Ribéry’s candidacy overshadows other deserving players in Ballon d’Or conversation

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Messi, Ronaldo, and Ribéry. Every indication says this year’s Ballon d’Or come down to those three Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo are givens in this conversation, and a standout year from Franck Ribéry on top of an astounding season from Bayern Munich has vaulted the France international into the discussion. With most ballots sent in by now, there’s no more room in the conversation.

Which, of course, won’t stop us from second-guessing the whole discussion. Take yesterday, when we had two chances to comment on Ribery’s curious candidacy, albeit in passing. This is from our post on Real Madrid’s support of Cristiano Ronaldo:

While the France international’s improved play without the ball is a huge factor in his candidacy, the Bayern winger scored 20 goals in 50 appearances for club and country in 2013.
Ronaldo? 67 goals in 56 appearances.

So the question voters have (hopefully) asked themselves: Are the unquantifiable aspects Ribéry brings to the game worth enough to transcend that 47-goal gap?

It’s a question that addresses the idea Franck Ribéry might have out-performed Cristiano Ronaldo, but let’s leave that aside, even if it’s great comments fodder. (Seriously, have at it, below.)

What I’m more concerned with is others’ exclusion from the conversation, and in that sense, Ribéry serves as the best reference point. If he was able to break into this discussion, one that’s normally dominated by Messi and Ronaldo, why haven’t others?

Part of that is how the award’s announced. The 23-man shortlist will be reduced to three finalists shortly, a whittling down that influences how we talk about the award. When voters are casting their ballots, they’re asked for first, second, and third choices, another reason Ballon d’Or discussions focus on trios. At this point, the conversation has picked one player to join Messi and Ronaldo, focusing all its attention on him. Toppling that big two is such a monumental task, it takes the wills of many to keep the narrative afloat.

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Arturo Vidal (left) is up to 20 all-competition goals this season after Wednesday’s hat trick in UEFA Champions League. (Photo: Getty Images.)

But the resulting tunnel vision isn’t fair to the handful of players who have as strong a case as Ribéry. Again, this is a guy who scored 20 goals, was crucial to many others, but has an offense-heavy case based largely on his intangible contributions to his team’s performance. If you recognize this is an individual award (and great teams are already rewarded by trophies), it’s not too difficult to argue players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robin van Persie were better in 2013 (I’d only agree with one of those, though).

There are other two players, however, who’ve come on strong since the start of the club season – players who’ve received almost no attention for this award. Both are overshadowed by teammates more apt to pick up individual honors, something that kept one of them off the 23-man ballot entirely.

But Arturo Vidal deserves some attention here, especially if you’re using Franck Ribéry as the standard for what it takes to be in this discussion. Ribéry was unquestionably great last season, but if the argument hinges on his is production and influence on a successful team, Vidal’s case shares those merits. Though not as lauded as midfield partner Andrea Pirlo (who finished seventh in last year’s voting), he is the better player at this point in their careers, somebody who’s capable of being the best player in all facet of a game.

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If a case is going to rest on intangibles, Philipp Lahm’s may be best. Captain for Bayern Munich and the Germany National Team, the defender-cum-midfielder has proven vital for two highly successful teams.

This season, in all competitions, Vidal already has 10 goals and four assists from his central midfielder’s role. In 52 games this year for club and country, the Chilean international has scored as many goals as Ribéry (20) while seemingly making a greater defensive contribution. That’s not to say Vidal definitely had a better year than Ribéry (these players are close enough where personal preferences should be allowed to win out), but if Ribéry’s in a player of the year discussion, Vidal deserves a place, too.

On the surface, Ribéry appears to be getting credit for Bayern’s team accomplishments, but even if you think that has a place in individual awards, why aren’t other Bayern players getting the same benefit? For example, given how important we’ve seen Philipp Lahm be in defensive midfield this season, would it make sense to look at his play this fall, his contributions to Bayern’s success last season, and his role with a highly successful German national team and note his intangibles case probably transcends Ribéry’s? It’s worth talking about, particularly as Lahm’s play to start this season may have closed the gap Ribéry built up last spring.

And Ribéry did have a truly great year. Through June, he was Bayern’s best player, and the best player in the Bundesliga. But there are a handful of players who, over the course of the year, were just as good. While he may get some bonus points for his contributions to Bayern, it’s not like he was their only good player. And even when you give him that benefit of the doubt, it’s unclear he’s done enough to monopolize this conversation at the expense of Vidal, Lahm, Ibrahimovic, and others. One players greatness shouldn’t come at the expensive of all others’.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

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Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

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The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

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No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

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For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

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Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE