Should there be any lingering doubts about the total domination that Europe now has over the global game they have surely been put to flight by the announcement of the short list of candidates for the most prestigious individual awards in men’s soccer in 2014: the Ballon d’Or (best player), and the FIFA World Coach of the Year.
There are 23 players named. All of them play with European clubs. Seventeen are European, five are South American, one is African. I’m counting Diego Costa as European, as does FIFA. If you prefer to identify him as Brazilian, then there are six South Americans, a change that hardly affects matters.
This is how FIFA describes the selection procedure: “the list of candidates has been drawn up by football experts from the FIFA Football Committee and by a group of experts from [the French magazine] France Football.” Which signals that this is primarily a European process.
Well, that’s fine, just as long as the selections are made objectively. But whether that overwhelming European dominance on the list is justified seems to me doubtful (I do, to take but one name, find it curious that Sergio Aguero is not named). I mean justified in soccer terms. That needs saying, for there are other influences at work here that undoubtedly distort the process, as becomes pretty clear with a look at the coaches list.
Ten coaches are named -- seven European, three South American. Alejandro Sabella is the only totally non-European coach, an Argentine coaching the Argentine national team. But there are oddities. Why is Louis van Gaal there? Or is it automatic that you get nominated if you finish in the first three at the world cup? Jose Mourinho had a nothing-year, but his name is there too.
I would have expected to find South American Jose Pekerman named -- he did, for sure, have one of the better, more attractive, teams in Brazil. But he is not named.
I’m surprised to see European Jurgen Klinsmann named -- a coach who produced one of the least attractive World Cup teams, which achieved nothing that the USA hasn’t done before.
And I’m disgusted by the fact that Jorge Luis Pinto is not on the list. It was Pinto who took Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals, where it lost -- in a shootout -- to the Netherlands. That was surely the most remarkable coaching achievement of the tournament -- by far. Klinsmann lamented that the USA had been drawn in a Group of Death (with Germany, Portugal and Ghana), but that group looks like easy going when set alongside the three teams that confronted Costa Rica: England, Uruguay and Italy -- all of them previous World Cup winners. Yet Costa Rica topped the group, with wins over Italy and Uruguay and a tie with England.
And it did all that by playing skillful, intelligent, stylish soccer. Yet Pinto, having engineered what may well be the most astonishing run by any unfancied team in World Cup history, receives no recognition from the battery of FIFA and France Football experts. This is blatantly scandalous.
How to explain such a crass oversight? We go back to those “other influences” that I already mentioned. In particular, the advent of invasive high-power marketing. An activity that needs a constant supply of stars and personalities. An activity that has carried soccer into the celebrity world. A world that ensures plenty of publicity, some of it accurate.
Simply put, van Gaal, Mourinho and Klinsmann are celebrities, so -- even though their achievements in 2014 were hardly brilliant -- they make the list. But Pinto and tiny Costa Rica ... who the hell are they? (I am told that, during a World Cup telecast, one of the NBC announcers referred to Costa Rica as an island).
Pinto and Costa Rica are assuredly not celebrities, they don’t even register as celebrity material. So they get ignored. Not willfully or maliciously, they just get elbowed aside by their more glamorous rivals.
I need to stress that the celebrities I’m invoking -- van Gaal, Mourinho, Klinsmann -- are to a large extent innocent parties in the marketing game. They have, so to speak, had celebrity thrust upon them. Some -- like Mourinho -- have learned how to play the celebrity game overtly to the hilt. Others, like Klinsmann, prefer to play it cool. However they play the role, they are not to blame for their selection as top-coach candidates.
The blame there lies with these experts who, swayed by the siren call of celebrity, have included unsuitable candidates like Mourinho and Klinsmann on their list, thereby turning what should be a genuine tribute to exceptional coaching into a joke.
Well, that’s not anything new. I’ll confess to an aversion to most of these awards, there are far too many of them and their sheer multiplicity is bound to devalue them. But these two FIFA awards are held to be the ones that matter. They should be uncorrupted by regional bias, uninfluenced by marketing and celebrity concerns.
Which is what makes it so deplorable that this list of candidates includes coaches whose presence can only be explained by their celebrity status. But above all, there is the unforgivable absence of Jorge Luis Pinto. A blot on the reputation of the awards, an insult to the sport of soccer, and an unpleasant personal snub for Pinto.
Gentlemen, experts, what on earth were you thinking?