Cannavaro stands alone amid attacking dominance
When Fabio Cannavaro took to the stage at the Zurich Opera House to thunderous applause ten years ago this December, he had three good reasons for wearing the widest of smiles. Not only had he led Italy to victory at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ months earlier and then been named FIFA World Player of the Year, he was also the first - and to date only - defender ever to collect the beautiful game’s most prestigious individual accolade.
“I think I won because the strikers haven’t had their shooting boots on,” Cannavaro told FIFA.com with a wink immediately after the awards ceremony. The 33-year-old had enjoyed his moment, stealing the spotlight from his esteemed attack-minded colleagues, while showing plenty of his trademark charm.
“It cannot be underlined enough just how important defending is in football, even though it might not be the most creative part of a team,” he said. “And it’s not as if it isn’t nice to watch. We defenders often make vital interventions over the course of a match and can often have just as decisive an influence on the final result as the strikers.”
Statistics favour attacking starsSince the FIFA World Player of the Year began in 1991 – followed by the FIFA Ballon d’Or from 2010 to 2015 – only four non-attacking players other from Cannavaro have made the final three-man shortlist: German goalkeepers Oliver Kahn (second in 2002) and Manuel Neuer (third in 2014) as well as defenders Paolo Maldini (runner-up in 1995) from Italy and Brazil’s Roberto Carlos (second in 1997).
While the roles of midfielders Lothar Matthaus (1991 winner) of Germany and Spain’s Xavi (third in 2010 and 2011) could possibly be classed as defensive, their dynamic playing style and technical class means that either player could, or should, also be considered as an attacking catalyst.
So how do defenders’ prospects look ahead of the 2016 vote? Among those listed on the 23-man list of candidates – by a group of football experts from the FIFA Football Committee and from which the captains and head coaches of the men’s national teams with select media and fans from around the world will pick the winner – there are some defensive players next to goalkeepers Manuel Neuer (Germany, Bayern Munich) and Gianluigi Buffon (Italy, Juventus) who can hope for glory like Sergio Ramos (Spain, Real Madrid). The shortlist also includes three other midfielders who can, when required, play a deep-lying role: Frenchmen Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante and Germany's Toni Kroos.
Titles boost chancesAttacking midfielders, forwards and strikers dominate the FIFA World Player of the Year and FIFA Ballon d’Or statistics. But why? “Of course it’s always easier to rate players when they’re scoring plenty of goals,” explained Germany’s 1990 FIFA World Cup winner Matthaus in an interview with FIFA.com.
“Cannavaro was a centre-half who hardly ever found the target – but it was thanks to him and his strong backline that Italy became world champions in 2006," he went on. "As a player I was always focused on pushing forward but was also prepared to defend for my team, so when the team achieved success I think I benefited from it and won the title.”
Thiago Silva holds a similar view. In 2013 the Brazilian central defender won the Ligue 1 title with Paris Saint-Germain and lifted the FIFA Confederations Cup on home soil with A Seleção. Although he was subsequently the only defensive representative on that year’s 23-man shortlist, he did not rate his chances of making the final three: “, if you win the World Cup it may open the door to this award, although I think it would be difficult. Out of every ten years, a centre-back may win it once.”
While experts and fans alike have long known that the back four often set the tone in a modern football match, with centre-backs often touching the ball more than anyone else on the pitch, it is difficult to argue with the fact that moments of individual attacking genius usually make the difference.
“When players like Messi or Ronaldo stand out so much, it’s extremely tough for someone in my position,” said Sweden’s defensive midfielder Pontus Wernbloom. “You’ve really got to produce something spectacular, like winning the Champions League and the World Cup while being the standout performer for both club and country,” he continued, “but it’s not easy to win those kinds of tournaments without attacking players who can score regularly.”
Goals not everything Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this rule. Germany’s triumph at the 2014 FIFA World Cup was due in no small part to a string of exceptional performances from Neuer. Fans around the world will recall not only his remarkable reflexes but also his ability to play as an “eleventh outfield player”, enabling his team-mates to push far higher up the pitch.
“It was great to see Neuer up there alongside Messi and Ronaldo,” said USA shot-stopper Brad Guzan, recalling his fellow keeper’s third place at the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2015. “And it’s good to see the rest of the world sitting up over the last few years and realising that goalkeepers are as important to the team as outfield players.”
Two years earlier the women’s vote proved to be even more remarkable, as Neuer’s compatriot Nadine Angerer was crowned FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year at Zurich’s Kongresshaus in January 2014. France’s defensive midfielder Amandine Henry believes Angerer’s win has led to a shift in mindset. “For a long time it was only the goalscorers who won awards, but now we’re realising that, in women’s football too, every position is really important,” she told FIFA.com.
“There’s more recognition now and it’s a great motivator because you don’t necessarily need to score goals to have people say you played a good game. Players in other positions can stand out as well. It began with Nadine Angerer, and it helped a lot that she was voted the world’s best player by experts because supporters often only remember the goalscorers.”
Spectacular feats and game-changing momentsDespite this progress, many notable defenders still acknowledge that attacking players will always be a step ahead of the competition when it comes to selecting The Best FIFA Men's Player winner.
“It’s just a fact of life that the most decisive moments are also the most important,” stressed Switzerland and Juventus right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner. “As a football connoisseur you know that defensive moves can determine the outcome of a game just as much as attacks can, but fans want to see a spectacle, and goals are the greatest spectacle in football.”
Willy Sagnol offers yet another perspective. A runner-up at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the Frenchman was among the best right-backs in the world during his time with Bayern Munich. “The FIFA Ballon d’Or has always gone to attacking players, and as a defender I’ve never found that frustrating,” he said in a 2012 interview with FIFA.com.
“Football’s not meant just for elite sportsmen. It’s for lovers of the game too, and professional football is something that brings people together. It’s a sport that’s there to make people dream, and that’s something a defender can’t do, which I think is completely normal.”
On 2 December 2016, the names of the final three nominees in each category will be announced, with the winners set to be revealed during the ceremony in Zurich on 9 January 2017. Until then, excitement, anticipation and an array of different and interesting perspectives will be our daily companions. Will there be any surprises in store?