Few people were surprised when Lionel Messi was named FIFA World Player of the Year recently, but he wasn’t the undisputed choice.
Arsène Wenger, while maintaining the Argentinian phenomenon is the best player he’s ever seen, would have cast his vote for Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta. Messi has become the first ever four-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, in the 56-year history of the award, but Arsène says that Iniesta’s achievements at Euro 2012 in particular merited individual recognition too.
Generally, the boss is not a big fan of individual awards being handed out in a team sport such as football. However, he does see some advantages of placing the sport’s megastars on a pedestal. These role models, he argues, can help inspire the next generation of players, and indeed it’s a tactic he has used as a coach himself.
The Arsenal Magazine spoke exclusively to Arsène about the current world footballer of the year, the past greats to get their hands on the trophy, and those that never quite did.
Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d’Or for the fourth year in a row. Would he have got your vote?
No, not this year. For me Messi is certainly the best player I have ever seen in the game, but I believe that this year he has really been rewarded for what he did individually, rather than what he won for his team. For once he has not been in a team that won absolutely everything. He did not win the Champions League, he did not win the Spanish league and he didn’t win anything with his country, but individually it’s true he had an exceptional year, scoring 91 goals. I believe he has been rewarded for that, but for me I’m more a fan of collective sport, so I feel people like Casillas, Ronaldo – who won the championship – and especially Iniesta deserved it more. He’s always number two or three, but he won the European Championship with Spain – he could have deserved it this year.
I am not a big fan of individual awards in football to start with, but when it happens I think it should be the consequence of a special team achievement as well
So even though it’s an individual award, you believe that team performances and achievements should be taken into account?
Yes, we are a team sport so collective achievements should have an impact. Anyway, I am not a big fan of individual awards in football to start with, but when it happens I think it should be the consequence of a special team achievement as well. If you have been the best player in a team that did something special, then yes, you should win it. That’s why my vote would have been for Andres Iniesta.
But it is Messi again – four awards in a row and he is still just 25!
Yes I know, and I do not dispute at all what an exceptional player he is – as people say, he’s from a different planet. He’s certainly the best player in the world, the best I’ve ever seen, and to do it four years in a row is exceptional. He is only 25 so he promises to set a long record that will certainly never be beaten.
Only four different players have finished in the top three over the past four years – Iniesta, Xavi, Ronaldo and Messi. Why do you think these four seem to have broken away from the rest?
Because they are part of an exceptional generation at the peak of their game. They are well known across the world, undisputed and these players win absolutely everything. At the moment Barcelona are 16 points ahead of Real Madrid, Spain have consecutively won the European Championship, World Cup and European Championship – what these players are doing is amazing. The achievements work in their favour. As much as I am a lover of team sport, it’s true that once you get up to a certain level, the difference is made by individual players. When Barcelona play Real Madrid, nine times out of ten the difference will be made either by Messi or Ronaldo. When the games get up to that level, it means simply they are the best in the world.
As a coach you are always focused on the next game - you have to be an obsessive futurist
You are not a great believer in individual awards though, why not?
I am a believer in individual performances and quality, but not rewards. You would always prefer the team to be rewarded – that’s what this sport is.
The Ballon d’Or has been running for more than 50 years. Do you think the way it’s organised at the moment – international coaches, captains and media from every country all casting votes – is the best way to determine the winner?
Not necessarily but you can ask that question for every democratic system. Will the most deserving winner always be produced? You don’t know, but what you can’t dispute is that it is voted by specialists. These people follow the game and know the game. You have to respect that.
Which of the early winners especially stood out for you when you were growing up watching football?
People like Raymond Kopa, Alfredo Di Stefano, then Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Marco van Basten. Van Batsen and Platini each won it three times, but nobody before has managed four. That’s why Messi is already ahead of everyone else at 25 – by the time he’s finished career he will be even further ahead.
Do you think giving an award such as this cements a player’s place in history, and helps younger fans learn about footballers from previous generations?
Yes, and creating role models in this way is the good side of it. I always believe that if you want to be a football player, it’s important that, at a very young age, the coach identifies a model for the young play to observe. The coach tells him ‘look, you can be the next Zidane, you can be Beckham, you can be Cruyff.’ That’s important for a coach to work out to whom this young player may be similar. When you are young you imitate very well, you look at the player and want to do the same thing, so as a coach it’s important advice. In that sense, it’s important to have role models.
Do you think all of the previous winners, from the 1960s and 70s for example, could have been a success today? Would some have adapted better to the modern game than others?
Those who couldn’t have played in the modern era are only those who had limited physical attributes. The game has become more physical since then. But all of those players on the list were great players in their time, which means their technical level, intelligence and vision were exactly as requested. What has changed is the physical intensity in the game. Those who could not absorb that would not have been a success today. But to be honest, most of them were physically very strong – Cruyff and Van Basten for example.
It’s important that, at a very young age, the coach identifies a role model for the young player to observe
Fifty years ago people would not have been able to watch the best players in the world very often, if at all. Now for example, every game Lionel Messi plays is televised, and people can more readily form their own opinions…
Yes, and for me, Pele was THE player of the time, maybe the best ever, but I could never see him when I was a kid. When Mario Zagallo was here at the training ground once, with the Brazilian national team, I asked him ‘”You played with Pele, you have coached all the best Brazilian players, so tell me – who is the best Brazilian player you have ever seen?” And he told me simply “Pele”. So that is something special because Zagallo played with all the best players, or coached all the best players of the past 60 years in Brazil. But he also told me about a player called Garrincha, who maybe not many people in Europe will know very well. I remember him being a famous right winger, but I don’t know him fantastically well.
So which players do you remember watching and forming your own opinions of while growing up in France?
It was Raymond Kopa, who was also known as Kopaszewski, because in fact he was Polish. The history and success of French football is closely linked to immigration. First it was the Polish immigrants who worked in the coal mines, and Kopaszewski’s family were part of that. The next was Platini, whose family came over when the Italian workers settled in France. He was the second big success story. The third part was the north African immigration, and Zinedine Zidane, who was the next success story. So when you look well at French football, it is closely linked with immigration, and those three players are the three big megastars that France produced.
And France had a big hand in establishing the Ballon d’Or, the original idea for the award was conceived by France Football Magazine…
Yes, and you have to give France credit for the many fantastic sports events they have created in the modern era. They created the Ballon d’Or, but also the European cups. England created the game, but afterwards France created FIFA and many of the modern trophies.
Do you think the players themselves feel the individual awards are important, or does it depend on the particular player’s ego?
Well I would ask this: Can you become a big player without a big ego? I would say no, it’s impossible. When you are a young player of about 20 years old, you need to feed this ego, and you can only feed it with success. Confidence in life comes with success via the recognition of others. People want to be recognized by others, so we know we have quality. What can be better than the whole world saying ‘you my friend, are the best player in the world’? We would’ve all dreamed of that. It didn’t happen to us but it happened to Messi a few times!
Do you think some players have the ambition of winning the World Cup, while others would rather win the Ballon d’Or?
Well the chances of winning the World Cup are determined by where you are born, you can not decide that yourself. You can decide you want to be the best in the world, but if you were born in Luxembourg, even Messi could never be world champion. You could play for the best club in the world though, and win all the club honours, and then be named best player.
In that case then do you think the award was more special to people like George Weah, George Best and Denis Law, who never had the chance to win international honours?
I think that if Messi never wins the World Cup, he will always feel that something was missing from his life. Why? Because Argentina have won it before, and the only thing skeptical people can say about him is that he has never won anything big with Argentina, even though they won it before him. As the best player in the world he has that pressure to win it for his country. But for people like George Weah, who was born in Liberia, he knew it was never going to happen anyway, so it wasn’t a dream for him.
It’s usually the magical, attacking players who win these awards. Do you think that’s fair?
Honestly, yes I do. I played in all the positions myself – at the back, in midfield and up front – and I know the most difficult of all is up there! At the back you can get away with average talent, but up front you need something special. I don’t deny that a good defender is something exceptionally important in a team. But the guy who can take the ball in the middle of the field and go and score a goal – at the very top level that’s where you need special talent.
Today the club is not the master of the game anymore, and therefore the whole of society has become more individualistic
You have won many individual honours in your career, do they mean much to you?
Not really, because as a coach you are always focused on the next game - you have to be an obsessive futurist. You always want to do more and do it better. So to me they don’t mean anything special. But I cannot deny that I feel some pride in such things. A real sportsman has a battle with himself to push himself as far as he can, which is why he always wants to improve.
Aside from the honours you have won with your teams, are there any awards you are particularly proud of?
Well I was lucky enough to win Manager of the Year in every country I’ve worked. So that’s something that makes me feel I’ve been able to show quality everywhere I have worked. So I am proud of that but in our job it’s always difficult to measure how much you have contributed to the success. Therefore, when you get rewarded it means the people around you are happy with what you have achieved. Have you been at your best? You don’t know, but if you are rewarded for making people happy, basically you have done your job. But you would swap all those awards for team titles. Any individual awards come as a consequence of that.
Profiles of players have never been bigger. Do you feel there is an emphasis moving away from team sport, with players becoming more concerned with individual achievement?
Yes I do. Let’s say that the whole of society has become a little more individualistic. If you look at the history of our game, when I was a player, you were linked with your club for the rest of your career, and you were only sold if the club wanted to sell you. Today the club is not the master of the game anymore, and therefore the whole of society has become more individualistic. You have people who plan careers - they start off at a certain club to develop as a player, then when they have become known they move somewhere else. Before, players wanted to be part of a club for the whole career and achieve something with them. Today it only works well when the individual’s targets are the same as the club’s. As soon as that changes, the player wants to go somewhere else.
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Do you think these awards will become more relevant in future then as players seek to maximize their image rights and commercial value?
First of all I believe that the player wants to win the award to be recognised as the best in the world. I don’t believe that commercial aspects have a big meaning inside a big player’s head. For them it means they are loved more, and that they are ‘really the one’. But when you are a big football player, to go home and think ‘everyone thinks I am the best player in the world’ – that must be a fantastic feeling.
But you feel as well for Iniesta, and you feel for Ronaldo, because sometimes in life you need to be lucky that a better guy than you wasn’t born during the same time. You could say that the guy who arrives today behind Usain Bolt is still very quick, and still a fantastic athlete, and could beat everyone else in the world, but it’s bad luck that he is around at the same time as Usain Bolt. It’s the same now for Ronaldo, who is an absolutely fantastic player, but always seems to be just behind Messi in the awards. So I feel for them because I know what it means to them, at that level, to be known as the best in the world.
Was that the case for Thierry Henry too? He finished second and third – did it hurt him not to win it?
It did hurt him. First of all he knew himself that he deserved it, and I believe 100 per cent that he deserved it too. It was not justified at all that he didn’t win it. At that time it was still the France Football Ballon d’Or so perhaps they were a bit harsher with the French players than anybody else!