Football fans everywhere expected representatives of Spain and La Liga to feature prominently in Monday's Ballon d'Or gala, but FIFA outdid themselves this year, as the awards ceremony descended into farce.
It's no surprise that Vicente Del Bosque was named Coach of the Year or that Lionel Messi won his fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or. But even the most ardent fan of the Spanish Primera must have cast a skeptical glance at the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, which contained five players each from Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as a token Atletico Madrid man:
Iker Casillas; Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Marcelo; Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Radamel Falcao, Cristiano Ronaldo.
If this is the best XI in world football, then based on the same criteria, Jose Callejon and Javier Mascherano would probably have been included on the substitutes' bench. And maybe Cristian Tello and Antonio Adan for good measure.
We all should have seen a heavy La Liga bias coming in November, when Pep Guardiola was included in the three-man nomination for Coach of the Year. The ex-Barcelona trainer had in previous years deserved heaps of praise, but in 2012 he coached for six months and only claimed the Copa del Rey.
On merit, Kenny Dalglish was his peer. Antonio Conte (match-fixing scandal notwithstanding) and Jurgen Klopp were, based on results, miles ahead.
Scanning through the World XI, it's difficult to discount any Spain internationals. Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Iniesta all won Euro 2012 and either La Liga or the Copa del Rey at club level.
All of the above have established themselves consistently among the best footballers in the world in their respective positions, and although Ramos and Xabi were badly exposed in the 2011-12 Champions League semifinals and Pique was booked 11 times, it's hard to make an airtight argument against trophies.
As for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, neither needs an introduction. On the other hand, Dani Alves, Marcelo and Falcao have absolutely no right to be in the World XI.
Falcao's inclusion comes off as an acknowledgement that a real No. 9 is needed in the XI, and that Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid didn't have one who deserved the spot, so the best La Liga striker would therefore be honored. As talented as he is, the Colombian scored a third of his goals in 2011-12 in the Europa League, a competition that has nearly no fanbase whatsoever and minimal cash value, and led his club to a finish 44 points behind first place in La Liga.
He's started the current campaign on a better note, but the end-of-year awards have always heavily favored the first half of the season and any applicable summer tournaments. And for varying reasons, one can easily make the claim that Robin van Persie, Didier Drogba, Mario Gomez, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were more deserving than Falcao. Given the abundance of other valid options, one would expect at least one "token" non-Liga player.
Alves won nothing more than the Copa with Barcelona, and was woeful in the telling matches of the Champions League. Branislav Ivanovic was vastly superior when it mattered, and Lukasz Piszczek was just as deserving in terms of club honors and individual performance. One could even make the case for Alvaro Arbeloa over Alves, although this author will shed no tears for a lack of Spanish representation.
Marcelo was similarly lacking in merit, having only won the two-team contest known as the Spanish Primera over the course of the year. In 2012, his Real Madrid were matched or bettered by three out of the four elite teams they faced (Barcelona, Bayern, Dortmund, and Manchester City); their Liga title proved not that they play at an elite level, but that they can consistently beat lesser teams.
On a personal level, Marcelo wasn't even selected to match up against Arjen Robben in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal; Jose Mourinho knew he wasn't capable enough as a defender. Ashley Cole may have been a worthy inclusion, had voters had any interest in including a representative from the team that won the Champions League.
In fairness, 2012 was not the greatest year for fullbacks. However, it would have been far more appropriate for the World XI to be presented in a 3-4-3 formation, with three center backs. Mats Hummels, who won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal with Dortmund and was arguably the best player at Euro 2012 before the semifinal, would have been more deserving of a slot in defense than both Alves and Marcelo.
The fourth midfielder would be, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Andrea Pirlo. The veteran carried an undefeated Juventus to the Serie A title and was Italy's inspiration in their run to the Euro 2012 final.
Many will point out the fact that it is not FIFA that decided the honors at Monday's gala, but journalists, coaches and players. But while this may be true, FIFA has the responsibility to ensure the integrity of its awards and its brand.
Monday's awards confirmed an unsettling trend in world football, one in which even journalists, coaches and players have become so mesmerized by one brand of football that they lose all sense of objectivity. The nadir came last February, when at halftime of the first leg of Leverkusen's Champions League tie with Barcelona, B04 teammates Manuel Friedrich and Michal Kadlec had a row over custody of Messi's shirt.
Even that was not much lower than Monday's gala, in which world-class international footballers uniformly bowed down to La Liga as though all other leagues are irrelevant. Never mind Chelsea winning the Champions League, never mind Dortmund's double or Juventus' undefeated season: None of the above play in La Liga, so they don't matter. Andy Gray once used the same kind of cringeworthy logic when he claimed Messi and Barcelona would "struggle on a cold night at the Britannia Stadium," home of Stoke City.
How strange it will be for the footballing world when the near-bankruptcy of most La Liga teams becomes more commonly understood. Malaga have already paid the price with their Champions League ban.
As laughable as Monday's World XI was, perhaps its bias was what the masses needed to understand just how trivial all end-of-year awards are. Their criteria are undefined, voting is performed by the often strikingly misinformed, and ultimately, awards have no effect on what has already happened.
They're just (supposedly valid) reflections on what already happened. So, if you don't like this year's awards, ignore them in the years to come.
Clearly, they no longer have any meaning.
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