Soccer seemed to defy financial gravity in 2009. While much of the world buckled into recession, Fifa (Federation Internationale de Football Association), the sport's governing body, declared that each of the 32 nations that qualified for the 2010 World Cup would receive financial rewards 60% higher than ever before.
Working on similar lines, Real Madrid paid Manchester United around $132 million (around Rs620 crore) for Cristiano Ronaldo. That was only the transfer sum; the salary is $15 million a year extra. But Madrid reckons that it is a viable deal, and, like every other club in the Champions League, can start reducing its debts through prize money that is guaranteed to be 33% more over this and the next three seasons.
Scoring a winner: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates his goal during the Fifa Club World Cup final soccer match against Estudiantes at Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Fahad Shadeed / Reuters
This is because soccer’s big television and sponsorship deals are locked into the period of prosperity that existed before the global financial crash.
The recession, presumably, will hit the sport down the road. Soccer lives for the now, and if there are bankruptcies in the system, none of them have been declared during 2009.
But if Ronaldo is worth so much, what price should be put on Lionel Messi? This has been his year, Barcelona’s year and Spain’s year.
Messi, the little man from Argentina, has eclipsed Ronaldo for the player of the year titles in 2009. His essence is that he is a team player, and his team, Barca, has garnered all the trophies available to one club in one season, including the Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, when Messi scored in extra time to defeat Estudiantes de la Plate of Argentina, 2-1. Not only that, Barcelona has raised the game back to beauty.
Madrid has support from the Spanish institutions prepared to help it pay more than its means to try to ensure that Barcelona does not keep running away with all the prizes.
Madrid’s policy was to buy—not just Ronaldo, but also Kaka, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and others in a single summer.
What it cannot buy is the roots of Barca’s beauty, its renowned style. That is a product of La Masia, the school built on an 18th century farm in the lea of the club’s Camp Nou stadium.
“The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest,” coach Josep Guardiola said. “It’s a plus that comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child.”
Guardiola knows, because he passed through the school and played for the first team for a decade before graduating to be its coach. One of his players, the meticulous Xavi, has just played his 500th senior game in the shirt.
Xavi is a born and bred Catalan, a child and now a man of F.C. Barcelona. But though Messi was born abroad, Txiki Begiristain, the club’s technical director, insists, “Mess’ from Argentina, but he was formed in our house.”
Indeed he was, from age 13. That raises the conundrum of 2009. He was the star of stars wherever Barcelona performed, yet he could barely shine for his homeland.
The reason must be Diego Maradona. Once the greatest star of Argentina—and, incidentally, of Barcelona for a time—Maradona took his national squad to the brink of lunacy in his first year of attempted team management.
Cesar Menotti, the coach of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning side, spelled it out in two sentences: “Argentina does not have a functioning team. Messi is not responsible for the strategy at Barcelona, he is the one that completes the moves.”
The star, yes, but the star of a fantastically integrated team.
Europe’s best national side, Spain, is also an integration—of Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla.
Another interpretation of integration arose significantly during the year. We saw it in the German side that won the European under-21 championship in Sweden, and saw it again in the Swiss youths who became world under-17 champions in Nigeria.
More than half the Germany squad and more than half of Switzerland’s emerging talents were born abroad or are the sons of immigrants. This cosmopolitan make-up, still unusual but perfectly legitimate, is a measure of sports reflecting the shifting patterns of population movement.
The Balkans conflict, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the migration of Africans and the fact that some soccer players settle in countries where their skills took them are changing the gene pool of international sports—not simply of soccer.
If soccer maintains its global aspect—especially if Fifa allows players of dual nationality to choose for which country they play—the trend seen in Germany and Switzerland could become a template.
Soccer, however, struggles to close its doors to another international trend: corruption. Police officers in Central Europe are starting to unravel match-fixing scams, some of them initiated in Asia.
Fifa ended 2009 by calling in Interpol to try to track down the gang leaders who are suspected of manipulating the spread of online betting.
Meanwhile, a World Cup beckons. It is shaping up to be a tournament of dirty hands and clean shoes. The blatant hand ball of Thierry Henry, which helped give France a place at the World Cup in South Africa, contrasts with the delightful tale of Slovenia.
Borut Pahor, the Slovene prime minister, vowed that he would clean the players’ shoes if Slovenia, population 2 million, knocked out Russia, population 142 million, in qualification. It did in November, and the prime minister kept his promise.
“To Africa,” wrote the Slovene newspaper Dnevnik, “with clean shoes.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES