We have got used to some very high levels of football since Pep Guardiola took over at Barça, and given the exceptional play seen during the last couple of months with the 5-0 drubbing of Real Madrid included, it is perhaps not surprising for those who watch the team regularly to hear some experts claiming that this is the best team in history. The fact that this year’s three finalists for the Fifa Ballon d’Or all come from one team is a clear indicator of the general acceptance now that Barça are at a different level. However, it is not the first time one team has provided the top three players in one year. In 1989 Marco Van Basten, Franco Baresi and Frank Rijkaard came in one, two and three while all representing AC Milan and quite remarkably the year before that it had been Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Rijkaard on the podium and Gullit also played for the Rossoneri. Those of you with long memories will recall that this Milan team also had the pleasure of stuffing Real Madrid 5-0, this was in the 1989 European Cup semi final and Madrid were thought to have a great team with the likes of Michel, Butregueño, Hugo Sanchez and Schuster playing that day.
Many people in Barcelona reacted to the question of which of our magnificent trio should win this year’s award by saying that all three deserve it. It may be a complicated decision but the judges have to decide who will receive the award when it is presented in a ceremony in Zurich on January 10 (this year as the award is a merger of France Football’s Ballon d’Or and the Fifa World Player Of The Year awards the votes are cast by the national team captains and coaches as well as members of the press). As a Barça fan who has seen every Barça game in 2010 as well as all the Spain and Argentina matches in World Cup Finals in South Africa I feel I am pretty well qualified to make a judgement.
Andres Iniesta reached the height of his career when he scored Spain’s winner in the World Cup Final in July and when the Ballon d’Or finalists were announced it was “leaked” that Iniesta had already been chosen as this year’s winner. The rumours that Iniesta has already been chosen intensified when Iniesta was placed in the middle of the three for the photo shoot that went with the announcement of the finalists. I will be delighted for Iniesta if he has won the award as he has demonstrated, especially with the Dani Jarque gesture, that he is a thoroughly decent bloke who is respected throughout the game. However, if Andres does win I am afraid that it may be due more to this respect from his fellow professionals than to his actual play. Don’t get me wrong, Iniesta is a magnificent player but I would not say that 2010 has been a vintage year for him. Despite the World Cup winner he was not at his best for Barça and he missed out on the run in to winning La Liga through injury. Only in the last couple of months have we begun to see him resembling his best form which for me came in the last few months of the 2008/2009 season.
If Iniesta is the favourite of the players, the choice for Barça fans is quite clearly Xavi. As I write Xavi has over 70% of the votes in the Barcacentral poll. Over the last two or three years Xavi has begun to earn the recognition he deserves. He was voted Player of the Tournament after Spain’s win at the Euro 2008, Man of the Match after the Champions League Final in 2009, and last season he finished third in both the Ballon d’Or and the Fifa World Player Of The Year. He has already been made Best Player of 2010 by different groups such as World Soccer magazine and the website ESPN soccernet, while Johan Cruyff has said “Xavi deserves the Ballon d’Or more than anyone because it is necessary in a team to have a guy who makes things work. Xavi is the player who sets the rhythm, who takes care of possession. If Xavi has a bad day then Barca do not play even half as well.”
There are plenty of arguments to give it to either Iniesta or Xavi, and incidentally I also preferred the 2009 Xavi (in the 2-6 win at the Bernabeu for example) to the 2010 Xavi. However, the award is supposed to go to “the best player of 2010”, not the player who scored the winning goal in the biggest match or the player who deserves it for his career achievements (here Fifa would do well to consider awarding a Lifetime Achievement Award which could also be presented at Ballon d’Or ceremony). And for me if I have to say who has been the best player in the world in 2010 the answer would be the same as I would have given for both 2008 and 2009: Leo Messi.
I have often thought that Messi must have reached his peak as it seems impossible for him to get any better. But he continues to astound with his brilliance, and his performances are probably the key reason why many people consider this season’s Barça to be better than the 2008/09 and 2009/10 versions. Messi was fabulous in 2009 but from March 2010 through to the end of the 2009/10 season when he scored 23 goals in 19 games for Barça, or during his recent run of 19 goals in 13 matches he has been unstoppable. His end of year figures for Barça of 58 goals in 54 matches are quite simply sensational. I think it is fair to say that it is rare for any player to be acknowledged as being so superior to his contempories, and while I may have a sentimental preference for Xavi or Iniesta I really feel Messi has been the best player in 2010 by some distance.
Yes, Argentina didn’t win the World Cup and there is a history of the award going to a World Cup winner in a World Cup year. But Messi didn’t have a bad tournament in South Africa, it was just that Maradona’s skills as a coach are a long way from matching his skills as a player. The Ballon d’Or is an individual award and Messi shouldn’t be penalized for his coach’s incompetence. After the World Cup Maradona was replaced by Sergio Batista and Argentina showed what might have been by beating Spain 4-1 in a friendly in September. Besides I don’t agree that an individual award should be decided by a team performance. Fabio Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or in 2006 due to Italy’s World Cup success but it would probably be fair to say that Ronaldinho or Thierry Henry were better players at the time. It’s time to break with the tradition of giving it to a World Cup winner and give it to Messi again. I know the majority of you don’t agree with me, send in a comment and tell us why.