A press release issued by FIFA earlier today revealed the 23 names in contention for the first FIFA Ballon d’Or, to be presented at an undoubtedly lavish ceremony in Zurich just as the AFC Asian Cup is trying to get the rest of the world looking its way on 10 January 2011. The new prize is a sensible merger – agreed in Johannesburg this July – of the old FIFA World Player of the Year awarded since 1991, and the historically more prestigious Ballon d’Or, which dates back as far as 1956. Originally presented by France Football magazine to the year’s most outstanding European footballer, the latter award evolved in 1995 to cover players of any nationality plying their trade in Europe, and ultimately to compete directly with FIFA’s trophy under the same, fully global conditions in 2007. The nominees for the top star of 2010 are listed below.
Xabi Alonso (Spain), Daniel Alves (Brazil), Iker Casillas (Spain), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Didier Drogba (Côte d’Ivoire), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon), Cesc Fabregas (Spain), Diego Forlán (Uruguay), Asamoah Gyan (Ghana), Andrés Iniesta (Spain), Júlio César (Brazil), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Philipp Lahm (Germany), Maicon (Brazil), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Thomas Müller (Germany), Mesut Özil (Germany), Carles Puyol (Spain), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands), David Villa (Spain) and Xavi (Spain).
There are few, if any, surprise names in the selection, but the omission of Inter Milan forward Diego Milito is absolutely astonishing. After averaging better than a goal every two games over five and a half seasons out of the spotlight with Genoa and Real Zaragoza – culminating in a 26-goal haul in 34 appearances during a single year back with the rossoblu in 2008-09 – the Argentinean was finally given his opportunity with a truly big club at the age of 30 when Massimo Moratti came calling. Samuel Eto’o had been widely expected to lead Jose Mourinho’s attack after the swap deal that saw Zlatan Ibrahimović depart for an ill-fated spell at Barcelona, but Milito made the central striking berth his own in a 4-2-1-3 system that asked Eto’o and Goran Pandev to take one for the team on the flanks. 30 goals, and a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia, and Champions League titles later, he was crowned with a trio of personal honours from the European governing body UEFA – Man of the Match in the Champions League final, UEFA Club Forward of the Year, and UEFA Club Footballer of the Year.
A cynic might suggest that the absence of Milito is indicative of an effort by FIFA to stamp its own authority on the sport’s top individual prize. Even while international football has become gradually overshadowed by the European club scene, performances at the World Cup have always held a heavy influence over the end-of-year honours, and Milito certainly suffers for managing a total of just 91 minutes in South Africa as second fiddle to Lionel Messi and Carlos Tévez. But while Asamoah Gyan was undeniably one of the stories of the summer for his performances leading the line as Ghana so nearly became Africa’s first ever semi-finalists – not to mention the sheer balls he showed in that fateful penalty shootout against Uruguay – to suggest that the Sunderland bench-warmer is more deserving than the Inter number 22 implies gross overemphasis on the competitions that FIFA themselves have control over. It is also perhaps worth highlighting that the list on the press release stated only the countries represented by the Ballon d’Or nominees, and not the clubs.
This argument does not account for the inclusion of Didier Drogba, who famously broke his arm against Japan and managed just a late consolation header against Brazil as the Ivory Coast succumbed to the group of death; or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose somewhat fortuitous strike in Portugal’s 7-0 thrashing of hapless North Korea was the only real highlight of a frustrating World Cup for the 2008 Ballon d’Or (and FIFA World Player of the Year) winner. Both players have, however, enjoyed spectacular starts to the 2010/11 European club season. Milito is currently sidelined with a thigh strain – also picked up, ironically, against Japan – and might therefore have been penalised for shining for five months from January to May before FIFA shook hands with France Football, rather than in the two months of club action played since.
From a Japanese perspective, had Keisuke Honda followed his marvellous two weeks in South Africa with the kind of two months that Shinji Kagawa has just enjoyed in a top European league – or, indeed, vice versa – one can only wonder if this wouldn’t have matched the new nominations criteria perfectly.