This is a piece by a favourite writer of mine Sid Lowe, he is someone who I feel we can take a measure from when writing about La Liga and I encourage people interested to follow his work.
An apologetic smile came across Michael Owen's face and he lowered his voice like a man who'd crept into a confessional and pulled back the grate, ready to reveal his sin. "At the time," he admitted, "I didn't realise it was a big deal". "It" being the Ballón d'Or, the European Footballer of the Year award he won in 2001. "Gérard Houllier was a bit put out by the fact that I wasn't punching the air and going hysterical," the striker said a little sheepishly, "he kept on going to me: 'Don't you realise what this means?!'." Owen might have become the first English winner since Kevin Keegan, twenty-two years earlier, but the truth is that, no, he didn't. "Now," he said, "I do."
It was the summer of 2005 and Owen was stretching out at Real Madrid's temporary training ground at Las Rozas, soaking up the sunshine. It had taken foreign eyes to make him see what he had achieved. A Frenchman, the Italians—"when we played Roma, every single question their journalists asked was about the Ballón d'Or," Owen recalled – and of course the Spanish. As he sat on the steps reminiscing, beyond the plywood doors of the Ciudad de Fútbol, where his team-mates were strolling by, were many men for whom the award's importance was crystal clear. One man in particular: the club captain, Raúl González Blanco.
"In England, it gets a little column on the back page telling you who has won and that's it," said Owen; in Spain the Ballón d'Or is, by comparison, an obsession. When the Liverpool striker signed for Madrid, the best thing about him was the Golden Ball tucked under his arm, dispelling some of the doubts about this "junk galáctico" and granting him membership of a club that included Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo—all former winners (albeit winners for what they'd done elsewhere; Madrid didn't so much produce Ballón d'Ors as buy them).
Trouble was, the joy at Owen's success was both fleeting—lasting only as long as his brief spell in Spain—and largely begrudging, uttered through gritted teeth.
The Golden Ball should not have been tucked under Owen's arm at all, but under Raúl's: even signing for Madrid didn't make the Englishman immune to the resentment for winning what "rightfully" belonged to the man who came second that year. In Madrid, the 2001 Ballón d'Or is not so much the one Owen won as the one Raúl should have won. Owen was treated like an impostor and a thief, one TVE figure taking another tetchy swipe at him this weekend, seven years later; Raúl's failure to be named European Footballer of the Year was treated like a personal affront, evidence of an anti-Spanish conspiracy, the greatest of footballing injustices.
It was an injustice the Madrid press took it upon itself to remedy. With every great goal they jumped up and down in righteous indignation, demanding that Raúl must at last be given the award. After one superb display against Milan, AS prayed that "those who chose the Ballón d'Or weren't taking a siesta. Note it down! Please do something!"
Like Raúl's inclusion for this summer's Spain squad, the Ballón d'Or agenda was pushed at every press conference or interview. Whenever someone said Raúl deserved the award, the media pointedly echoed the sentiment. Meanwhile, anyone who said someone else deserved it was simply ignored; complimenting the opposition was proscribed. If a foreign publication—Gazzetta dello Sport/Kicker/L'Equipe/World Soccer—praised him, the comments were reproduced under the inevitable headline: "Italy/Germany/France/England surrenders to Raúl".
Surrendering to Raúl now is pointless and his chance has in all probability gone forever. But while his failure to win the award may be a pity, there was an exhibit always missing from his case: success with the selección. Now, Spain have that. Having won the European Championships, this must surely be their greatest opportunity to boast a Ballón d'Or winner since Inter's Luis Suárez in 1960. And never mind the fact that the vote doesn't take place until the winter, the media is already throwing its weight behind its candidate and new idol: Iker Casillas.
The name might have changed and it may be early still but already there is something familiar about this fledgling campaign; about the unquestioning insistence; about the way in which winning the Ballón d'Or has been presented as a kind of moral imperative, a campaign for "justice"; about the way it's become a case of national pride; about the way stories are generated to follow a line already decided—not least with the classic ask-footballer-leading-question-and-plaster-his-answer-across-the-cover trick.
During a recent interview with David Beckham, Marca asked whether he'd like Iker Casillas to win. Not who he'd vote for but his opinion of the paper's pre-ordained candidate. Diplomatic as ever, Beckham said yes. That weekend's front covers were inevitable, one day where he "urged" Cristiano Ronaldo to join Madrid: "Beckham: Casillas should get the Ballón d'Or."
Which perhaps he should. Despite Ronaldo's incredible season for Manchester United, in tournament years tournaments tend to be what counts and Casillas makes a strong case. Madrid's best player last season (despite Marca naming Raúl as player of the year in the midst of their "Raul for Spain" campaign), he won the league title and then as captain won the European Championships, playing a starring role in the penalty shoot-out against Italy despite having an otherwise relatively quiet tournament. He is ludicrously talented, impossible to dislike and conducts himself with great dignity. He is, in short, the perfect candidate.
It's just a little odd that Marca aren't championing the only man whose case looks equally strong, instead almost ignoring the striker who hit 33 goals, became the Premiership's highest scoring debutant and got the historic winner in the final in Vienna. After all, Fernando Torres is Spanish too. But then, Fernando Torres doesn't play for Real Madrid.