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Real's new Golden Balls

There seems to have been a lot of chit-chat this week surrounding this year's golden balls, accompanied of course by a lens that has focused generally on La Liga and specifically on Real Madrid. The main talking point has been Fabio Cannavaro, and should he or shouldn't he have been awarded the big prize?

Well - the first thing to note is that Real Madrid aren't complaining. It's a piece of reflected glory, a vicarious little fillip, a prize marrow in their otherwise weed-strewn garden.

Real Madrid are big on statistics. Their museum at the Bernabéu throws them at you mercilessly as you duck down its hallowed corridors, bowing in reverence as you pass the glittering shelves, groaning with trophies. Mind you, if you look a little more closely, you'll see cups such as 'Real Madrid Veterans Chess Team, Champions of Spain 1932', and other such gems, but it's all grist to their particular mill.

And the fact that Cannavaro's award has got precious little to do with his present club is hardly a fact that will be emphasised by the capital club's history books in the years to come.

Neither will it be emphasised that this - the club's 6th Golden Ball since the trophy was first won by Stan Matthews in 1956 - has always featured foreign players. It's not necessarily a source for shame though, because amazingly enough the only time a Spaniard has won it was in 1960, when Barça's Luis Suárez took the biscuit.

However, several of the gripes I've read this week have been focused on the point that Cannavaro didn't win it as a Real Madrid player. The Ballon d'Or is voted on by some 500 journalists, who are asked to submit their votes some two weeks after the conclusion of the World Cup. Cannavaro was still at Juve, they were still Italian champions, and the memory of the pint-sized centre-back and captain holding up the World Cup trophy amid the blue and white ticker-tape was still fresh in the mind.

Another vote for Ronaldinho would have seemed like a lack of imagination, although he'd played just as well in 2006. Zidane would surely have got it, had it not been for his rush of Gallic testosterone, and Thierry Henry hadn't actually won anything - surely the only reason for depriving him of the award.

So despite the dodgy goings-on at Juve, Cannavaro got the nod for his double-trophied season. He was also very good indeed during the World Cup, and you could argue that only the greatest players shine in the most demanding of circumstances.

What makes this year's trophy so unusual is its awarding to a central defender. This is either a sign that football journalists are at last beginning to take a wider, calmer and less frenetic view of the game, or that it was a case of Hobson's Choice. Places 1 and 2 went to a centre-half and a goalkeeper (Buffon) respectively.

Although Matthias Sammer (1996) and Franz Beckenbauer (1976) both won the award, neither of them could be described as having been a 'centre-back'. Sammer was a defensive midfielder who was then turned into a sweeper, and Beckenbauer practically invented the concept of 'sweeper' single-handedly. The only goalie to ever win it was Yashin in 1963, after which Ollie Kahn came close a couple of times, but that's been it.

Cannavaro is no Beckenbauer, although he's decent enough on the ball. What he does well is anticipate. His positioning and reading of the game is highly developed, which means that he doesn't need to spend the duration of the game flinging himself heroically around, in the manner of a Puyol or even of a John Terry.

Several Spanish journalists (most of them belonging to the Catalan press) had a bitchy week about the Italian, some claiming that if he was so good, how come nobody noticed him before? After all, at 33, he's no chicken.

There were also noises made about his lack of form for Real Madrid this season, a point which ignores the fact that his presence has definitely coincided with a tightening up at the back, aided and abetted, of course, by the rather basic hod-carrying of Emerson and Diarra.

Cannavaro is also good-looking ('Il Bello'), has a male-model smile and is media-savvy. He's also the sort who goes down well with the tea ladies. For these reasons alone, his award raises suspicions in anti-Madrid circles. There are also whispers floating around that the award puts a final nail in Beckham's coffin, since Cannavaro might easily be nurtured as the next big marketing icon.

Whatever, he came in for some inevitable backlash-flack after the award, coming as it did on the heels of a supposedly poor performance in the Champions League game against Lyon, where the Real Madrid defence contrived to make John Carew 'look like a young Pele' - in the words of As lead writer Alfredo Relaño.

However, this overlooked the fact that Carew's performance was wholly attributable to the performance of Ivan Helguera, who played so badly it was almost surreal. But Cannavaro has the higher profile at the moment, so it was all his fault.

The award also brings into focus the curious distance that continues to separate Italian and Spanish football. At a cursory glance, you would have expected a lot more cross-fertilisation of the two leagues, a lot more to-and-fro and a lot more mutual influence. Geographically the two countries are close, and temperamentally the two cultures have plenty in common. But their footballing cultures remain like chalk to parmesan.

Cannavaro's win has been welcomed by the Real Madrid statistics merchants, but I detect a slight discomfort at the heart of the celebrations this week, as if the handing of the award to the splendid Ronaldinho last year forms a stark contrast to this year's destination. Barcelona have imported and then nurtured a wonderful attacking talent.

Real Madrid have stumbled upon the world's top centre-half (disputed) because of the Juve scandal and because they were equally incapable of producing a candidate anywhere near as exciting as Ronaldinho. They also won nothing - a factor which weighs heavily in the minds of the voting journalists - perhaps too much.

The discomfort is also due to the fact that in the history of La Liga, the prominence of Italian players has been zero. The Spanish have always preferred South Americans, seeing in them the combination of spontaneity and determination that characterises La Liga.

They've never liked pragmatists here, and how interesting this week it was to hear Capello tell the tabloid As that Helenio Herrera, the notorious propagator of catenaccio, was the greatest manager he'd played under. And then Capello gets angry when journalists accuse him of being negative and defensive.

Herrera, of course, was manager of Barcelona in the late 1950's, but is not looked back upon with much affection. It was he who took Suárez, Spain's aforementioned Ballon d'Or, back to Italy with him - perhaps the only time that a Spaniard has had a significant effect on the Italian game. Suárez was also an elegant smoothie, which also eased his passage into Serie 'A'. He looked the part.

But returning to the theme of defenders, there are plenty of them who have deserved the award in the past and yet who have never been put on the podium to which Cannavaro has just ascended.

Paolo Maldini has come third on two occasions, but the fact that he's never won it (and probably never will now) is surely a scandal. Bobby Moore? Even Roberto Carlos in his heyday might have won it, and speaking of centre-backs there was a time when Fernando Hierro should have come close to picking up the trophy. But they were different times, different circumstances.

Anyway, out on the field, Madrid moved to within a point of Barça, who only managed to draw at lowly Levante. Cannavaro was actually suspended for the home game against Athletic Bilbao, but they managed to hang on and scrape a rather desperate 2-1 win, to jump over Sevilla who lost surprisingly at a resurgent Espanyol.

I say 'surprisingly' because Sevilla's 0-4 demolition of Grasshoppers in midweek seemed to confirm what everyone was saying - that they really are Europe's team of the moment. But they had the misfortune to come across Espanyol, in much improved spirits after their equally impressive win at Ajax in midweek.

Booby prize of the week, however, goes to Alavés, along with their President and puppet-manager, Chuchi Cos. Cos has followed Piterman wherever he has gone, and been removed from office by his protector no less than four times now. Little wonder that the players have little faith in him, and yet Cos does himself few favours by continuing to shelter under his benefactor's wing.

Defender Lluis Carreras, dropped by Cos last week, accused his manger of being 'un incompetente', which is true but a shade undiplomatic. However, undiplomatic was hardly the word that could be applied to Piterman's tirade on Wednesday as the players got changed after training. Even the tabloid Marca flinched at some of Piterman's language, which, since it was delivered by a foreigner, was quite impressive in its colloquial breadth.

'I s**t on your ancestors' he began, before accusing Carreras of being a 'whining Catalan' unworthy of the human race. He then threatened the whole squad with a freeze on their salaries if they questioned their manager again, before turning on his heels and storming out, to the waiting protection of his ever-faithful bodyguard. He's going to need him in the weeks to come.

The squad came out in public solidarity with Carreras, before departing for struggling Las Palmas for Saturday's game. Interestingly, they lost 6-1, which looked rather like an implicit gesture to Piterman to change his behaviour or suffer the consequences of being a president of a team in Segunda 'B'.

Watching the goals on TV one couldn't help but be struck by the fact that none of the six were remotely attributable to the home side's brilliance (they'd only managed 13 in total before the game), and the third was an own-goal of some skill by Mateo, who thudded a header with some intention into the back of his own net whilst under very little pressure - or so it seemed.

Did they throw the game? Well, professionals will tell you that they'd never do a thing like that, but if I was a member of the jury...

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk