Sawa, Messi named Players of Year



Homare Sawa, the 2011 Women’s World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, was named FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year on a historic night for Japanese soccer Monday.

Norio Sasaki, who guided Nadeshiko Japan to an astonishing first ever World Cup triumph at last summer’s finals in Germany, won the Women’s Coach of the Year, while the Japan Football Association also won the Fair Play Award.

Barcelona’s mercurial Argentine forward Lionel Messi landed the men’s Ballon d’Or award, becoming the first man since former France international Michel Platini to take the title three years in succession, while the Men’s Coach of the Year award went to his club coach, Pep Guardiola.

Messi was up against Barca teammate Xavi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo, the 2008 winner, was unable to attend the awards ceremony as Real is in action on Tuesday night in the King’s Cup against Malaga.

The 24-year-old Messi won the award after polling 47.88 of the votes, ahead of Ronaldo (21.6 percent) and Xavi (9.23 percent).

“It is a big pleasure to win the third, a big honor. I want to thank the teammates, players and coaches that voted for me,” said Messi.

“I want to thank my Barcelona and Argentina teammates, without them this would have been impossible. But most of all, I want to share it with Xavi: you deserve this as much as I do.”

Messi, man of the match in the Champions League final in 2011, also won the Primera Division, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup last year.

Dressed in a traditional kimono, Sawa, 33, and the 53-year-old Sasaki were the first Japanese recipients and first Asian winners of their respective awards, picking them up at the star-studded ceremony in Zurich with the cream of the soccer world in attendance.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Sawa. “When my name was read out I didn’t know what was going on. This award feels so heavy. I wasn’t at all confident that I had definitely won it and just wanted to give myself a pat on the back for making it among the three nominees.”

“I am so surprised and delighted with this award. I spoke with people at the JFA and came to the conclusion that the kimono represents Japan and was the most suitable attire for tonight,” she smiled.

“As the JFA president I feel blessed,” Junji Ogura said of the country’s hat trick of awards. “Winning three awards doesn’t happen very often. Sawa won and Sasaki won, something that no other Asians have done, and this is fantastic. Getting the Fair Play Award is an added bonus.”

Sawa beat out five-time winner Marta of Brazil and American Abby Wambach, while Sasaki was named from the coach’s shortlist that included Pia Sundhage, whose U.S. team lost to Japan in a penalty shootout in the World Cup final, and France’s Bruno Bini.

“I am so thrilled for Sawa,” said Wambach. “I think the Japanese deserved all of the awards they received tonight. They were of course the World Cup champions, she was proven to be the best player and I am very proud of her.”

Said Platini: “It’s good that there is a Japanese woman (winning the award). I think it is possible in the future that a Japanese man could win the award but they will have to win the World Cup first.”

Sasaki, who in an inspired piece of sports psychology showed his players footage of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami’s aftermath before their World Cup quarterfinal and semifinal wins over Germany and Sweden, said, “I am full of gratitude to everyone.”

“I was just overjoyed to be able to be here with my family. It was only for a moment but it really hit me emotionally when I got the award. Last year we suffered a disastrous earthquake in northeastern Japan and many, many people in the football family of the world provided such warm support and I would like to thank everyone for their support.”

These awards were decided after a poll in which the captains and head coaches of the men’s (for the two men’s soccer awards) and women’s (for the two women’s soccer awards) national teams, as well as international media representatives selected by French soccer magazine France Football, voted for candidates in each of the four categories. Each group’s votes represented one third of the final result.

Henry stars in return


Thierry Henry made a fairy tale return in his second spell with Arsenal, coming off the bench to grab a late winner in a 1-0 victory over Leeds in the third round of the F.A. Cup on Monday.

The former France striker took the first step in enhancing his already-legendary status at the north London club, side-footing home an angled finish in the 78th minute — 10 minutes after being introduced as a substitute.

The goal, a trademark Henry finish from the left, extended his club-record tally to 227 goals in the first game of his two-month loan spell from the New York Red Bulls.