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Messi’s Win Spells Doom For Xavi

11 Jan

FIFA hosted the inaugural Ballon d’Or Gala on Monday evening (combining French Football’s Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s World Player of the Year for the very first time), handing out awards to the men and women who epitomized greatness in their respective positions. On the whole, there should be no complaints as to the winners of the awards (scroll to the bottom for those). But the biggest prize of all, for the very best player on the globe, went to the wrong person. And the man who should have been called to that podium, to join Luis Suárez as the only other Spanish-born player to ever win the award, probably watched his best chance of winning drift away.

First off, congratulations to Messi. Attempting to highlight his feats is like trying to count the stars in the sky. Of course, for me and most fans, his destruction of Arsenal stands out as one of the greatest single game performances in history. Not to mention the dizzying goal tally – 60 goals in 65 appearances for club and country in 2010. But to be fair, this was not his year. His year will be every year as long as he continues to play the way he does.

But for Xavi, I couldn’t think of a more perfect opportunity for him to win the award. For club, he is flawless. The cog in the Barcelona wheel. You are more likely to be struck by lighting in the same spot twice, than see him misplace a  pass. But the problem has always been the presence of the glamorous superstars, the goal scoring machines of Messi and Ronaldo, who have stolen the spotlight in recent years (and fully deserved every award they’ve won). Xavi’s expected vindication came in the form of the World Cup where he continued string-pulling in the midfield for mighty Spain, leading them to their first ever World Cup championship. Finally, a stage for the Barcelona man to set himself apart from the other candidates.

He completed over 85% of his passes. He was the only player to pass the ball more than 600 times, and complete more than 500 passes. He connected the two sitting midfielders in Alonso and Busquets,  with the forward thinking players in Iniesta, Pedro, and Villa. His vision, awareness, leadership, and hard work rallied Spain to difficult wins throughout the tournament. Without Xavi, Spain and Barcelona would be but a shadow of themselves.

Yet, he finished third in the voting. THIRD!! Behind an Andres Iniesta who, if you cancel out his World Cup winner, missed most of 2010 through injury. Xavi had history in his bag of tricks: Fabio Cannavaro won both awards in 2006, Fat Ronaldo won both in 2002, Zidane won both in 1998, Romario’s FIFA World Player of the Year in 1994, Lothar Matthäus’ Ballon d’Or in 1990, Paolo Rossi’s Ballon d’Or in 1982. Catch the trend? World Cup champions, and the stars of those teams, had won the coveted trophy every year dating back almost twenty years. But not 2010.

We are left scratching our heads, and sympathizing with Xavi who will finish his career as one of the most dynamic and creative midfielders the game has ever seen. Even Mourinho chimed in after the ceremony, “Messi is of a different world and the award is in good hands, but I feel sorry for Xavi more than anyone.”

To be outdone by the man who may become the greatest is no knock to Xavi at all. But this was his year where the voters finally had a chance to reward the pass-master. It was no longer just a product of Guardiola’s system, and the superstars surrounding him at Barcelona. It was the biggest footballing stage. It was the tournament that has seen Spain choke time and time again. It was a masterclass against the world’s best, vicious tackling, and smothering defenses never before seen. His immediate contenders, Iniesta and Messi, were not nearly as influential throughout the tournament.

Messi’s win this year means Xavi will probably never win the award (he will be 34 at the next World Cup). An incomprehensible injustice.

As for the rest of the awards…

Team of the Year – Julio Cesar (Inter Milan), Maicon (Inter Milan), Lucio (Inter Milan), Carles Puyol (Barcelona), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Xavi (Barcelona), Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), David Villa (Barcelona), Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Women’s World Player of the Year – Marta (Brazil)
World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football – Jose Mourinho
World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football – Silvia Neid (Germany)
Puskas Award: Goal of the Year – Hamit Altintop (Matthew Burrows got royally screwed. THIS was the goal of the year)
Fair Play Award – Haiti Under-17 women’s team
Presidential Award – Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Ronaldo Is Second Best (And Always Will Be)

1 Dec

There should no longer be a question as to who is the best player in the world, and quite frankly it’s not even close. Messi vs Ronaldo. Ronaldo vs Messi. It has become more and more evident lately that the argument revolves around statistics – journalists and pundits spitting out the preposterous goal tallies for both men. Monday evening, however, showed me and hopefully the rest of the world that statistics are simply a small piece of the puzzle. Scoring at will, effortlessly no less, is not the true measure of greatness.

To be fair, Messi and Ronaldo are the two best players on the planet by a country mile. So what separates them? Goals? Not really. Many would argue that Ronaldo is better with both feet, better at free kicks, and better with his head than Messi. Many would also argue that being a crybaby does not eliminate you from contention. Therefore, all other things being equal, Ronaldo is the better of the two…that’s crap.

Monday’s Clasico revealed everything one needs to know to settle this debate. In an “orgasmic” performance by the home side, utterly demolishing, humiliating, and embarrassing Real Madrid, one superstar adapted his game while another watched idly and sulked. Messi may not have scored, but his brilliance showed by playing a more central role assigned to him by Guardiola in order to confuse Madrid’s defense. He was, in essence, a 4th midfielder. He provided two assists (one of which masterfully weighted) and terrorized his opponents. When he lost the ball, or simply didn’t have it, he attacked his opponents in an effort to win it back.

Ronaldo is a bum. A whiny bum. His stepovers cause bad defenders to tumble. Against seasoned veterans like Carles Puyol, they make him look stupid and arrogant. Okay, perhaps he never saw much of the ball. But he confined himself to the wing, and if nobody on the team could get him the ball, then he’d stand there and do nothing. After all, he’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Why should he ever have to go out of his way to make life easier for his teammates?

One of the reasons Inter was so successful against Barcelona last year in the Champions League was their ability to play as a team and defend. When Thiago Motta got sent off in the second leg, Eto’o basically played left back the entire match to help defend against Messi.  You MUST track back and help the midfielders and wingbacks defend if you want to stop Barcelona. Ronaldo knew this, and did nothing. It’s not in his nature. And yet, we are to believe he is better than the young Argentine? That he is a more complete player?

Messi’s passing was heavenly. And no, it’s not the system. The system creates the gaps and the runs, but the player delivers the ball through tight, acute angles. Every pass from Messi was inch perfect, as they usually are. Never too soft and never over hit.  Ronaldo just isn’t as good in this category. And as far as his vision to find teammates? Pff. Why give them a chance at glory?

One game is never enough to decide an argument like this. But Monday night was a masterclass, and a microcosm of what really separates these two great players. No doubt about it, Ronaldo will go down as one of the all-time greats. But he’ll never be the greatest, nor will he ever be better than Messi as long as the two of them continue playing. If a manager as brilliant as Mourinho, a man with an ego bigger than anyone who prides himself in coaching and managing similar egotistical players, can’t change Ronaldo’s game to make him that much better, than who ever will?

It might be the most telling reason why he will always be second best.

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