The English media is in meltdown! Okay, there was a begrudging acknowledgement through a collective gritting of the teeth that the La Liga superstars Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta were deservedly ranked as the three finest players of the past 12mths. But, if you listened very carefully, you could actually hear the moment when Daily Telegraph journalist Henry Winter and his fellow EPL sympathisers’ hearts shattered into a million tiny pieces when the FIFA Team of the Year called up not a single English Premier League player! Y’see, dear, jovial Henry continues to peddle the battered myth that Michel Platini’s utopia of an all-encompassing European Super League is actually already in existence….and that it can be salivated over on a weekly basis within the shores of England’s green and pleasant land! Yet while the energy, the tempo and the commitment of England’s premier football competition cannot be in doubt, the steady decline in its actual quality has been very much in evidence for the last 5yrs and counting.
For the second consecutive season England finds its much-vaunted and vastly over-hyped EPL Champions dumped out of the European Champions League at the very first hurdle; this season seeing Man City replicating the humiliatingly premature exit of their city rivals Man Utd last year. Fellow EPL representatives Chelsea completed the worst defence of the trophy in its history – as the Champions League rather than its previous European Cup guise – and for the second year running England boasts just two survivors from the Group Stage. And, frankly, few commentators believe Man Utd or Arsenal will do anything other than succumb to the powerhouses of Real Madrid and FC Bayern respectively in the upcoming knock-out phase.
But that is not to say that there are no outstanding individuals plying their trade in the EPL. Robin van Persie continues to enjoy a remarkable run of goal-scoring form, David Silva and Juan Mata are the creative linchpins of their respective clubs, Sergio Aguero enjoyed a fine debut EPL season with Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany providing stellar performances at the other end of the field, Ashley Cole remains a fine left-back while Marouane Fellaini is developing into a dominant midfield presence, Gareth Bale is a force of nature and Luis Suarez is finally scoring the goals that his performances regularly merit.
Having said that, how many would genuinely challenge – without the benefit of Henry Winter’s rose-tinted glasses – for a nomination into FIFA’s Team of the Year? For the record FIFA chose the following XI; Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao.
The first obvious note is that the Coca Cola and Pepsi of European football – Barcelona and Real Madrid – can boast ten of the eleven in that line-up, with only Atletico Madrid’s much-coveted Falcao disrupting the symmetry of a Real/Barca closed shop. And of equal importance, whether it be the 2011/12 European season or simply 2012 as a calendar year, all of them have won silverware! Most of the eleven featured in Spain’s EURO 2012 victory, Real Madrid won La Liga, Barcelona had a relatively disappointing trophy haul of just the European Super Cup 2011, the Club World Championship and the Copa del Rey and Falcao led Atletico to the Europa League before single-handedly annihilating Chelsea in the European Super Cup 2012. So if a mandatory selection criteria is that they must have won a trophy then RVP, rather unsurprisingly at “line our own pockets first and bugger the fans” Arsenal, would fall short on that count alone! But surely it is too simplistic to disregard an otherwise worthy candidate on the basis that their club/country did not secure tangible success? Djimi Traore, Harry Kewell, Wes Brown, Anderson and John Terry are all European Champions League ‘winners’….but that accolade does not necessarily elevate them to ‘world-class’.
But, for what it’s worth, I’ll add my own suggestions and choices to challenge FIFA’s selection. Iker Casillas has been the bedrock for Real Madrid and Spain’s unprecedented success over the last decade and more, and remains one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. But, rather like classic songs or rock guitarists being consistently voted the ‘best of all time’ regardless of the competition, Casillas has monopolised the Number One position to the extent that he barely has to dig out his gloves to be acclaimed by FIFA! This season though Casillas has found himself relegated to the bench by Jose Mourinho – some, probably rightly, suggest as part of a power struggle within the corridors of the Bernabeu – but I would hail the performances of Juventus and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon as worthy of consideration. Alongside fellow countryman Andrea Pirlo, Buffon went through the entire 2011/12 Serie A season unbeaten and was one of the stand-out performers during the Azzurri’s unlikely progress to the Final of EURO 2012!
I hate Dani Alves! Actually, maybe hate is too strong a word but I just do not see ‘it’ with Barcelona and Brazil’s alleged right-back. I see him as defensively weak and ridiculously over-hyped in advanced positions; kind of a slightly less of a liability than Liverpool’s Glen Johnson! And there can be no more brutal and cutting criticism than that! Would the versatile FC Bayern and Germany captain Philipp Lahm not be a better choice? Lahm is far more reliable than Alves defensively and can be devastating in the attacking third of the field! Another option when there is such a paucity of quality at full-back would be to move Sergio Ramos to right-back and select a different centre-back to partner the superb Gerard Pique? I would look towards either Vincent Kompany, Mats Hummels or Giorgio Chiellini to fulfil that role. Vincent Kompany was truly outstanding in captaining Man City to their first EPL title, but his form this season has been poor – perhaps largely due to Roberto Mancini’s unnecessary tactical tinkering. Mats Hummels has developed into a calm and decisive centre back, winning the Bundesliga with Dortmund and establishing himself within a fine German national team. But again I find myself drawn back to Serie A and the ever-dependable Giorgio Chiellini. A formidable presence at the heart of Juventus‘ championship-winning side and a granite rock upon which Italy built their Euro 2012 campaign! I don’t actually think that Marcelo is the best left-back at his club, let alone in Europe! Fabio Coentrao is the superior player for me and I see Marcelo as more of a left midfielder in the mould of Gareth Bale. Would Bale’s case have been strengthened with Spurs in the Champions League or if he didn’t play for the minnows of Wales? Jordi Alba’s surge into the limelight for Spain probably came too late, but I might just have been tempted to trust in the experience of Champions League winner Ashley Cole for one last hurrah!
Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Andres Iniesta!?! It really doesn’t get much better than that…apart from with the inclusion of Jordan Henderson of course! Iniesta is untouchable and Xavi’s metronomic passing and tempo is unmatched, but could Andrea Pirlo’s performances for club and country have elevated him into the side ahead of Xabi Alonso? I am a huge fan of Alonso and curse the day he left Liverpool on account of the fact that Rafa Benitez considered Gareth Barry to be the more accomplished player (?!!?) but the veteran Pirlo enjoyed a fantastic season. A nod in the direction of Yaya Toure as well; whose physical presence, power and technique proved a decisive factor in Man City’s EPL triumph and would add steel to a fairly lightweight midfield combination.
Messi, Ronaldo and Falcao!?!?! Two probable all-time greats and the most sought-after striker in World football?!? If RVP finally adds an EPL title and a credible performance in the latter stages of the Champions League to his resume then he would present an even stronger case for inclusion, but it is difficult to argue against Falcao. Samuel Eto’o remains the only African player to have been selected in a FIFA Team of the Year but a sentimental vote may have gone to Didier Drogba, who dragged Chelsea kicking and screaming to Champions League glory with talismanic displays against Barcelona and FC Bayern?
So there you have it. Of course football is all about opinions and debate; the FIFA votes come from all across the globe with captains and coaches of all competing nations in the FIFA family – as Sepp Blatter would tag it. Just as the Thailand vote for Sergio Busquets was greeted with a slightly snobbish mirth, so surely must Georgia’s considered view that Wayne Rooney surpassed all others in 2012?!?! But with the first African FIFA World Cup less than 3yrs ago, does La Liga’s domination to such an extent, and two clubs at that, suggest conclusively that while the mouthpieces speak of a global reach the cold harsh reality is of an elite group that is dwindling year on year? Perhaps it is instead just an acknowledgement of two phenomenal club sides showcasing their talents in the same domestic competition at the same time? Maybe next year’s Team of the Year will confirm this as an exception rather than the rule of things to come? Hopefully the EPL, Serie A and the Bundesliga will have more to say come 2012/13! In any case, my team has Messi and Ronaldo….so I’ve got half a chance against anyone….