Tale of Leo and Abby

Tale of Leo and Abby

Tale of Leo and Abby

Messi and Wambach, named the world’s best, represent two sides of the sport — glitzy and uncertain.

What a striking couple Lionel Messi and Abby Wambach cut at the world player of the year gala in Zurich. And what a difference in their fortunes. Messi continues to score more goals than any man in his game, and to reap the financial rewards commensurate to being the outstanding player of his generation. His fellow professionals gave him more votes for the FIFA Ballon d’Or in 2012 than the next two players combined – yet his teams won nothing during the calendar year.

Wambach won everything she plays for, leading the United States to Olympic gold in London. Yet she enters the new year technically unemployed, as a professional player, following the collapse of the Women’s Professional Soccer league in the US last year.
At 25, Messi is on the cusp of that great period in sporting life when physical capability merges with experience on the field. He has signed up with Barcelona for the rest of his playing career, and he does what he said in his acceptance speech in Zurich on Monday: He plays for the joy of it.

At 32, and with nowhere to play professionally in her country, Wambach may have to go abroad to see out her prime, and to earn a living at what she does best. Maybe soccer is still what it was when the magazine France Football set up an award for individual honors in a team game. The first recipient, in 1956, was the English wizard of the wing, Stanley Matthews. The second was Alfredo Di Stefano, the great Argentine playing for Real Madrid.

And down the decades, before and after FIFA appropriated France Football’s Ballon d’Or as its own, it remained predominantly masculine. Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten and Ronaldo de Lima: All indisputably left their imprint by becoming the recipients of multiple Ballons d’Or.

On Monday, little Leo Messi, looking so dandy in his polka-dot tuxedo, eclipsed them all in terms of numbers. He now holds an unprecedented four world player of the year awards, and we do not need to catalogue, again, the records he keeps on breaking. In any case, counting his goals does not give us the measure of the man and the pleasure he gives and gets from being a team player.

Little Leo? In size, maybe. With Wambach nudging the diminutive Brazilian, Marta, off the top of the women’s game, Monday also gave us a telling picture of sexual equality in reverse.

This has to be the first time that the female honoree has towered physically over the male on the soccer stage. As they stood side by side, each holding their golden ball, Abby dwarfed Leo.

She is 1.8 meters, or 5-foot-11. He is 1.68 meters in his shoes. She weighs in at 77 kilograms, or 170 pounds. He tips the scales at 67 kilograms.

They are, according to votes cast in every country among national team coaches, national captains and journalists, the figures and faces of the year just ended.

We shouldn’t argue with it, because it’s fine that those groups of people managed to look at the sport both ways in 2012. In the men’s game, the majority recognized Messi, even above any player from Real Madrid, the team that knocked Barcelona off the top of the Spanish league, or any from the Spanish national team that retained the European Championship last summer, to go along with the world championship it won in South Africa in 2010.

Wambach was recognized for being on the winning team, indeed for imposing her strength and size and goal-scoring opportunism on the highest level of the game. So, whatever the polemicists might say, soccer is about more than the winning.

There’s another example for the male-female split from the Zurich function. Rightly and properly, the clear winner of the men’s coach of the year is the Spaniard Vicente Del Bosque. Del Bosque blinked in the spotlight, said his few words and sought the shadows. Pia Sundhage, the Swede who coached Team USA, took the microphone and sang her way through the ceremony.
To each his, and her, own.

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