Solving FIFA's messy VIP
By Orville Higgins
The World Cup is over and the post-mortems are coming in thick and fast. Lionel Messi's ears must be ringing. All the post-World Cup discussion seem centred on him. Despite his pedigree and status as one of the greatest players ever, he may also be one of the most criticised ever.
The decision by the FIFA technical committee to award him the Golden Ball award has come in for harsh criticism. Two former Argentine World Cup-winning greats have been at the forefront of it. Neither Mario Kempes nor Diego Maradona thought it was well deserved, with Maradona going so far as to say it was a marketing plan by FIFA. Whatever that is supposed to mean! With Maradona, you could always say it was a case of 'bad mind' because his is the throne that Messi is threatening. Not so with Kempes, who was clearly expressing a genuine sentiment. When the FIFA president himself expressed surprise, that merely added fuel to the fire.
The award is controversial, of that there can be doubt, and while previous winners of the Golden Ball have not enjoyed universal approval, none has generated more discussion. The reason for that is simple. Other winners were believed to have genuinely given their best. From Diego Forlan in 2010, Zinedine Zidane in 2006, going all the way back to Diego Maradona in 1986, the public generally felt that the winners had come to the tournament and had played as hard as they could. That was enough to appease the public. That is not the case here. All of those who felt Messi didn't deserve it are at one with the belief that he just didn't produce the display they were expecting. To a large extent, then, Messi wasn't being judged against his peers, but against his own standards.
On the face of it, the award isn't as 'bramble' as some are making it out to be. Messi was right up there on the statistical sheet in terms of goalscoring, passes made, and chances created. If the Golden Ball is an MVP award instead of a best player award, then Messi was also right in the mix.
Crucial to team
It could be argued that he was just as crucial to advancing his side's cause as anybody else in the tournament. Still, we can't shake that nagging feeling that he didn't quite deliver. We wanted more. We wanted to see the Messi that played for Barcelona. We wanted that free-scoring machine, taking on all comers, being involved in virtually every attacking play. We didn't get that. What we got appeared to be only sporadic moments of brilliance.
I would have given that award to Messi's teammate, Javier Mascherano. The hard-tackling, no-nonsense defensive midfielder. He was the man that was the heart and soul of the Argentina team. Apart from his energy on the field, virtually in every minute of every game, he was the clear team leader, the one who was constantly trying to motivate teammates. When Messi could afford to amble or disappear through certain sections of certain games, Mascherano had no such luxury.
Until the final, he had won more tackles than any other player. Not only was he winning the ball, but prior to the final, he had made more passes than any other player. He was not merely winning balls, he was distributing them, too. Argentina's defence was always accepted as the weakest part of their game. Mascherano was the main reason Argentina ended up as arguably the top defensive team in the competition.
Mascherano, though, is not an attacking player; that would have worked against him. The player of the tournament almost always must be a man who has attacking responsibilities. When German keeper Oliver Kahn got it in 2002, that was a huge surprise. Not only spectators, but also high-profile football officials seem to give greater credence to what attacking players do than what defensive players do. This, of course, is wrong.
Maybe this is one area that FIFA can take some advice. Rather than one Golden Ball winner, they should have sectional prizes. Top striker, top attacking midfielder, top defensive midfielder, top defender, etc. You wouldn't eliminate controversy that way, but other deserving players would get their just recognition.
Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sport FM. Email feedback to email@example.com.