Lionel Messi won his record setting fourth consecutive Ballon D’Or, bringing a grimace to the face of Cristiano Ronaldo and a smile to just about everyone else. With a record setting 91 goals on the year, the diminutive Argentine was as close to a sure thing as there can be.
Not so in the women’s field, where United States veteran Abby Wambach took home her first Ballon d’Or in a slight upset over her younger teammate, Alex Morgan. The third nominee, Marta has won this honor five times already, but the Brazilian superstar was an outsider tonight in Zurich.
It was a good night for the U.S. women’s soccer team, with Pia Sundhage, the coach who led the Americans to the 2012 Olympic Gold Medal, also recognized for her work with the Coach of the Year Award. Sundhage may have moved on to coach her native Sweden, but she was the same old Pia when she thanked her U.S. players in song. Sundhage took to the Zurich stage clad in a sparkling Sweden 2013 tee-shirt to promote the Women’s Euro 2013, which Sweden will host. Sundhage treated the crowd of soccer luminaries in attendance to an acapella rendition of the Bob Dylan tune, “If Not For You,” a favorite from her time as U.S. coach.
Wambach surprisingly becomes just the second American to win the Women’s Ballon d’Or, following consecutive wins by Mia Hamm in 2001 and 2002, the first two years the women’s award was presented. Since then the voters have gotten into the habit of awarding repeat winners, with German Birgit Prinz winning three in a row after Hamm’s two, and before Marta reeled off five straight. Japan’s Homare Sawa won last year after leading Japan to the victory in the Women’s World Cup, and now Wambach gets the nod for her role in the Americans Olympic triumph.
Alex Morgan was GotSoccer’s choice for Women’s World Player of the Year, for her ability to both set up and score goals. But the voters who went for the more experienced Wambach may have been swayed by Wambach’s leadership skills, which really came to the fore in that Olympic run. Wambach’s veteran status could also have played a part, as some voters may well have surmised that the 23 year old Morgan has plenty of time left to claim this prize.
None of which is to suggest that Wambach is anything less than a very worthy winner. Battling injuries throughout 2012, Wambach at times seemed to will her team to victory, and in a pinch lob it to Abby wasn’t a bad strategy for the Olympic champions. To keep the American theme on the women’s side of of the show, United States goalkeeper Hope Solo presented Wambach with her honor.
These awards put a bow on an outstanding year for the U.S. Women’s National team, that in addition to winning the Gold Medal, recently completed a successful 10 city Fan Tribute Tour. Wambach, Morgan and company now head into a transition year in 2013. New coach Tom Sermanni leads the team out for the first time when they take on Scotland on February 9th in Jacksonville and then again February 13th in Nashville. The new women’s league, the NWSL is set to take the field in the spring amid hopes that this time, with the backing of U.S. Soccer as well as the Canadian and Mexican Federations, women’s professional soccer is here to stay.