Friday, July 15, 2011

International Football On The Rocks?

Johann Cruyff(left) dazzles at the 1974 World Cup.
Rewind back to last season's FIFA Ballon d'Or awards. The winner of course as we well know by now was the little genius from Rosario, Lionel Messi who beat his Barcelona mates Andres Iniesta and Xavi to the award. Most people would find that absolutely normal after looking at Messi's club record last year. But there's one missing link - the small matter of the FIFA World Cup 2010.

Before Messi's 2011 triumph - In a World Cup year in which the winners were an European team, there has been just one instance of a player when the Ballon d'Or winner wasn't part of the victorious team. Back in the day when Messi wasn't born and the four Beatles were still alive, Johann Cruyff won the Ballon d'Or in 1974 not having won the World Cup but he was in the World Cup finals that year and was named 'Player of the Tournament' for good measure. But last season, Messi's Argentina didn't even get past the quarter-finals in which Messi was taken good care off by the excellent Bastian Schweinsteiger.

So what changed last year? Why didn't a Spanish player win the award last year? It wasn't that Iniesta and Xavi were off the mark with their club team Barcelona. Both were brilliant in a great Barcelona team that won the La Liga, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and humiliated their biggest rivals Real Madrid 5-0 at the Nou Camp.. There was also a case for the deadly Dutch duo of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Both World Cup finalists - the former winning the Champions League with Inter Milan and the latter reaching the final of European club football's most prestigious tournament.

Was Messi winning the award for his 'club' performances rather than a 'World Cup' performance, a reflection in the mood of the media, players, fans? FIFA's viewership accounts say the last three World Cup Finals have been watched by 1.3bn (1998 World Cup), 1.1bn (2002 World Cup), 715mn (2006 World Cup) and 'over' 700m (2010 World Cup). There have been critics who have doubted FIFA's details, bringing forward the theory that only about a quarter of the people actually watched the finals with respect to FIFA's numbers.

One way to look at the dropping number is the fact that Brazil (a nation with a sizeable football-loving population) were in the first two finals mentioned but weren't in the recent two. But with ever increasing technology, more and more countries getting into football, surely the numbers in some form should have risen?

Compare that with the Champions League Final. Still sitting on a smaller chair compared to the World Cup Final if you go by FIFA's numbers. But if you are one who doesn't believe FIFA on their word, the Champions League Final isn't just playing catch up very soon. The viewership numbers for the Champions League are ever on the rise. So much so, that the Champions League Final in 2009 between Barcelona and Manchester United even dislodged the Super Bowl as the most viewed annual sports event drawing an audience of over 206mn who watched at least a bit of the game.

Is the Champions League simply more exciting? They say goals make the beautiful game look 'beautiful' so one should imagine that more goals would only enhance football's chance of getting into an international beauty pageant. The only winner there is the Champions League based on the following statistics :

Average number of goals scored at a game at the last two World Cups.

  • 2006: 2.3 goals per game.
  • 2010:  2.27 goals per game.
Compare that with the same stat in the Champions League over the same period(last five seasons).

  • 2006-07: 2.49 goals per game.
  • 2007-08: 2.64 goals per game.
  • 2008-09: 2.63 goals per game.
  • 2009-10: 2.54 goals per game.
  • 2010-11: 2.84 goals per game.

The least goals per game rate in the Champions League over a season in this period happens to be a good 0.19 goals per game more the 2006 World Cup, which has a higher scoring rate than the 2010 World Cup.

One of the premier reasons for the Champions League to become more 'exciting' could lie in the fact that the players at a club train together day-in and day-out for most of the year while the national team assemble for short durations during a friendly or qualifier in between World Cups and continental tournaments. Training together for a long time helps bring about good co-ordination and better understanding between players which goes a mile in helping teams play better football and adopting to their team's tactics perfectly.

In modern football, there aren't many top teams who have the same set of players playing for the same club and country. Spain is a rare example these days, with Barcelona players making up the core of their team. And they also happen to be European and World Champions!

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