Ballon D'Or Shortlist Highlights the Slipping Standards of Defending

Alex StampCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2009

WIGAN, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26: John Terry of Chelsea gets tackled by Marlon King of Wigan Athletic during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Chelseaat JJB Stadium on September 26, 2009 in Wigan, England.  (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)

The era of defensive football appears to be well and truly over. Remember those halcyon days when Greece shocked Euro 2004 to win, built on the defensive strength of Traiano Dellas and Giorkas Seitaridis? Or when Fabio Cannavaro led Italy to the World Cup in 2006, through consistently world-class defensive displays, which saw him named World Player of the Year?


Nowadays, the goals are flying in. It is now a case of how many you score, rather than simply who will score. Domestically, this Premier League season has been one of the highest scoring in history, La Liga continues to provide a mixture of chaos and attacking prowess which forever delights, and even Serie A, for so long the home of defensive football, has discovered the delights of attacking football.


This new wave of attacking football is good for football, for football will only remain one of the most exciting sports in the world while team's seek to entertain rather than contain. However, one thing it isn't doing any good for is the reputation of defenders.


Defenders in football, as one of football's unwritten rules, tend to get a rough deal compared with the dazzlingly entertaining attackers of the beautiful game. While defenders do the hard work, often it is the attackers who steal the headlines. A centre back who gives it all for 90 minutes, is less likely to get the praise than a centre forward who grabs the last-minute winner to win the match-such is the way of things.


Yet, the publishing of the Ballon d'Or shortlist did reveal a worrying statistic for defenders. Just three of the 30-man list were defenders, and of those, only two could be termed genuine “defenders”—Maicon's qualification comes as much from his ability to attack and defend.


Granted, no-one would begrudge the usual contenders, Messi, Ronaldo, Ribery etc, their places on the list. Nor would many decry the cases for Rooney, Giggs, Eto'o, Iniesta, or Arshavin.


But the fact that only two defenders seem to warrant their inclusion on the list speaks volumes for the current state of defensive play right across the globe. John Terry and Nemanja Vidic clearly deserve their places on this list-both have been standout defenders in the league.


There are absentees who perhaps deserve inclusion. Certainly Gerard Pique, a rising star for club and country has enjoyed a phenomenal year. Daniel Alves too, though probably less of a defender than Maicon, warrants inclusion. Lucio, Brazil's captain during their Confederations Cup triumph? Chiellini? Perhaps the only Italian centre half currently operating at the peak of his powers?


Certainly there are options, but they are few in number. While this new era of attacking football has effectively torpedoed the reputations of many a good defender, the brutal truth is that defenders who are of the highest class are an increasingly rare breed.


At the beginning of this decade, excellent defenders were ten a penny. Italy had Cannavaro, Nesta, and the legendary Maldini. Netherlands had Stam and De Boer, and have yet to produce a centre half of their class since. France had Desailly, Blanc, and Thuram. Heck even Argentina had Samuel, Ayala, and the underrated Sensini.


Nowadays, Italy continue to lean too heavily on an aging Cannavaro, the Netherlands play Blackburn reject Andre Ooijer and Joris Mathijsen, France lined up with Squillaci and Escude in their last match against Austria, and Argentina lined up with Demichelis and 36-year old Schiavi. Hardly a roll-call of defensive excellence.


As a result of this scarcity of top-level defensive talent, the prices of defenders have never been higher. Bolton's Gary Cahill—a promising, yet still inexperienced defender, is seriously mentioned as a £20million player.


Joleon Lescott, transformed from injury prone hot prospect to fine Premier League centre half by David Moyes fetched Everton a £22million profit. Even Barcelona, spent 25million euros on a defender, Shakhtar Donetsk's Dmytro Chygrynskiy. The £11million Martin O'Neill spent on Richard Dunne and James Collins looks better business day after day.


Yet this escalation in prices is merely a reflection of one of the worrying trends of football at the moment. World class defenders, once a common sight across world football, are fast becoming one of the endangered species of the game, and thus defenders of requisite ability see their valuations soar.


And while many will applaud the inclusion of so many fine attacking players in the Ballon d'Or list, for the purists, the decline of that finest of breeds, defenders of the highest class, may long be lamented.