Andres Iniesta is finally getting the plaudits he so thoroughly deserves, but calling him the best soccer player in Europe — ahead of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — is taking things too far.
Iniesta picked up the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award on Thursday, narrowly edging out Messi and Ronaldo in the voting. The honor came in recognition of his outstanding season for both club and country.
The midfield maestro was central to all that was good and great about Barcelona in 2011-12. He helped his club win the UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Spanish Cup.
Iniesta was even more important to Spain’s Euro 2012-winning team, starting all six games at a number of positions. The 28-year-old was voted “Player of the Tournament” at Euro 2012. It was only fitting for him to take his rightful place on that stage in Monaco as one of the three finalists for the UEFA Best Player award.
Perhaps he should have won it in previous seasons, but the panel of 53 journalists that voted on this year’s award got it wrong. Iniesta’s 19 votes beat Messi and Ronaldo, who were tied with 17. Votes were clearly split between Messi and Ronaldo, and Iniesta was always going to garner a fair share of his own. But 35 percent of all voters believed Iniesta had a better season than the consensus best players in the world.
It seems far-fetched given how Messi and Ronaldo performed in 2011-12. Each had a record-breaking season, which would rank among the best individual campaigns in history — in any sport. Messi scored 73 goals in 60 games, passing Gerd Muller‘s mark for most goals scored in a European season. The Argentine tied also Jose Altafini‘s record for most goals scored in a UEFA Champions League (or European Cup) season with 14. He captured as many trophies with Barcelona as Iniesta did.
Ronaldo led Real Madrid to the La Liga title, which it won in record-breaking fashion. He scored 62 goals in all competitions, and his 46 league goals would have set a new standard had Messi not scored 50. Like Barcelona, Real Madrid reached the semifinals of the Champions League, but it didn’t win any of the Super Cups or Spain’s domestic cup.
Sure, Soccer is a team game, there’s more to the game than goals and we know goal scorers get all the glory. This isn’t to dismiss Iniesta’s contribution to Messi’s success. Iniesta also had an excellent season at club level, but it’s hard to believe he was better than Messi and Ronaldo on a week-to-week basis. One could argue that the two were more dominant in 2011-12 than any other player past or present. Had Iniesta consistently performed at their level, we would have heard tall tales of his brilliance from the most seasoned of analysts. Instead, he was, like always, quietly magnificent.
Iniesta’s international success seems to be what swayed those 19 voters. Messi played nine games for Argentina, winning seven and drawing one. He contributed to that effort by scoring 10 goals. Argentina didn’t play in an international tournament last season, so there were no trophies to win or lose.
Ronaldo was Portugal’s captain in a 2011-12 season that saw it return to a place near the top of the international food chain. Portugal reached the semifinal of Euro 2012, losing to Spain on penalty kicks. Ronaldo handled the pressure that comes with his status in the game, performing well enough to silence his critics and earn a spot on the all-tournament team. Had Portugal won the shootout against Spain, it’s possible that Ronaldo, not Iniesta, would have won the player of the tournament award.
Iniesta has been a key valve in the beating hearts of Barcelona and Spain since 2004-05, but he has long been overshadowed by teammates like Ronaldinho, Xavi and Messi. It took scoring the winning goal in the FIFA World Cup final for casual observers to take notice of the quality he has displayed for years. After Spain won Euro 2012, teammate Cesc Fabregas painted the perfect picture of Iniesta’s greatness.
“He’s a source of immense confidence for us,” Fabregas said. “During matches you can see him taking on more and more responsibility.
“He’s creative, he runs with the ball, he’s got a brilliant final pass and with each passing year he’s become more of a goalscorer as well as a provider.”
Iniesta is all that and more. Iniesta deserves a separate piece devoted to praising him for his many achievements. But earthling Andres Iniesta did not have a better 2011-12 season than Ronaldo and Messi, who spent 10 months on another planet.