Ribéry playing for Bayern in 2009. Image by az1172
The recent award of the Ballon D’Or on 13th January to Cristiano Ronaldo was greeted with some acclaim, many suggesting that after all those years of Lionel Messi’s dominance, the Portuguese goalscorer deserved a look in, as if he was getting some kind of consolation prize before it was too late. None will deny Ronaldo’s incendiary brilliance but his victory suggests that placing the award in the gift of FIFA’s voting jury rather than the award panel that used to sit in judgement when it was a trophy awarded by France Football has rather skewed things. Having current players able to vote is certainly questionable – neither Ronaldo nor Messi voted for the other for example – and it seems as if we are now in the age where the individual holds sway rather than the man who, while personally brilliant, is above all a team performer.
The result did not go down that well in France. Quelle surprise you might say given that some still begrudge the merging of their flagship trophy with FIFA’s own bauble. But they have reason to be concerned about the outcome for surely, by any sane measure in this year, the finest footballer on the planet and the man who contributed most heavily to the most significant outcomes, is Franck Ribéry, the diminutive street fighter from Boulogne. Just as in years past when Messi has triumphed by inspiring Barcelona, so last season it was Ribéry who was the hub of the all conquering Bayern Munich side. World Soccer recognised his pre-eminence and that of his team by giving him the European Footballer of the Year award.
And there we have the fault line that lies in the appreciation of the game, one that has always been there but which has been exacerbated in the age of youtube, Soccer Saturday and endless recycling of clips of the spectacular – football’s equivalent of T20 cricket, the bite sized morsel that can be thrilling but which lacks the light and shade, the subtlety of the proper thing, be it Test cricket or the full 90 minutes of a game.
While Ribéry is more than capable of producing a special moment in any game, it is his work across 90 minutes after 90 minutes that has been so effective this last year. For all his quality on the ball, his acceleration, his sparkling technique, the man has reached his peak by being very much a team player, something that might surprise given his part in France’s great collapse at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Yet it seems as if that – also a turbulent year in his personal life – was the catalyst for him to seize the greatness that was waiting for him, telling ESPN, “It’s clear I had a horrible 2010 from all points of view. I won’t even speak of the injuries that troubled me. But in my private life, my behaviour as a footballer, I went down the wrong roads, I lost myself. I hurt people, people who are very dear to me. I disappointed and even shocked many people and I want to apologise.”
From there, he has been a player reborn, the fulcrum of a Bayern Munich side that has gradually come to dominate European football and which shows signs of doing so for a while to come yet given that the change over of power between Heynckes and Guardiola has been so comparatively seamless. Both men realised that Ribéry is vital to the way Bayern can play, his pace, his aggression crucial components in the transition of possession and in Munich’s ability to get onto the front foot quickly once they win the ball.
For not only is Ribéry talented, he’s a spiky little so and so as well, utterly secure in his belief in his ability with the ego that special players need. Put the ball at his feet and give him space to gallop into and he will immediately have the opposition on the back foot, his acceleration a frightening prospect for full-backs, as is his control. He is the kind of player that gets supporters out of their seats, the kind that persuades us to part with the folding stuff.
But he is also a winner through and through, a footballer who wants to perform at his highest level in order that the team can prevail. Not all players of his ability are quite so selfless, let’s face it.
And now, the greatest challenge awaits, a World Cup in which France, the colossus of world football at the turn of the century and beyond, need to rehabilitate a reputation that has taken a pasting over the last few years. Scraping into the tournament via the play-offs, the French were fortunate indeed to be drawn in the Group of Indifference, alongside Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras. Win that group and either Nigeria or Bosnia-Hercegovina will likely await, giving France chance to get some momentum going.
What they will need above all is leadership. At 30, and as perhaps the most valuable player in world football at present, it falls upon Ribéry to offer it. The evidence of the last two years in particular is that the pint-sized winger is ready for the responsibility. The French like their generals to be on the small side after all.
And finally some vintage Franck at Bayern and a taste of what he offers France…
© Nigel Moleswoth for @awaycolours 2014