Across the globe 96 journalists will have had their say. Each scribe loosely working to a similar personal formula of statistics, opinion and preference to try to ascertain who is the European Footballer of the Year for 2009.
Of course, like any awards, the mystique is created by the deliberation and conjecture of the subject, rather than the eventual prestige of the crowning. According to a special edition of Rolling Stone magazine produced in 2003, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest album of all time. Is it? The beauty of this fantastically audacious statement is that it almost certainly isn’t correct. It can’t be, and nor is there a definitive answer. So – with no definitive answer – as we eagerly await the regal gala to be held in Paris on December 1, who has been the best footballer on the continent for 2009? Let the debating begin.
For a start, our first contentious issue revolves around the timescale of performances. The award is technically given for the calendar year of 2009, but it is safe to assume nominations are considered for endeavours over the footballing annum of 2008/09. Arguably the best international and club sides throughout this period have been Spain and Barcelona respectively. As such, both are heavily represented in the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or, produced by award organisers France Football magazine. The 30 players – from 14 different nations – are drawn from 14 individual clubs in five separate leagues. Barcelona have the most nominees of any club with six, Spain has the most nominations as a nation, also with six, whilst La Liga has the most players of any league on the list with 13. Interestingly, an indication of the monopoly of power the Champions League holds, only one player from the 30 – David Villa – will not be playing for a club in Europe’s premier competition this season.
Villa is amongst the Spanish contingent recognised for their Euro 2008 success and imperious qualifying for South Africa 2010, along with Cesc Fabregas, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres and Barcelona pair Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Barca’s magnificent 2008/09 campaign saw Pep Guardiola’s men conquer all before them to complete a domestic and European treble, and joining Xavi and Iniesta on the shortlist from the Camp Nou is Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry, the newly arrived Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the man most believe will soon be European Footballer of the Year, Lionel Messi.
The facts and figures to substantiate Messi’s claim to the crown are themselves frankly overwhelming. The Argentine ace scored an incredible 38 goals in 51 outings during 2008/09. He was the top-scorer in Los Blaugrana’s Champions League-winning side with nine goals, and his exploits in that competition saw him voted UEFA Club Forward, and UEFA Club Player of the Year. Bare statistics do not do justice to what Messi has produced over the last 12-18 months, and no figure can be placed on the amount of defenders he’s slalomed past, or number of goals and chances he has created with his unique, rapier-like dribbling skills. In an outstanding team, Messi still shone brighter than most, and even this outstanding side often relied on their most outstanding asset to get results. In an early Champions League group game away to Shakhtar Donetsk, Messi was summoned from the bench with his team trailing 1-0. Two late Messi goals – the second a sublime chip over the keeper – won the game for Barca. He repeated this trick in a league fixture away to Racing Santander when he almost single-handedly gained three points from a losing position with another brace. He scored in both El Classico games versus Real Madrid, earned a standing ovation from the Atletico Madrid supporters at the Vicente Calderon after scoring a hat-trick, and simply terrorised a bemused Bayern Munich defence during an unstoppable first 45 minutes of a Champions League quarter-final in which he scored two and set-up another. His 38th and final goal of a remarkable season was fittingly the deciding goal against Manchester United at the Stadio Olimpico to cap a simply amazing season for player and club. After that night in Rome, France Football may have well sent the ‘Golden Ball’ to the engravers.
From the outset it appears Messi just needs to show up in Paris to pick up the gong, deliver the obligatory acceptance speech and hob-nob with the Gnomes of Nyon and other various UEFA dignitaries, safe in the knowledge he’s the best player in Europe. But, apart from the material nature of a trophy and your name added to a list of previous winners. Does the title actually exist, and should Messi be bestowed with the honour, indeed, have we got the right man? Take a step back, have a breather and make a good strong cup of rationality with two spoon-fulls of lateral thinking.
By general consensus it’s agreed Spain and Barcelona are currently elevated above their peers in the international and club game. The modus operandi of both teams is based on the seductive, rhythmic passing and movement of the ball, the domination of possession allowing a fluency of player movement which proves so difficult to stop. The two constants in both Barcelona and Spain are the aforementioned Xavi and Iniesta – two players largely credited with being pivotal to the style and subsequent success of both sides. Unfortunately for these players, statistics like those at Messi’s disposal are less available to demonstrate just how important and influential they are to club and country. The unmistakeable fact is that these two players make the two best teams in the world tick. Without their presence in midfield, controlling and constructing games, Barca and Spain would not be as good as they are. Would the Torres-Villa partnership have flourished so without them? Could the Henry-Eto’o-Messi trident have blazed home over 100 goals last season in their absence? Unlike with an individual such as Messi, remove a Xavi or an Iniesta and a team’s whole ethos can be taken away, their identity lost, and their effectiveness reduced, and it is this great indignity which too often sees such brilliant players overlooked when it comes to individual accolades.
A brief glimpse back through the Ballon d’Or alumni shows a liberal sprinkling of star strikers, dashing wingers and elegant playmakers. Defenders and other unfashionable niche’s are harder to find, with only Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 and Matthias Sammer in 1996 topping the poll. In truth this has always been the case and always will be. The headline-makers make the headlines, and claim the glamour and the glory. Rather than fending off Xavi and Iniesta, instead Messi’s main contender will be reigning European Player of the Year, and chief purveyor of glamour and glory, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Messi-Ronaldo debate is akin to Blur and Oasis at the birth of Britpop. Each remarkably similar yet worlds apart, both equally striving for supremacy, each having acquired an ardent and loyal fan base, unwavering to the other’s abilities. This year, Messi’s merits mirror those on which Ronaldo was named both European and World Player of the Year for 2008, combining tremendous individual displays with the end product of trophies won as a team collective. Ronaldo’s own form over 2008/09 was indeed impressive, scoring 26 goals for Manchester United, and so far having fired in nine goals in his opening seven games following his world record transfer move to Real Madrid. The blistering start to life at the Bernabeu may have come a little too late to adjourn the coronation of Messi as the continent’s king, but in an interesting sub-plot, the two come head-to-head at the Camp Nou in the El Classic