 18 games in the league last season, while he was restricted in the World Cup to four. When he did play he was excellent, but so too were a number of players who got to play a lot more games and so showed more than the periodic bursts of brilliance that the Dutchman displayed.

In analysing this I have excluded the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba, both of whom enjoyed stellar club season but who look set to be passed over for recognition in favour of the World Cup stars. Equally many defensive players such as Puyol and Maicon, who performed well both for their clubs and their country, will miss out due to the longstanding preference for midfielders and attackers. Diego Milito, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Frank Lampard, Lucio and Gerard Pique all failed to even be nominated.  On the balance of the entire year all these players are more worthy candidates than Iniesta, but the bias is sure to prevail.

So that just leaves Lionel Messi. If this had been a non World Cup year Messi would have been a sure fire winner. To start by getting the statistics out of the way, he scored 34 goals in 35 games in the league and eight in 11 in the Champions League. The only player to provide more assists in the league was Xavi, and sadly for Messi he doesn’t have a Messi of his own to pass to. Those numbers are staggering. The last player to hit 34 goals in the league in Spain was Ronaldo in 1996-7, his first season at Barcelona, and widely considered to have been one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. Yet Messi isn’t even a striker.
Messi’s consistent brilliance last season ranks up there with the best in the history of the game, he was that good. Particular moments stand out as special memories. Successive league hat-tricks against Real Zaragoza and Valencia (with a brace against Stuttgart sandwiched in between) will live long in the minds of those who witnessed them. Arguably his finest hour though was a single-handed demolition of Arsenal at the Camp Nou in which Messi netted four times. Decisively that game was immediately followed by a victory in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid that in effect won the title for Barca, and which saw Messi yet again on the scoresheet.

Of course the doubters will point out Barca’s failure to break down Inter and eventual elimination from the Champions League as proof that the boy is not infallible. That is true of course, but no player is. Even the greatest players had their failures. Had Bojan been able to convert the header that Messi supplied on a plate in the second-leg, had Julio Cesar not made a finger-tip save from Messi’s curling shot, had a number of things have gone Barca’s way they might well have found themselves as champions yet again. Certainly Messi has difficulties in breaking down defences who are willing to sit with a flat back six and three screening players in front (as Inter did at the Camp Nou), but that simply displays the difficulties faced by any great attack in facing an equally great defence.

In addition there will be those who point out Messi’s failure to score at the World Cup. That though fails to take into account the position that Maradona asked Messi to take up, as a central playmaker. It also ignores the superhuman efforts of Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama who kept Messi at bay with a string of supreme saves. It certainly doesn’t recognise his overall contribution to the team or the fact Messi as well was named to the team of the tournament for his fine displays.

The season that Messi has just enjoyed is the sort that comes along very rarely, even for the very greatest players and as such we should treasure it. Surely Messi’s performances trump those of all his rivals, for the tremendous consistency he has reached as well as the singular brilliance of his efforts. Messi may have been the top scorer in both league and European play last season, but it was the genius of his play that most delighted spectators. Regardless of whether he found the net or not, fans could be sure that Messi would illuminate the game with a moment of magic, whether it be a pass, a trick or of course is incomparable dribbling ability. It is this combination aesthetic pleasure with brutal efficiency that marks out Messi as head and shoulders above his rivals, and as such he is the only genuine candidate for the accolade of the world’s best player. 

This piece first appeared on BigSoccer in 2010.

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 26

 Millonarios 3-2 Deportivo Cali (4 December 1949) Estadio El Campin, Bogota

It seems hard at times to imagine that Colombia once had a claim to the world’s greatest football league. For at a time when the country’s international image is largely confined to the drug trade and, at a push, the FARC guerrillas, it seems strange that such a situation could ever have existed. That it did was due to an equally unusual set of circumstances.

The creation in 1948 of a new, professional league would not ordinarily have led to immediate ascension to the forefront of the world game. Colombia’s Dimayor (Division Mayor del Futbol Colombiano) in fact faced early and potentially fatal difficulties. Chief of these was the opposition of the existing amateur league, Adefutbol, to the presumption of the clubs that they were entitled to create such a league. That opposition manifested itself in the amateur league’s successful petitioning of FIFA to refuse to sanction the newcomer.

This meant in effect that the league was isolated from international connections, and while that would have been expected to prove a hindrance it was actually its greatest advantage. Unconstrained by the rules and regulations which governed leagues affiliated with FIFA, the Colombian league was able to acquire players without paying a transfer fee. In an era in which clubs still treated players like chattels, not only did this vastly widen the pool of players to recruit from, it also allowed Colombian clubs to pay these superstars handsomely.

The first to arrive in Bogota was the Argentine legend Adolfo Pedernera. With the Argentine league at the time gripped by an ongoing player’s strike he sensed the opportunity to cash in with Millonarios. Pedernera’s role though was not just as a player. His reputation unlocked doors throughout Argentina and he was shrewdly perceived as a man who could bring still more great players to Colombia.

Before long all the clubs were following Millonarios’ lead in chasing foreign talent. Deportivo Cali, like Millonarios, concentrated their pursuit in Argentina, while others cast a wider net over the rest of South America. The most unusual recruiting policy was that of Santa Fe. They pulled off the audacious capture of Neil Franklin, arguably England’s greatest ever central defender, along with his Stoke teammate George Mountford and Charlie Mitten of Manchester United.

Neil Franklin

Somewhat predictably, given the now well deserved reputation of English players abroad, the Anglo invasion did not turn out as might have been hoped. Homesickness quickly accounted for Franklin and only Mitten really made a lasting impression, though that didn’t deter Millonarios from recruiting more British players. On his return to England Franklin found himself banned from the Football League, but even after that was lifted he appeared to have been blacklisted by the top clubs. 

While the English may have struggled, many of South America’s finest talents prospered. Pedernera’s contacts in Argentina allowed Millonarios to acquire a raft of young stars, most notably Pedernera’s successor at River Plate, Alfredo Di Stefano. Though not yet the legend he would later become, Di Stefano had already won six caps for Argentina, scoring six goals and winning the 1947 Copa America at the age of 21. His prodigious goalscoring feats for both River Plate and Huracan pointed to a perfect recruit for Millonarios.

Such was the calibre of the players that were attracted to Colombia in the era that it came to be known as “El Dorado” in recognition of the monetary rewards on offer. Pedernera arrived on a salary of $5,000 a year and money was certainly the only motivating factor behind Franklin and Mountford’s brief South American sojourn. Yet while the players may have arrived for purely financial reasons the fans and club owners could well reflect on what was a golden age in Colombian football.

In Bogota neither Di Stefano nor Pedernera disappointed. Millonarios came to dominate the league in those El Dorado years, with a brand of football that imitated that of River Plate’s La Maquina team. No wonder then that they were named El Ballet Azul (The Blue Ballet) for the grace and poise with which they played the game.

Di Stefano’s first season in Colombia was undoubtedly the campaign which saw the tightest race for the title. With the “Blond Arrow” joined in the team by his compatriots Nestor Rossi, a superb defensive midfielder, and the prolific Pedro Cabillon, Millonarios looked set to cruise past the opposition. Instead they were pushed all the way by Deportivo Cali, with the championship finishing level after 26 games. That forced a play-off for the title which saw Millonarios win the first leg in Cali, and clinch the championship at home in a pulsating 3-2 finale.

El Ballet Azul

Yet almost as soon as Colombia’s golden age had begun it was over. In 1950, besieged by deputations from FIFA and their South American neighbours, the Dimayor agreed that they would, in four years time, return to the international fold. That meant allowing foreign players to return to their original clubs and, in turn, to pay transfer fees for the acquisition of future players. While it provided a temporary stay of execution, the agreement effectively removed Colombia’s competitive advantage when it came to recruiting players. With parity restored Colombian clubs were no longer in a position to pay their players a king’s ransom, and the players now had little incentive to stay.

Colombia’s time in the sun may have been fleeting, but they had much to be thankful for. In a tumultuous five years they had played host to a cast of the game’s greatest players and seen a quality of football the nation could not hope to witness before or since. The players soon departed (Di Stefano was already gone by the time 1954 rolled round), but they had left a lasting memory in the minds of Colombian football fans. El Dorado was truly a golden era.