Global Player of the Year: Xavi
Sometimes, statistics can obscure. They can disguise shortcomings, flatter reputations or fail to communicate brilliance. After all, no sane critic would judge Pele on the percentage of his shots that hit the target, or rate Franz Beckenbauer on the strength of his ProZone figures. But sometimes, statistics can illuminate, and cold, hard, tangible facts do serve to illustrate just why Barcelona and Spain star Xavi is ESPNsoccernet's Global Player of the Year for 2010. After all, the notoriously self-effacing playmaker is unlikely to sing his own praises. We will have to let his statistics do the talking.
Across the breadth of 2010, on only 24 occasions did an individual player exceed 100 completed passes in one game. Xavi, who played nearly 90 times, was responsible for 12 of those landmarks. In the World Cup, he attempted a tournament-high 669 passes, with 544 finding their target - another record. In that defining and unforgettable rout of Real Madrid in November's clasico, he completed 114 of 117 passes. If possession is nine tenths of the law, then Xavi is demonstrably football's very own Judge Dredd, no side escaping his zero tolerance policy towards enforcing his superiority.
But it is not just the raw data that makes Xavi such an exceptional player, how could it be given he is a son of Barcelona, a city besotted with architecture, where the practice of construction and presentation is equal to the importance of function. Local hero Gaudi is the man who sculpted the Catalan capital, but now a new architect is feted in the city, a player who is the inspiration behind not one, but two of the most aesthetically pleasing and devastating sides of modern times.
At Barcelona, Xavi is the living embodiment of a philosophy of quick-moving, intricate possession football that was introduced by the iconic Johan Cruyff and originally channelled through Pep Guardiola. Now coach, Guardiola describes Xavi as "the best midfielder in the history of Barca", and at the heart of the vast majority of the club's brilliant moves over the past 12 months, stunning team goals that entailed scores of passes, is the quiet Catalan, dictating the flow and pace of the game with his masterful brushstrokes.
Perhaps Xavi's crowning glory was the 5-0 hammering of Real Madrid in el clasico at Camp Nou in November, a performance that led the normally rabidly pro-Madrid newspaper Marca to declare: "Xavi broke the game with 20 minutes of genius. There is no other like him. Xavi was a cyclone. He dominated all aspects of the game."
Meanwhile, with Spain, Xavi is equally a force of nature. The player who, at Euro 2008, shepherded Spain to their first major title since 1964 added the World Cup crown to his collection in July as Vicente del Bosque's side reigned supreme in South Africa, emerging from a fractious final against Netherlands with their necks adorned by gold thanks to a goal from Xavi's partner in crime at Barcelona, Andres Iniesta. But while his was not the decisive blow, it was Xavi, always central to Spain's pretty passing patterns, who shaped their tournament and ensured the consummation of a golden age of Spanish football.
Given the pre-eminence of both Spain and Barcelona in football culture at present, it is a certainty that in years to come, the term that denotes their shared style, tiki-taka, will become every bit as familiar an entry in the football lexicon as Brazil's joga bonito, or Netherlands' Total Football. Xavi, undeniably, inescapably, is the amplifier through which that phrase booms across the football landscape at present, and will echo through the sport's history.
Infamously, when Cristiano Ronaldo was named World Player of the Year in 2008 and Barcelona's maestro finished fifth, the Daily Mail ridiculously married a picture of the top five with the headline: "The best players of the world (and Xavi)".
Now, in a year when Xavi is joined by club colleagues Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta on the shortlist for FIFA's leading award, his genius can be ignored no longer. As the great Cruyff puts it: "Xavi deserves the Ballon d'Or more than anyone because it is necessary in a team to have a guy who makes things work. Xavi is the player who sets the rhythm, who takes care of possession. If Xavi has a bad day then Barca do not play even half as well."
That is the influence the quiet man wields in the best club and international teams on earth. That is why he is now recognised as a great of the game. That is why Xavi is our Global Player of the Year.
• Honourable mentions:
Lionel Messi - Barcelona and Argentina
Quite simply the best player in the world, Lionel Messi is beaten narrowly into second place by our man of the year, Xavi, due to the latter's World Cup win. Messi breathes in a rarefied air - very infrequently is one player acknowledged as being so superior to his contemporaries. From his four goals against Arsenal in the Champions League in April to his run of 17 goals in ten games between October 20 and November 24, Messi has shown a remarkable capacity to dazzle and destroy, exhilarate and entertain. 'The Flea' just keeps making giant strides.
Wesley Sneijder - Inter and Netherlands
A Treble-winner with Inter and the joint top scorer at the World Cup finals, Sneijder was harshly excluded from the FIFA Ballon d'Or shortlist and would have been a deserving winner of ESPNsoccernet's award as well. His debut season with the Nerazzurri was nothing short of spectacular, the Dutch playmaker bringing invention to the Inter midfield and inspiring the club to unprecedented success. Sneijder also scored five goals in South Africa but was to be denied in the final by Spain.
Bastian Schweinsteiger - Bayern Munich and Germany
Schweinsteiger's transformation from a talented but erratic wide midfielder to a dominant force in a central role became complete in 2010. After winning the domestic Double with Bayern Munich, only to lose the Champions League final to Inter, Schweinsteiger stepped into the breach left by Michael Ballack and became the driving force of a wonderfully talented young Germany side that finished third at the World Cup. His performance against Argentina in the quarter-finals was nothing short of a masterclass and demonstrated his potent combination of technique, determination and energy.
Andres Iniesta - Barcelona and Spain
Though fitness issues partially restricted his contribution to the conclusion of Barcelona's 2009-10 season, during which they won La Liga with a record points tally, the unassuming Iniesta took centre stage at the World Cup in South Africa when scoring the winning goal in the final against Netherlands. With his wonderful vision, accomplished dribbling and expert use of the ball, Iniesta is one of world football's leading midfielders and has demonstrated as much over the past 12 months, marked by his inclusion on the Ballon d'Or shortlist.
Diego Forlan - Atletico Madrid and Uruguay
If inspiring Atletico Madrid to a first trophy in 14 years when scoring twice in a Europa League final win over Fulham was not enough, Forlan then turned his attention to international affairs and played a pivotal role in Uruguay's unexpected run to the World Cup semi-final. Dropping deep and operating as much as a playmaker as a striker at times, Forlan still claimed five goals as he captained his side to their best performance in a World Cup in 40 years.