Though it might be growing in popularity in the USA, the game of soccer is still something of a mystery to the stars of the country’s leading sports, with one notable exception: basketball.
The NBA is home to more than 70 foreign players, with many a football fan among them, not least the European and South American contingent. And in the case of Phoenix Suns’ Slovenian point guard Goran Dragic and San Antonio Spurs’ French guard Nando De Colo, football was their first love.
“I’ve been a football fan ever since I was a young boy,” the Blues international told FIFA.com. “I played the game from when I was nine to 11 and in every position, even goalkeeper. I’m a Lens fan and the year we won the title I went to every game at the [Stade Felix] Bollaert with my father.”
“I played football until I was 11, but had to give it up because of an injury,” said Dragic, who describes himself as a passionate AC Milan supporter. “My father played in the Slovenian first division, so I’ve lived and breathed the game and have always followed it.”
One of six NBA stars we polled for their favourites for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, De Colo was the only one who didn't go for either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
“I’d vote for Iker Casillas,” he explained. “Spain won EURO 2012, and in my book that means a Spanish player should get it. Real Madrid won the league too and did pretty well in the Champions League, even if they didn’t go all the way. Casillas deserves it for everything he’s done in his career. He’s been so consistent. Even so, my favourite player is Andres Iniesta. He’s got the lot going forward and he always scores decisive goals.”
Brazil backs Messi
As far as the other five respondents are concerned, the title is a straight fight between Messi and Ronaldo.
One man giving his vote to the Argentinian ace is Oklahama City guard/forward Thabo Sefolosha. A member of the side that reached last season’s NBA Finals and the best basketball player Switzerland has ever produced, Sefolosha said of Messi: “He’s just an absolutely amazing player and I love Barcelona too.”
Another member of the Messi fan club is Brazilian pivot Anderson Varejao, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Even though he’s already won it three times, he’s still the big favourite to my mind,” he said, explaining why the diminutive Barça wizard should get the nod. “I’d give Iniesta second as reward for Spain winning EURO 2012 and also because he’s the perfect all-round player and almost as important to Barcelona as Messi. My choice for third would be Neymar. He’s dominated the Brazilian championship and reached such a high level that he’s now regarded as one of the best players in the world.”
Cristiano gets the Balkan vote
In contrast, our other three NBA football fans, all from former Yugoslavia, are giving their backing to Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The Ballon d’Or is a straight fight between Ronaldo and Messi,” said Dragic, expressing his considered opinion. “I’m going to go against most observers and give my vote to Ronaldo. I prefer the way Real play, they’ve had a great season and he’s been phenomenal.”
Bosnian Mirza Teletovic is like-minded. “If you ask me, Cristiano Ronaldo deserves it. He’s the complete package and can score from any position. He’s a fantastic player and a unique athlete,” said the Brooklyn Nets forward. “I think Cristiano is amazing. He’s the prototype of the modern player and he’s had a great season too, winning the Spanish league and reaching the semis of EURO 2012, where he had a very good tournament.”
Teletovic also had praise for Zlatan Ibrahimovic: “My second choice would be Zlatan. He’s a world-class player and a leader who can help Paris Saint-Germain reach the very highest level.”
Last but not least comes, Montenegrin centre Nikola Vucevic, who cannot see beyond the Real Madrid star. “He scored more than 50 goals last season and had a superb EURO 2012 with Portugal,” commented the Orlando Magic man, who grew up in Belgium. “He carried Real to the title and halted Barça’s domination of La Liga. He can do everything too, and he’s probably the most complete player in the world.”
When it comes to soccer, there is no question that this NBA sextet know what they are talking about. The question is, which of them, if any, will be proved right come January’s gala?