Clark Whitney’s Comment: Wesley Sneijder Won More And Diego Milito Was More Decisive, But Leo Messi Was The Best Player Of 2010

First and foremost, congratulations to Lionel Messi, the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or winner and greatest attacking talent of his generation.

All of us at Goal.com were shocked tonight as Messi’s name was announced in Zurich. Historically, in World Cup years, the award has gone to the best player from the tournament’s winning team. Dating back to 1978, the only exceptions to this rule were the snubs of Romario (1994) and Diego Madadona (1986), both of whom missed out by default due to the award’s pre-1995 provisions that required the winner to be of European nationality. Suffice to say, for breaking the trend, Messi’s triumph in 2010 is a defining moment in Ballon d’Or history.

In the months leading to tonight’s decision, there was no shortage of controversy over the award. After the shortlist of candidates was revealed in October, my colleague and friend Carlo Garganese famously wrote that if Diego Milito is not one of the world’s top 23 players, football must be dead. When the list was trimmed to three in December, the football fan community erupted in unison to question the exclusion of Wesley Sneijder.


Andres Iniesta

Pros:

  • Scored in World Cup final
  • Big game performer
Cons:
  • Missed much of spring campaign
  • "Team player" - not suited for individual awards.
Both exclusions were inexcusable: Milito scored twice in the Champions League final, netted the winner in the Coppa Italia final, and won a treble. Sneijder won the same trophies with Inter, and finished joint top scorer at the World Cup as the Netherlands finished second.

As I type, many are lamenting the snubbing of Barcelona and Spain dynamos Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Based on the selection of final three, though, only Messi could win. In the end, the judges made the right call.

Andres Iniesta was until recently the unsung hero of Barcelona’s recent successful run. His tremendous technique is worth noting, but his poise under pressure is what led many to believe that he would take this year’s award for best player. For Iniesta, the highlight of 2010 was doing what every footballer dreams of: scoring the winner in the World Cup final. But while the Spaniard’s goal against the Netherlands was well taken and would have been botched by many other players—Arjen Robben take notice—it would have been a travesty for Iniesta to have won the award based on that moment alone; if the main criterion was scoring critical goals in major competitions, Milito would have been a more appropriate selection. Iniesta not winning the Ballon d’Or is a reminder that Spain won the World Cup as a collective unit: it can be debated that each of Iniesta, Xavi, David Villa, Carles Puyol and Iker Casillas was La Furia Roja’s best player.


Xavi

Pros:

  • Arguably greatest central midfielder of all time
  • Heart and soul of Spain and Barca midfields
Cons:
  • Neither Spain nor Barca's best player
  • Needs Iniesta to play at his best
I speak primarily of his exploits with Spain because Iniesta only won one club title, La Liga, in 2010, and Barca’s best player was the otherworldly Messi. In fact, Iniesta played 90 minutes in only seven of Barca’s domestic matches during the spring campaign, and his form in the spring was limited due to injuries. For this reason in particular, he was rather fortunate to make the top three ahead of Sneijder.

Then there was Xavi. Some call him the greatest central midfielder of all time, so why should he not have won the Ballon d’Or by now? For him, the reason is similar to that which explains Iniesta’s snubbing: he was one of many top performers for Spain, and had while he enjoyed success at the club level, he was by no means Barcelona's best player. Additionally, as I noted in a previous article, the nature of the Catalan’s game requires that he have a midfield partner of similar quality. The truth is that Xavi and Iniesta will forever be dependent upon one another. If there existed an award for a pair, they would win it quite comfortably. But in isolation, neither quite brings enough to the table, not this year.

To be fair, Xavi would have deserved the award in 2009, when he was still at the very peak of his game. After having a less successful 2010 calendar year in terms of individual form and club achievements, however, a win this year would have been more of a “lifetime achievement award.” Such an honour has only been given once in the history of the Ballon d’Or, and went to inaugural winner Stanley Matthews in 1956. Thus, he never really had much of a chance.


Lionel Messi

Pros:

  • Averaged 1.55 scorer's points per La Liga game
  • Carried Barca offensively
  • Best player for club & country
Cons:
  • Knocked out of World Cup early
  • Struggled against Germany & Inter
That leaves Messi, the most talented attacker in the world, who in the 2010 calendar year produced an unbelievable 42 goals and 14 assists in 36 La Liga games. Words cannot do justice in describing the goal-creating ability of the Argentine, who at just 23 years of age is well on his way towards shattering all sorts of individual records. True, he was played off the park by Bastian Schweinstegier at the World Cup. But at the same time, we must remember that Messi had an utterly incompetent coach in Diego Maradona, and Argentina were always headed for doom as soon as they met a team with any tactical savvy.

At club level, he somehow managed to carry a thin and often exhausted Barca team to the Champions League semi-final and victory in La Liga. Yes, he had support, but his transition from wide forward to primary goal-scorer was so smooth that one hardly could notice that Barca played for most of last season without an out-and-out striker. Of the three finalists, he is the only to improve over the past year. And if not for Messi’s heroics, Barca could easily have descended into the mind-numbing haze that characterised the end of the Frank Rijkaard era.

Many, myself included, will still claim that the Ballon d’Or should have gone to Sneijder. But what’s done is done, and there is something to take from this year’s voting: from the final candidates, the judges made a bold decision as they bucked history and did not simply choose the best player from the World Cup winners. Instead, they respected Spain’s collectivism and gave the award to none other than the best player in the world: what more can be asked?

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