Sir Alex Ferguson today spoke of his pride in Cristiano Ronaldo for winning Ballon d’Or, which crowns him as the best player in Europe. Of course, it could have been a very different story had Ronaldo pushed for a move to Real Madrid in the summer, where he would have likely still won the award as a Real player, despite having the blinding year in the shirt of United.
The United manager said his club had been waiting forty years for this award, which might have gone over the heads of the French journalists he was speaking to at first. You see, the last time a United player was recognised as the best in Europe was in 1968, with George Best receiving the accolade in the same year his club became the first English side to win the European Cup.
When you think of some players United have had in the past four decades, from Bryan Robson to Roy Keane, Eric Cantona to David Beckham, Ryan Giggs to Paul Scholes, it’s hard to believe that it has been so long since one of our players was given such recognition on the European stage.
Whilst Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton join Best and Ronaldo as former winners, it is remarkable to see not just how few United players have been named the best on the continent, but how few players from this league have. Michael Owen in 2001 and Stanley Matthews in 1956 are the only other winners from clubs in the English league, which certainly suggests all is not right in the way English football is perceived on the continent.
When Cristiano Ronaldo lost out to Kaka the season before, I wrote in frustration, yet still not surprised, over how our player had been overlooked. Ronaldo had scored more than Kaka, had assisted more than Kaka, played for a team that won the English title as well as reaching the FA Cup final and European Cup semi-finals, whilst Kaka played for a team that finished fourth in Milan, but won the Champions League, so scooped the award.
The emphasis is clearly always put on this competition as though it is the be all and end all. Whilst I would never shun the European Cup, I’d always far rather my team win the league title. Winning the Premiership proves beyond any doubt that you are the best team in the country. The Champions League does not prove who is the best team in Europe. There have been teams who have been crowned Champions of Europe, yet who have finished behind their local rivals in the league. How can you be the best side in Europe whilst also not being the best side in your own bloody city??
It is because of the emphasis on this competition that so many players from this league have missed out. As well as the United greats, Gary Lineker, Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, Dennis Bergkamp, Robbie Fowler, to name a few, have all struggled to get a look in where the top awards are concerned.
Henry’s highest ranking was second in the World, on one occasion, and third on another, the year Arsenal reached the European Cup final. Lineker’s highest was second in the World, on one occasion, the year he left Everton for Barcelona, with the Spanish club winning the European Cup. Shearer finished third, on one occasion, the year of Euro 96 and where Shearer was the competition’s top scorer.
To think that before Ronaldo, in 51 years of the competition, only five players from this league were named the greatest in Europe, it certainly does suggest something isn’t right. To think out of the total 156 places up for grabs, including first, second and third place, and only 23 of them have gone to players from the English league, the inequality is striking. Is it because we haven’t produced the best players? Or is it because we haven’t won enough European Cups?
18 winners have come from Italian teams, 12 winners have come from Spanish teams, and 6 winners from English teams. Italian teams have made the European Cup final on 25 occasions (47% of all finals), Spanish teams have made the final on 20 occasions (38% of all finals), English teams have made the final on 16 occasions (30% of all finals).
It appears as though players from Italian and Spanish teams are rated more highly because of their impressive past in the European Cup. Just looking over the past winners, there are plenty of years when you can see better candidates for England than the players who won, usually playing in Italy or Spain. Before Ronaldo, the last winner from this league was Michael Owen in 2001, before him, George Best in 1968!
The fact that English clubs are starting to dominate the Champions League is reflecting in the likes of Ronaldo, Torres, Lampard, Gerrard and Henry getting a mention in the Ballon d’Or top three. It is now more acceptable to vote for players in the Premiership and with the dominance of the likes of United, Chelsea and Liverpool set to continue, I’m sure it won’t be another thirty years before we see two Premiership winners within the same decade!
Read more of the same at Republik of Mancunia – Manchester United fan blog.