Saturday, May 26, 2012

European Player of the Year. In 1975 there was a problem and Blokhin was voted best without fully convincing observers: it was rather there was nobody truly great. 1976 vote was no better… 29 players got points, quite a big number, yet, not unusual. There were some unlikely choices, going even beyond journalistic bias and rabid patriotism – Ali Cemal of Trabzonspor (Turkey) got a point. The Swedish player of Tennis Borussia (West Germany), Benny Wendt, got 2 points. Well, Trabzonspor at least were champions of Turkey - Tennis Borussia played Second Division! Wendt probably deserves mentioning just because he is the only second division player to appear in so prestigious award. How good were these two guys? Pause and think hard… and find nothing. Wendt hardly ranks high in Swedish football history, let alone German one. On the other hand there were significant absences: the whole British football failed – only Kevin Keegan got points. The Italians faired just as bad. Spanish too. Even the champions of Europe – Czechoslovakia – did not go very high. Individually, Johan Crujff dropped to 7th place with measly 12 points. It was shared with the Yugoslavian goalkeeper of St. Etienne Ivan Curkovic, a very consistent and solid player, but hardly a superstar. Oh, well, Crujff was entangled in a fight with his coach and had weak season, but… he ended 10 points above Benny Wendt and almost 80 points behind the winner. Numbers tell something… names too. Only two young and coming players appeared in the top 5 – Michel Platini (AS Nancy) was 5th and Kevin Keegan (Liverpool) – 4th. Both were far behind the third placed Ivo Viktor. The goalkeeper of the new European champions was neither young, not unknown – and so far was never ranked among the best goalkeepers, let alone the top players of the continent. Was he suddenly improved? Or was his club Dukla (Prague) making the news? Not at all. Viktor got points largely because of the European title and may be because of seniority – some of his teammates were more impressive than him, yet, not overwhelmingly impressive. Rob Rensenbrink ended on second place – a big star since 1974 the Dutch was hardly better in 1976 than in 1974… like Viktor, he most likely ranked so high because of the success of Anderlecht this year. But Rensenbrink did not come even close to the winner with his 75 points: the best one finished with 91. Numbers tell and numbers lie… the difference appear very impressive. The name of the winner no less… Franz Beckenbauer.

A name so familiar, there is no need to add words. A face so familiar, it is very difficult to find lesser known – not really rare – photo. And here he is on the left with his equally familiar, ‘eternal’, surrounding: Maier and Schwarzenbeck. This is 1975 and Maier receives an award, but when it came to mega-awards – the Kaiser got them. Third time European Player of the Year! His rivalry with Crujff remained open – they were tied once again. No doubt, Beckenbauer is one of the greatest all-time footballers, but was really that strong in 1976? Remember, most of the time individual awards follow club success. Bayerm won the European Champions Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. Lost the European Supercup and had the worst Bundesliga year to date. West Germany reached the European final, but lost the title to Czechoslovakia. Not really great year… and Beckenbauer was aging. A player of his caliber hardly drops to really weak performance, but decline was noticeable: if anything, Beckenbauer was not better than few years back. His win was due to reputation, combined with something more sinister: European football was changing. Total football, as flashy as it was originally, emphasized collective effort. It was no longer a matter of individual greatness – and the results of it were obvious: there were no longer really great individual stars. Not in Czechoslovakia, not in Bayern, not in Anderlecht. The best players were getting relatively equal – team work took away the luster. Lack of real individual greatness affected voting the best individual for a second year already - the winners were not all that exciting. But who else? Benny Wendt? Looks like the journalists voted conservatively for the familiar reputation. Good for Beckenbauer, of course, but there was bitter aftertaste.