Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Ballon d'Or Shortlist

The nominations for the FIFA awards for the best player and manager in the world of football were announced on Tuesday. These awards are voted for by the managers and captains of each FIFA national team along with a selection of respected journalists. Wonder if Noel King got a vote? Did Robbie Keane pick someone from one of his fourteen boyhood clubs? Probably. Anyway the list containing the top 23 players and 10 managers were announced and there were more than a few surprises, particularly on the managerial side.

The Ballon d'Or

There used to be two awards to denote the best player on the planet, nearly always won by the same player. From 2010 onwards the FIFA World Player of the Year was merged with the Ballon d'Or to create the singular FIFA Ballon d'Or. The race for this has been a bit of a non-event recently. Lionel Messi has been the undisputed candidate in many of the recent awards, winning the previous four. This year though, Barcelona have been replaced as the best team in the world and Messi may not be crowned as 2013's star performer.

FIFA released a list of 23 players who are in contention for the now undisputed title of best player on the planet. There were a few surprise omissions.

David Alaba for a start. He's played consistently well in a Bayern Munich side where some of the more attacking players get the credit and matured into one of the best left backs in the world. Aside for winning a couple of trophies with them, he's also carried a poor Austria side almost to the World Cup Playoffs. Anyone who saw them when they played Ireland over the qualifiers will know that he carried that team.

Staying in Germany, the duo of Marco Reus and Mario Goetze have also a fair claim to have been included. Both played key roles in helping Dortmund to the Champions League final before Goetze left for their conquerors Bayern. With them he's enjoyed a decent start while Reus has really stepped up to ensure Dortmund remain a force.

Arturo Vidal who's had another good year at Juventus and for Chile could arguably have had a case for inclusion but probably doesn't get enough media attention to warrant inclusion. I'm not entirely sure why Eden Hazard made the list ahead of his Chelsea team mate Juan Mata. The Spaniard had the better season last year and will have every right to feel aggrieved at being overlooked. It seems everyone is overlooking the diminutive Spaniard later.

Now to the actual list. Done in order of rough odds to win the prize rather than my personal opinion.

The also-rans (23 - 21)

23. Yaya Toure - Manchester City, Ivory Coast
I think Toure's a fantastic midfielder. Probably the best in England, but he hasn't had the best 2013. It started well, he impress in the African Cup of Nations in January but at club level he failed to perform consistently for City as their quest for a second league title in a row fell dismally short. Toure has a tendency to go missing from time to time. When he does show up he dominates games and is fits the age-old cliche of being 'unplayable' on his day. To be a serious contender for awards like this, he needs to cut out these anonymous days he has become prone to.

22. Eden Hazard - Chelsea, Belgium
Possibly the most surprising inclusion on the list. His debut season at Chelsea was solid, but not exactly one to set the world alight. His form with a brilliant Belgian side has been good though. Hasn't lived up to his massive potential yet but there's still time.

21. Thiago Silva - PSG, Brazil
He's a good defender. Arguably the best in France, and a mainstay in the heart of the Brazil defence that will attempt to win the World Cup on home soil next summer. I've no real problem with his inclusion on this list but he's only there because there's 23 names on it. Were it cut to 20 he'd find himself out of it.

Worthy of  a place on the list (20 - 11)

20. Luis Suarez - Liverpool, Uruguay
Definitely worthy. His very long odds are not a reflection of his footballing ability but more a reflection of the general contempt fell for him throughout the footballing world. His tendency to go down rather theatrically in the penalty area has been noted throughout the world along with his absolute disrespect for his club during the summer. Not to mention all the other things. On the pitch, he's been brilliant. One of the most naturally gifted footballers in the world right now but my does he carry a lot of baggage.

19. Manuel Neur - Bayern Munich, Germany
He's not had a  busy year. Playing in a Bayern team which just doesn't have to do a lot of defending must get boring from time to time. But unlike Joe Hart, who may suffer from similar levels of boredom, Neur rarely seems to be caught out when called upon. Being realistic, the award is never going to be given to a goalkeeper. Unfair perhaps but that's the way it is.

18. Andrea Pirlo - Juventus, Italy
The only member of a fine Juventus team on the list which is a surprise. They won a second consecutive Scudetto last season and made the last 8 of the Champions League. Pirlo is 34 now and looks as good as he did when he won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, followed by a Champions League with Milan ten months later, being instrumental to both sides. He's still 'the' midfielder for both club and country.

17. Xavi - Barcelona, Spain
Its a measure of the ridiculously high standards he's set over the past five years that Xavi's inclusion on this list is a bit of a surprise. This was the first year since 2007 that he's ended without a Champions League or a major international tournament victory. He's had a quiet year by his standards but still a better one than most of those around him.

16. Edinson Cavani - Napoli/PSG, Uruguay
Eternally linked with both Real Madrid and Chelsea over the summer, Cavani decided to follow up another excellent season in Seirie A with Napoli by moving to PSG where he obviously feels his best chance of Champions League glory lays.

15. Mesut Ozil - Real Madrid/Arsenal, Germany
A fantastic footballer. Will no doubt be higher on the 2014 version of this list but suffered the indignity of having to live in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid for the most part of this year. His move to Arsenal, where he is the main man, combined with his form at international level and Germany's prospects in the World Cup should make him a more legitimate Ballon d'Or contender in 2014.

14. Robin van Persie - Manchester United, Holland
Manchester United's only representative on this list. He had an excellent 2012/13 season and won his coveted first Premier League title. Recently he has also become Holland's record goalscorer, securing another World Cup finals appearance where his side could be dark horses. At club level, things don't seem to be going as smoothly under David Moyes as they did under Alex Ferguson. Still he's had a great year. A second consecutive Golden Boot in England was just rewards for this.

13. Radamel Falcao - Atletico Madrid/Monaco, Colombia
Brilliant for Atletico as they finally topped their local rivals to win the Copa del Rey at the Bernabeau last May. Falcao, like Cavani, decided the financial clout carried by one of the French superpowers would represent the best chance of progressing his career further. A decision I feel he may come to regret in time. For fans it's a shame to see a player of his quality not in the Champions League this season. Last year he was the only player from outside Barcelona and Real Madrid to earn a place in FIFA's best XI. This won't be the case this year as Bayern players should feature quite heavily.

12. Phillip Lahm - Bayern Munich, Germany
The Bayern and Germany captain, he's had an excellent year. Moved from right back to centre midfield by Pep Guardiola at the beginning of the season, Lahm has not looked at all out of place in his new role. A fine player, in his prime at the moment and fully warranting a place on this list. Fabio Cannavaro is the only defensive player to have won a Ballon d'Or since 1996 which makes the prospects of Lahm being recognised very slim indeed.

11. Thomas Muller - Bayern Munich, Germany
One of the many Bayern Munich Germans who have had just amazing years in 2013, winning seemingly everything they want. Muller contributed 22 goals to Bayern's treble winning cause last season, he finished as their top scorer in all competitions. A bit of an unsung hero for them.

The minor contenders (10 - 6)

10. Bastian Schweinsteiger - Bayern Munich, Germany
Another Bayern/Germany star who's had the season of his life in terms of accolades. He's not the Bayern player likely to win the biggest individual award available however. That lies with a Frenchman who plays slightly further up the pitch. The tendency is to give the award to more attack-minded players so Schweinsteiger will have to be contempt with the truck load of medals he's picking up.

9. Gareth Bale - Tottenham/Real Madrid, Wales
In a year where he's broken the world transfer record and the €100 million barrier, you might expect Bale to be higher up on this list. His cause probably hasn't been helped by the fact that he virtually hasn't kicked a ball since Tottenham missed out on the Champions League at the tail end of last season. Like Suarez, I don't think his lack of respect for his club has particularly endeared him to anyone within the football community. The British media still seem to think he's among the top three in the world, this list however gives a more reasonable estimation of his standing within the world game in 2013.

8. Robert Lewandowski - Broussia Dortmund, Poland
Had he got his way, he'd be the 7th Bayern player on this list. For now he's the only Dortmund player on the list following an impressive year in which he scored an amazing four goals to knock Real Madrid out of Europe. His failings/disinterest at international level aside,  Lewandowski had a stellar year. He broke the 30 goal barrier for the second time in a row, contributing 10 to Dortmund's Champions League campaign.

7. Andres Iniesta - Barcelona, Spain
The other half of Xaviesta had one of his worst seasons in terms of goals but his best ever in terms of assists, creating a staggering 22 goals for Messi and his other team mates. Barcelona have conceded the European limelight to Bayern this season and Spain to Germany but Iniesta has still impressed. Like his other half, he has set some very high standards over the past five years of Catalan dominance. They haven't really grabbed the headlines this year as Barcelona's star has dwindled but his name alone seems to earn him a place on this list. And surprisingly short odds too.

6. Arjen Robben - Bayern Munich, Holland
Scored the winner in his man of the match performance in the Champions League final, laying some awful ghosts to rest in the process, helped Bayern to an unprecedented treble and has scored four times in nine international games for Holland, helping them become the first European nation to secure a spot in Brazil. All-round pretty good year for the Dutchman. His one problem is his injury proneness. Robben played only sixteen Bundesliga games last season due to a variety of injuries and this is what prevents him from being spoken of in the same breath as the guy who plays on the opposite wing to him.

The Actual Contenders (5 - 1)

5. Neymar - Santos/Barcelona, Brazil

Player of the tournament in the Confederations Cup during the summer, Neymar completed his move to Barcelona earlier on in the year and had settled in well at the Camp Nou. He'll probably win one of these awards someday, he's only 21, but I'd be surprised if it's this year. Outside bet for the top three though.

Practice for the real thing next summer?
Like I said, I would expect Neymar, given his career progress so far, to win at least one Ballon d'Or before he retires.  He'll have about ten years now in which to do so. He was amazing at the Confederations Cup last summer. The pressure of playing in front of 75,000 expectant Brazilians didn't seem to affect him in the slightest as he stole the show. The World Cup on home soil will provide a true test of his nerves. Expect him to be a regular feature among the contenders for years to come.

4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic - PSG, Sweden

Probably the most universally popular among the best players in the world, Zlatan's attitude has earned him cult hero status among football fans but shouldn't be enough to earn him a first Ballon d'Or at the age of 32.

We can always pretend..

 He's a wonderful player who has produced some utterly magical moments in the past twelve months. Still not quite at the level that Ronaldo and Messi are operating, due to the fact that he's an entirely different type of player and playing in a sub-standard league to his rivals. Its a shame that we probably won't be graced with his presence at the World Cup next summer. His Sweden side are average at best and will struggle to overcome Ronaldo's Portugal in November.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo - Real Madrid, Portugal

How annoyed must Cristiano Ronaldo be right now. Since his sole Ballon d'Or victory in 2008, Messi has won the last four. Now this season, Barcelona's dominance of Europe has seemingly ended, paving the way for Ronaldo to wrest the individual spotlight back, but once again he seems set to miss out on the coveted title of 'Best in the World'.

Cristiano may have to wait to get his hands on another Ballon d'Or

Himself and Kaka are the only footballers still active in Europe to have won the Ballon d'Or. Ronaldo is the only one of these two with a legitimate chance of adding to his collection. I think his best chance may have come last year when he carried Madrid to a La Liga title victory over Messi's Barcelona. This year he hasn't won a thing at club level and now has been cast out of the spotlight by the signing of Gareth Bale. The award is rarely won by players who go the year without a trophy at club or international level and this year is unlikely to be an exception. Ronny's best chance to 'officially' be the best in the world may have come and gone.

2. Lionel Messi - Barcelona, Argentina

Yep. Four times winner Lionel Messi is NOT the bookies favourite for the 2013 Ballon d'Or. This is probably a reflection on the season Barcelona had rather than him personally. A mere 75 goals for club and country, no Champions League title, no Copa del Rey, just a paltry La Liga crown, Pichichi trophy and European Golden Boot. Ladies and gentlemen, the Lionel Messi era is officially over.

Oh these old things??

Except it isn't. In fact I think he still has every chance to make it five in a row in January. It's just not as clear cut as it has been the past few years. He's still the best player in the world and quite probably the best player of all time. We can look forward to him hopefully putting his World Cup hoodoo to bed next summer by which time he may well be on his way to a sixth consecutive Ballon d'Or.

1. Franck Ribery - Bayern Munich, France

The Bayern Munich left winger is currently the bookies favourite to break the Messi stranglehold on the title and be crowned the best in the world in 2013. Ribery has enjoyed the best season of his career for both club and country and won the Champions League best player award for his efforts in Bayern's victory despite not scoring in the tournamen which is unusual for an attacking player. Its this recognition of his achievements this season combined with the consensus that its time to give it to someone other than Messi that leads me to believe that Ribery will probably take the award this year.

Ribery may have another accolade to add to his 2013 haul

Individually, Ribery proved to be more of a creator than a goal scorer last season. He provided 21 assists in all competitions, chipping in with 10 Bundesliga goals in 25 games. He's not a talismanic superstar in the same way that the previous three names are but much more of a team player. Bayern are a well oiled machine, they don't rely too heavily on any one player. Ribery is marginally the best among a very good group of players rather than the outstanding player in a team built around him. One thing that can stop him winning is the share of votes his team-mates are sure to earn. Messi will have minimal trouble from his Barcelona pals, but there are six Bayern players on this list and all sure to earn some portion of the worldwide vote. Similar to 2010 when Messi took it ahead of Inter and Spain sides who lacked an outstanding star.

Manager of the Year

The managers list in full: Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez, Antonio Conte, Vicente del Bosque, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jupp Heynckes, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Arsene Wenger.

Quite a few questionable names here. We'll start with the national managers, Scolari and del Bosque managers of Spain and Brazil respectively, neither deserve to be on the list. Scolari has had five competitive games as a manager this year. Del Bosque has had a very average year with Spain, especially considering the resources he has at his disposal. They made heavy weather of qualifying for the World Cup and sank to a 3-0 capitulation in the Confederations Cup final in July. If an international manager must be on the list then why not Lars Largerback, the man who has led Iceland, a country with a population of 350,000 people, to the brink of World Cup qualification.

Simeone being overlooked for Mourinho is criminal

Of the club managers, Mourinho is there purely on name alone. He's done nothing in 2013 but lead a star-laden Madrid team to a trophy-less season, falling out with several players in the process. Arsene Wenger is another case of a name going before actual managerial accomplishments. His 2013 was average although I suspect his 2014 may be slightly better. Diego Simeone being overlooked is a joke. He's turned Atletico Madrid from a laughing stock to a side which is genuinely threatening La Liga's Classico duopoly. Ferguson and Heynckes only managed for half the calendar year in 2013 but are the two favourites for the gong with treble winning Heynckes being the clear frontrunner with the bookies. Deservedly so.

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