Mutual admiration was unifying them as four out of the six nominees for the FIFA Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Coach of the Year spoke to the media in Zurich ahead of this evening’s Gala.
While the Real Madrid duo of Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo were unable to attend due to their preparations for tomorrow’s Copa del Rey tie against Malaga, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson joined Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and Xavi in answering questions from the assembled journalists. And while the Scot is still smarting from the defeat Barça inflicted on his side in the UEFA Champions League final last May, he was gracious enough to offer fulsome praise for the team Guardiola has built.
He said: “Sometimes in football, you have to hold your hands up and say, ‘Yeah, they’re better than us’. And this Barcelona team at the moment are by far the best. It’s not a crime and it’s not a weakness to say that, and it doesn’t detract from my belief in my own team. It’s just plain facts that Barcelona, especially with players like Messi in their team, are extraordinary. I can’t see anyone taking the (Champions League) trophy off them this year.”
Ferguson was also quick to laud the Catalan club’s “perfect philosophy” of rearing and developing their own players, and likened the benefits to those United enjoyed when their own youth system’s most famous group of graduates – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers – were in their pomp. Guardiola, for his part, was in full agreement that this focus on development from within has been “the most important aspect” of Barça’s rise to become the pre-eminent force in club football.
The 40-year-old was also keen to downplay his role in shaping Messi and Xavi into the superstars they are, insisting that it is the players’ insatiable desire which has been most important to their continued success. “These kind of players, they’re competitors, and they don’t need the coach to tell them to do this and do that,” he said. “They love the game, they are enthusiastic about every season and they love being on the ball. That’s why Xavi has spent 15 years at the top level, and why Leo has the motivation to stay at the top. I can help them for short periods, but their success is down to them.”
For all his many winners' medals and the universal esteem in which he is held, Xavi has tended to fulfil the role of bridesmaid at these events, having been nominated at three previous FIFA Galas without ever winning the top prize. Nonetheless, the 31-year-old spoke of his gratitude at once again finding himself in the frame, and said that the recent “historical phase” of Barcelona’s development has left him “feeling like a kid again”.
The Spain international was also eager to acknowledge that the colleague sitting alongside him represents no ordinary rival in the battle to win the Ballon d’Or. “It’s going to be very tough [to win] because I have next to me one of the best footballers in history of the sport,” he said, glancing towards a bashful-looking Messi. “He’s still young and I think he’s going to go on and break all kinds of records. I learn a lot from him, as well as all the other great players I play alongside at Barça. I have been able to grow as a player thanks to them, and to Leo in particular.”
Messi is, of course, chasing his third successive Ballon d’Or, and Ferguson – the veteran of the quartet – said there was “no doubt” that the 24-year-old already ranks alongside legends such as Pele, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano and Diego Maradona. It was, though, typical of the spirit of this press conference that Messi himself chose to accentuate the influence of others on his success rather than dwell on his own remarkable achievements.
“Of course individual awards are special,” he said, “but what’s really important is what we manage to achieve as a team. Without Xavi and the others, I wouldn’t be here. He and all of my team-mates are vital. They allow me to play the way I do, and we all help each other.
"No-one is above anyone else. If we win awards and titles, it’s simply because we’ve stuck together and won people’s admiration. Personally, I don’t really think about what I’ve achieved or what I will achieve – I just enjoy every moment.”