James Lawton: Once again, Fifa get a big call wrong

The world's best players - Lionel Messi with the Ballon d'Or, flanked by Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta (left) who came second and third respectively. Photo / AP
The world's best players - Lionel Messi with the Ballon d'Or, flanked by Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta (left) who came second and third respectively. Photo / AP

There are not many certainties in football these days, except maybe the one that says whenever Fifa president Sepp Blatter pulls his hand out of his pocket it will contain the wrong envelope.

When he did it again this week while producing the name of Lionel Messi there was, at least in some quarters, more surprise than outrage, not least because the latter commodity was surely exhausted last month when Blatter announced Russia and Qatar as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Those decisions didn't only break the rules, they violated decency, a fact which no doubt softened the reaction to Messi's second successive World Player of the Year award. It also helped that he is a player of the ages, wonderfully skilled, insanely creative and of impeccable decorum.

However, if a rule wasn't broken, an extremely sound precedent was when he came home ahead of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.

This was because, ever since Fifa set up the award in 1991, one preference until this week was always apparent. It was that in a World Cup year the great prize had to go to the man who had done most to shape the outcome of football's greatest tournament.

According to this principle some winners pre-1991 would have been absolute no-brainers: Pele in 1970, Franz Beckenbauer - 1974, Mario Kempes - 1978, Paolo Rossi - 1982, Diego Maradona in 1986. In 1990 the tournament was so bad it would have been best to have drawn a veil over the whole turgid misadventure.

That dilemma, however, has not returned, despite some tournaments of dubious quality, and the player of the year has been the World Cup's most valuable performer. Brazil's folk hero Romario won it in 1994, Zinedine Zidane in 1998, Ronaldo in 2002 and Fabio Cannavaro took the prize in 2006.

So far so formal, so just, but of course we know that such matters in this celebrity age can be settled by something less than the most vigorous application of classic standards. How else, for example, can we explain the fact that David Beckham, currently the hero of that absurd soap opera production at White Hart Lane, twice finished second?

Opposition to Messi has been led by Italy's influential daily Gazzetta dello Sport. A banner headline exclaimed "Messi ... No!" They pointed out that while the Argentine had again displayed mesmerising skills, and scored at a breathtaking rate, he had not dominated the great events of 2010.

Gazzetta dello Sport says Xavi Hernandez should have won. At least it got it half right. Xavi played wonderfully well both in Barcelona's failed European challenge and in South Africa, but if his piston legs and driving ambition were immense, if he was the fulcrum of Spain's extraordinary lust for control of the ball, who was it who most brilliantly released his team from the logjam of creative breakdown at the most vital moments? It was the little man from La Mancha, Andres Iniesta.

Iniesta fought serious injury all the way to South Africa, playing whenever it was humanly possible for Barcelona, and then had a magnificent World Cup. He was the relentless fixer of crisis and when Spain's first World Cup triumph was in jeopardy he delivered the coup de grace to the thuggish Dutchmen.

On a cold, dangerous night in Johannesburg he won the prize by the force of his nature as much as his extraordinary talent. His name should have been in Blatter's pocket and then brought out of that dark place into the light of authentic fame.

- INDEPENDENT

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