This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus and Italy)
For a while, it appeared as though a chronic back problem would see Buffon’s career sadly peter out. One of the iconic images from the 2010 World Cup was that of the injured Buffon on the touchline, frantically urging his compatriots forward as they bombed out of the tournament with defeat to Slovakia. It seemed a cruel end. That Buffon has overcome these setbacks to regain his position as the world’s best goalkeeper is testament to his indomitable determination. Indeed, Antonio Conte’s Juventus are a dogged, persistent team who simply refuse to accept any suggestion of defeat and with Buffon marshalling the defence it is easy to see where that identity originates. Having regained the Scudetto with an unbeaten Juve, his excellent form continued into Euro 2012 as he captained Italy to a creditable runners-up finish. With the Bianconeri again sitting pretty at the top of Serie A as the year draws to a close, Buffon has enjoyed a year of unequalled success.
Łukasz Piszczek (Dortmund and Poland)
2012 has been another year in which attacking full-backs have caught the eye. None has been more effective than Piszczek, with the Pole providing a constant threat throughout Dortmund’s double-winning season. In scoring four goals and providing seven assists, he registered the highest combined total of goal contributions of any defender in the Bundesliga. At Euro 2012, Piszczek dovetailed with his Dortmund colleague Jakub Błaszczykowski to great effect but in each match Poland eventually lost control of midfield, and it was this flaw that led to their eventual elimination. Nonetheless, Piszczek made his mark and his star continued to rise. In this season’s Champions League, he has dominated the right-flank in every game Dortmund have played, most notably exploiting Cristiano Ronaldo’s tendency to neglect his defensive duties in both matches against Real Madrid. Undoubtedly one of Jürgen Klopp’s most important players, Piszczek is an easy pick in the Best of 2012 XI.
Stoppila Sunzu (TP Mazembe and Zambia)
No look back at 2012 is complete without recognition for what was probably the greatest victory in sporting history. While UK coverage is likely to focus on British Olympic successes or the remarkable comeback staged by the European Ryder Cup team, everything pales in comparison to Zambia’s triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations. At the heart of their side was centre-back-cum-anchorman Sunzu, ever-present and titanic in a defence that kept four consecutive clean sheets and defeated overwhelming favourites Côte d’Ivoire on penalties in the final. It was Sunzu’s responsibility to take the decisive ninth spot-kick in the shootout and the then-twenty-two year-old scored with composure that belied his years. Ever since that kick, Sunzu has been linked with clubs all over Europe. On the basis of his showing in 2012, it will not be long before he makes the move.
Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus and Italy)
Juventus’ unbeaten league run was probably the biggest achievement by a European club side this year. As with Buffon, the side’s success has been intrinsically linked to the force of his personality. A model of consistency, Chiellini is another leader and at twenty-eight, he has reached a level of performance that sets him apart among his centre-back rivals. Not only ruthlessly uncompromising in defence, Chiellini is able with the ball at his feet and his sensible use of the ball was a strong feature of his sides’ play all year. Outstanding in the European Championships, his early departure from the final due to injury was a hammer blow from which Italy failed to recover.
Jordi Alba (Valencia/Barcelona and Spain)
The subject of the year’s worst-kept-secret transfer deal, everyone knew that Alba would leave the Mestalla and return to Camp Nou from about February onwards. It was such an obvious and necessary deal: Valencia’s top assist-maker in 2011-12, his hyperactive, all-action style also leads him to make a sizeable number of tackles and interceptions. No matter which way one looked at it, Alba was the perfect addition to a side that had become overly dependent on Dani Alves’ contribution from full-back. Much was expected at Barça, but if anything Alba’s performances have so far exceeded expectations. Similarly, he was probably Spain’s most threatening attacking player as they retained the European Championship, his goal in the final the icing on the cake. This time last year he was mentioned as being among the best in his position. Now, there is no doubt about it. Alba is without equal.
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona and Spain)
Already recognised by many as one of the best footballers in the world, this year may have been the last in which his pre-eminent status was doubted by anything resembling a majority. As in every other year in his short career, Busquets won the most important trophy on offer and played a key role in his side’s success. Perfect technically and boasting the best tactical brain of any midfielder around, Busquets dominated Spain’s Euro 2012 games with consummate ease. In addition to his displays for the national team, his Barcelona performances have been so consistently impressive that he is now seen as the most important player at Camp Nou after Lionel Messi. In October, Busquets received his first Ballon d’Or nomination. It was long overdue, but richly deserved.
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus and Italy)
The standout individual at the European Championships and the key player for a resurgent Juventus, Pirlo’s 2012 was arguably the most impressive twelve months of his dazzling career. His return to eminence is even more remarkable given the circumstances in which he found himself the previous year, unceremoniously abandoned by Milan and deemed past-it by most pundits. However, his move to Turin has led to the regista enjoying a truly glorious Indian summer. The scale of Pirlo’s Serie A domination is such that Juve’s defeat to Inter at the start of November was the first time he had lost a league game in nearly two years. Despite many opposition managers setting their sides out specifically to stop him, he has always found an on-field solution. From winning his third Scudetto to chipping a penalty past a gurning Joe Hart, Pirlo has been a step ahead all year.
Arturo Vidal (Juventus and Chile)
Another Juve representative and the toughest-tackling midfielder in Serie A by a considerable distance, Vidal has been moulded by Antonio Conte into something resembling Michael Essien on speed. The Chilean seems to spend the entirety of every match playing at maximum intensity, sprinting up and down the pitch, always in a productive, relevant manner. In addition to leading the tackles per game chart in Italy’s top division, Vidal makes more passes than all bar three of Juve’s players, creates more chances than all bar three, takes more shots than all bar four and is currently the Bianconeri’s top scorer in the Champions League. Vidal has also been one of the keys to getting the best out of Pirlo: his constant movement always gives the playmaker space and a passing option, and his colossal defensive contribution eases Pirlo’s workload. Of course, Vidal’s temper means that a booking – or worse – is never far away, but it has proven a risk worth taking. Coming off the back of his best year to date, Vidal’s unbelievable industriousness combines with the occasional psychotic episode to make him a strong contender to be the most entertaining footballer in the world at present.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona and Argentina)
Another year, another mountain of goalscoring records demolished by the greatest player there has ever been. The superlatives ran out so long ago that his brilliance is now best defined by the involuntary yelps, shouts and disbelieving profanities one inevitably releases while watching him play. Despite the relative lack of silverware Messi has to show for his domination of the last twelve months – the Copa del Rey was Barcelona’s only trophy in 2011-12 – a total of eighty-eight goals and counting makes him the firm favourite to once again win the game’s most prestigious individual award.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid and Portugal)
In any other era Ronaldo would be winning another Ballon d’Or at a canter. With his first La Liga title under his belt, joint-top-scoring at the European Championships and with a record of a goal a game over the calendar year, his case would be unanswerable. However, yet another annus mirabilis looks set to go overlooked. It is inevitable, and a great shame that his output and talent must always be compared to that of another. His statistics alone are remarkable: sixty-three goals and counting scored in 2012; a European high of seven shots per game; the first player ever to score in six consecutive Clásicos. His acceleration, movement and finishing skill have again proven that he is probably the best counter-attacker the world has ever seen. Were it not for the nagging suspicion that his defensive laxness has cost Real Madrid dear in the Champions League on at least three occasions, one could construct a strong argument that his year has been as perfect as possible.
Radamel Falcao (Atlético Madrid and Colombia)
Falcao is another whose standing has rocketed in 2012. Despite being highly rated while at Porto, the Colombian’s talents have only got the recognition that they truly deserve since he moved to La Liga. Within two years of spending €40m on the striker, Atlético look set to make a tidy profit on their prize asset. He will be sorely missed. Last season’s fifth place finish for los Rojiblancos was excused by their triumph in the Europa League, with Falcao the main reason for their success. His brace in the final took his tally in the competition to twelve for the season. His hat-trick in the European Super Cup secured more silverware, and his sixteen goals in fourteen La Liga games have seen Atléti rise to second in the table. His form for the national team has previously been somewhat erratic, but this year he scored five goals in seven games. Given recent struggles of the out-and-out number nine in modern football, Falcao will probably go down in history as the last great poacher. 2012 has seen him at his very best.
Honourable mentions go to Manuel Neuer, Sergio Ramos, Mats Hummels, Lars Bender, Sami Khedira, Valon Behrami, Franck Ribéry, Andrés Iniesta, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Didier Drogba, Stefan Kießling, Robin Van Persie and Edinson Cavani, each of whom just missed the cut for one reason or another.