The shortlist for the 2009 European Footballer of the Year was revealed this week, and it makes pretty grim reading for Calcio fans. Only four of the nominees currently ply their trade in Serie A, none of whom are actually Italian. The bulk of the shortlist was made up from the Premier League and La Liga – reflecting the dominance the English and Spanish clubs have had on the continent’s football scene over the last few years.
How times have changed since the halcyon days of Italian football, when the wealth of the Agnellis, the Morattis and Silvio Berlusconi bankrolled the arrival of football’s illuminati. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Ballon d’Or took up semi-permanent residence on the peninsula – no fewer than 13 times during this period did the winner of the award play for an Italian club. In 1988 and 1989 alone, the top three spots for the Player of the Year all went to members of the great Milan side of the day. Serie A was the place to be seen. But the order of rule has changed. An indictment of the definite power-shift in Europe, is that both of Serie A’s top commodities – Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – felt it necessary to abscond to Spain this summer to maximise their peak footballing years. Kaka, winner of the Golden Ball in 2007, has made the France Football shortlist again but appears to be defaulted in by association rather than any great achievements in 2009. Ibrahimovic on the other hand, thoroughly does merit his place – but has no chance of winning it.
The abruptness of the last statement may sound harsh given that Lionel Messi’s unparalleled brilliance over the last 18-months means he’s almost certain to be handed the moniker of Europe’s best player. However, Ibra still fails to attain the greater kudos afforded to some of his peers, and outside of the peninsula, scepticism remains about his effectiveness and big-game temperament. Aged 28, and with five years in Italy behind him, the Swedish striker has never been able to fully cement his reputation as one of the game’s true world-class performers. Even last season – Ibra’s annus mirabilis – in which his 25 league goals and countless inspirational displays carried Inter to a third successive Scudetto – the prosecution is strong. Once again Ibracadabra failed to prove his undoubted ability on the biggest stage. One goal in eight Champions League games, including two insipid showings against Manchester United, only fuelled the fire of his critics who suggest he is nothing more than a show pony – a flat-track bully – who fails to live up to his billing when it is needed most. In truth, this mantle has been assigned to Ibra for some years now, with the argument strengthened with each indifferent showing against Europe’s elite. Quite simply, Ibrahimovic has never produced enough when it matters – against the strongest teams, when under pressure – to be universally lauded as one of the best.
Alongside Messi, the main contenders for the Ballon d’Or are Barcelona’s creative combo of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. The strength of Barca meant the pair were never relied upon to the extent Ibrahimovic was for the Nerazzurri. Even Ibra’s single-minded, single-handed rescuing of Inter, is surpassed by the excellence of Xavi and Iniesta who effortlessly rose to task when the occasion came. The duo both excelled in the latter stages of La Blaugrana’s triumphant Champions League campaign, culminating in an exquisite showing in the final – their midfield artistry decimating Manchester United – laying the foundations for their team to win football’s biggest club game. On such showings do reputations and recognition grow. Such showings have been notable only by their absence from Ibra’s portfolio.
So now he finds himself at the Camp Nou, an interesting acquisition in itself. The value of the transfer (including Samuel Eto’o as a makeweight) is second only to that of Cristiano Ronaldo. Given the sum paid, it is feasible the Catalan giants could have prized away Fernando Torres or David Villa from their respective clubs – strikers with a proven pedigree of goals at the highest level. Yet Pep Guardiola opted for Ibrahimovic, despite the unanswered questions. Given that Barca swept the board last season, there will be no place to hide. The disappearing acts will be quickly seized upon by the observant ‘culers.” His predecessor, Eto’o, had just fired 36 goals and had been the focal point of an unstoppable attacking unit. Aided by the invention of Messi, Thierry Henry, Xavi and Iniesta, a tailors dummy could regularly find the net for Barcelona. To maintain their current status, Barca will be expecting Ibrahimovic to deliver his much-promised excellence in times which warrant his price tag. Should he fail, he will never shift the perception of being one of football’s nearly men. Should he succeed, the individual awards and acclaim will follow. Over to you, Zlatan.