Wednesday, January 4, 2012
South America's new king
As we enter a new year, there is as ever a chance to look back on the one just ended here in South America, since last week saw the announcement of the continent's most prestigious football awards, handed out by Uruguay's El Pais newspaper. Last year was an interesting one, with Santos claiming a first Copa Libertadores in almost half a century and the Copa America throwing up plenty of surprises, so it was interesting to see the verdicts from the continent's journalists.
Santos starlet Neymar, predictably and completely deservedly, took the main award. The 19-year-old was named South American Footballer Of The Year by an enormous margin; the 130 points he picked up is the most of any winner since the current voting system was brought in, and was almost double the total of second-placed Eduardo Vargas, the Chilean who's just completed a move from Universidad de Chile to Napoli. Neymar becomes the second Santos player to win the award, after some long-forgotten forward won it in 1973. Pele something. No, me neither.
Joking aside, Neymar's win, and the fact that his team-mate Ganso finished third despite missing a lot of the second half of the year with injury, were testament to Santos' brilliant Copa Libertadores win. In the year of an international tournament, foreign observers might have expected the most impressive players from the Copa America to feature more heavily, but since 1986 only players playing their club football on the continent (and, since 1998, in Mexico, since clubs from that country also take part in the Copa Libertadores) are eligible.
That means, of course, that impressive performers from the Copa America such as Uruguay's two Diegos - Forlan and Lugano - weren't in the running, and in their absence Neymar was fully deserving, even though he would have hoped for a better showing personally and from his team in the Copa America. In the Libertadores he was superb, and much has already been written about his talents running with the ball and his range of finishing. Santos are a strong side all round, but Neymar, who scored and was man of the match in the second leg of the final, gives their attack focus and puts the finishing touch to their play.
His contract extension is great for Santos, and I can't see any reason he won't be in the running for this award again at the end of 2012 if he does stay in Brazil for the whole year. I've written before - most recently prior to the Club World Cup final last month - about the strengthening Brazilian economy helping to keep players like Neymar in Brazil just a bit longer than they might have stayed, say, a decade ago, and this award might be seen as another illustration of that, as well; a year ago Andres D'Alessandro won, and for the two years prior to that the award went to Seba Veron. Neymar is the first 'up-and-coming' player to win the award since Matías Fernandez, the Chilean who now plays for Sporting in Portugal, claimed it at the end of 2006.
I wrote during the Club World Cup that it was refreshing to see a young player who's happy to stay in his homeland getting playing time and experience for a bit longer, even if economic reasons had a part to play in that decision. Before writing this article, though, I spoke about Neymar to a couple of Brazilian journalists who are visiting Buenos Aires, and both referred to Barcelona's emphatic win in that competition and expressed their hope that he'll move to Europe before too long, because only there will he get more experience of playing against really strong defences week in, week out. He only turns 20 next month, so I still think another year or two at home won't hurt him, but in the medium-to-long term, it was hard to argue with their logic.
For the South American Manager Of The Year award, there was similarly only one sensible winner. In 2010, after leading Uruguay to the semi-final of the World Cup, Oscar Washington Tabarez won the award and, having won the Copa America with not only the most well-balanced team but also the smartest tactical awareness throughout, a second gong in a row was inevitable. Tabarez, unlike Neymar, is unlikely to have the opportunity to defend his award in 2012, without any international tournament to take part in this year but, as they continue their qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, no-one would deny Uruguay are in exceptional hands.
The Best XI named by the award committee was interesting, not least because in a year in which Argentine clubs didn't do well at continental level, there were nonetheless four Argentines present - more than any other nationality. One of those was Hernan Barcos, the LDU Quito striker, whose inclusion was fair enough, especially given that his appearance in the Copa Sudamericana final in December was still fresh in the memory. Two of the others, Rolando Schiavi and Clemente Rodríguez, have just won the Argentine title with Boca Juniors as part of the best defence since Argentina's short championships began in 1992.
The fourth was Juan Roman Riquelme. I find that slightly baffling because, whilst he remains a towering figure in the continent's football, Riquelme has hardly been outstanding this year. When he has played he's been good, but he struggled with injury for a good portion of the year and was hardly as key to Boca's title win as a lot of the Argentine press seem to believe. Boca return to the Libertadores this year after a few years of not qualifying, and if they do well and Riquelme plays regularly, he's bound to challenge for the individual award in December this year.
For now, though, the best player in South America is playing for the club who used to have the player known as 'The King'. Talk of Neymar as the new Pele is hardly likely to quieten down if he manages to fend off Riquelme's challenge this year.
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