The Friday Question

If only this guy were still playing.

The Ballon d’Or finalists were announced this week, and for some reason, they spent the time and effort to put more than just two people on the list. (And those two aren’t exactly 1a and 1b; more like 1 and that other guy who we’ve all agreed isn’t as good as 1.)

So the Question this week is a hypothetical: What if you took out that two-man top tier; if they were disqualified for using HGH or for being abducted by aliens, then who was the world’s best player in 2011? In a world without Messaldo (Ronni?), who wins the Ballon d’Or?

Adams: I’m going to approach this question in a process-of-elimination style. Let’s start in Spain.

At Barca, most of the nominees don’t stand a chance. Defenders don’t win outside of World Cup years, so Alves, Pique, and Abidal are out. Fabregas didn’t do much for Arsenal last year and while he’s been brilliant at Barca so far, he’s been injury-plagued since he arrived. Villa doesn’t deserve a nomination above someone like Pedro, whose contributions were greater to the team, so he’s out too. I’ll come back to Iniesta and Xavi. (The Abidal nomination, by the way, strikes me as a bit ludicrous, and this is coming from a guy who has an unhealthy man crush on Abi. He’s been inconsistent this year, and that’s on top of sitting on the sidelines for months. Is it a sympathy pick because of his tumor? Couldn’t they just do a dedication or something?)

Onward to Madrid. This is a squad that revolves around Ronaldo, so it’s going to be hard for another player to win, especially since they didn’t win any silverware besides the Copa. Casillas was good but didn’t do anything noteworthy, Benzema didn’t play enough games, and Alonso was consistent but not a standout. I’ll come back to Ozil.

On to the rest of the world.

I rule out Sneijder and Forlan for playing on a team that royally blows this season. Suarez’s contributions haven’t been that pivotal at Liverpool yet, and Nani isn’t even the best player on his team. Eto’o has expatriated to Russia, and Neymar hasn’t played in a European league yet. Muller and Schweinsteiger didn’t win the league, and while they’re playing well for the national team, they aren’t as on-form as Gomez (where is his nomination, by the way?).

For my money, that leaves five possibilities – Aguero, Rooney, Ozil, Xavi, and Iniesta.

Aguero is the first to get the axe. He’s been brilliant since coming to City, but that’s only half of his 2011 story. Atletico finished a measly 7th last year, which isn’t good enough.

As close as he'll get?

Xavi and Iniesta didn’t win in a year that they won several trophies, including the World Cup, so I can’t see them winning outside of a World Cup year.

Ozil has been brilliant for Madrid and for Germany. But when you play for the Galacticos, being stellar doesn’t mean your contribution is necessarily that impactful. Madrid wouldn’t have finished with many fewer points if Ozil didn’t play.

Finally, there’s Rooney. His 2010-2011 season began so tempestuously, it’s easy to forget how poorly we all rated him last year. But he improved markedly and motivated Manchester United to a title they didn’t deserve on paper. This campaign has started brightly for him, too, as he’s already established a one-goal-per-game ratio and set the pace for United to be the only challengers to the other Manchester.

So, assuming Messi and Ronaldo get banned for substance abuse (HGH and tanning lotion, respectively), the Ballon d’Or voting finishes like this:

3. Andres Iniesta

2. Mesut Ozil

1. Wayne Rooney

He's not holding the Ballon D'or.

Eric: Let me get this out of the way first: The Ballon d’Or is stupid. They really need to give it away in August of every year. Judging a player based on half of one season, half of another, and an international tournament or qualifying period sandwiched in between is tough to judge a player on. Better to make it a full

season, with the World Cup or Euros or Copa America or whatever serving as the season’s playoffs. The progression is more logical, voters wouldn’t have to count Rooney’s or Aguero’s or Suarez’s goals in half of last season and half of this coming one. We already merged it and the FIFA player of the year award, can’t we just shift it a few months forward and/or back? Messi’s going to win both this year’s and next year’s, there’s no reason we can’t give it out again in the summer.

That said, with our rules, we’ve got to find someone. I agree with Adams’ five finalists that he narrowed it down to, with the exception of I’d sub in Suarez for Aguero, simply because I think the former’s performance at the Copa America — the voters love a winner — would get him more votes than Aguero’s hotter start at Man City.

Personally, I think the most justifiable scenario would be a lifetime achievement Ballon d’Or for Xavi or Iniesta, kind of a “sorry the best years of your career coincided with those of the most transcendant player in several decades,” like Scorcese’s Departed Oscar or that time Martin Landau won Best Supporting Actor and Sam Jackson visibly cursed on the nominee cam. I’d give it to Xavi, because my Xavi love is well-documented, but there’s certainly a case to be made for Iniesta too.

Here’s why I don’t think Rooney wins: Because most of the voters, presumably, will consider both his club and his international career, and the last bit of datum they have on his international career is a petulant red card and a three-game ban. Plus, and this goes back to my first point on the Ballon d’Or being stupid, I’m morally opposed to giving anyone an award like this for even part of a season in which they tried to demand to be sold. If you give it to Rooney, he really would be the Kobe Bryant of the soccer world.

Wes: Not to be all boring and all, but it would be an absolute crime if Xavi retires never having won the Ballon D’or. It’s a conversation that’s been had several times over, but it’s hard to imagine what the impact of Barcelona’s last four years without him pulling the strings. Yes, Messi’s scored 200 goals, and yes, some of those have been without Xavi on the pitch, but, as James Tyler put in yesterday’s piece celebrating Messi’s 200 goal milestone, “if you simply hang around the penalty area in a Barca shirt, you’ll get plenty of chances to score.” It doesn’t take a Jonathan Wilson to notice how integral Xavi has been to their success.

Adorable.

Awarding the Ballon D’or to Xavi wouldn’t be all lifetime achievement however. His passing stats during last season were absolutely incredible. The Champions League final, for example: he passed more times than the top United passers combined; despite ascending that height, his passing accuracy was still 90%; and in a match everyone will remember for Messi’s exploits, Xavi found him 27 times with the ball. Shew-wee.

But it’s not like that’s even it. I can remember matches were Xavi had more passes than the entire other team, doing so with close to 90% accuracy. We’ve done a paean to Xavi before, and we aren’t the only ones. To see such a great player eclipsed (at least as far as the Ballon D’or is concerned) in the twilight of his career by the young whippersnapper he enables constantly is saddening. Take out Messi and Ronaldo, I think the choice is clear.

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