November 02, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

A few years ago Nike ran an ad campaign in Spain featuring basketball star Pau Gasol and a half-dozen national team soccer players. The tagline: "Being Spanish is no longer an excuse, it's a responsibility."

Today, to be a star Spanish athlete is even more than a responsibility. It signifies nothing less than world-class sporting cred. Where once Spain would supply the occasional professional outlier -- a Manuel Orantes, a Seve Ballesteros, a Miguel Indurain -- the Spanish male pro is now a figure of worldwide dominance, style and envy, and my choice as Sportsman of the Year.

Spain's European champion national soccer team took the world No. 1 ranking into 2009, and in Iker Casillas, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta,Fernando Torres and David Villa, no country has more finalists for the Ballon D'Or, awarded annually to the best player in Europe.

RogerFederer's transcendent season doesn't diminish the year that Rafael Nadal turned in, which included an Australian Open title and a lock on the No. 2 spot. Meanwhile nine of the ATP's Top 50 come from Spain, which defends its Davis Cup title next month.

The last four winners of the Tour de France hail from south of the Pyrenees, with the latest, Alberto Contador, swapping the yellow jersey with the previous champion, Carlos Sastre.

As for basketball, what began as the reigning world champs' breathtaking challenge to LeBron, Kobe & Co. at the 2008 Olympics reached another level in 2009. Gasol schooled Dwight Howard in the post to lead the Lakers past the Magic to NBA supremacy. Rudy Fernandez set a rookie record for three-pointers in his debut season with the Trail Blazers. Meanwhile Ricky Rubio waits in the wings, ready to loose on the league a charisma that simply isn't being produced Stateside anymore.

Whether it's Fernando Alonso with a steering wheel in his hands, or Sergio Garcia wrapping his around a golf club, or Julian Simon, Dani Pedrosa or JorgeLorenzo gripping the handlebars of a Grand Prix motorcycle, individual Spaniards have come to define what it means to be an international man of mastery.

What led to this? Three things:

Shrewd stewardship. Spain's ACB is the best nation-based pro basketball league in the world, and La Liga, thanks to F.C. Barcelona's defeat of Manchester United in the Champions League, can lay plausible claim to the same in soccer. Ask around any front office in those two sports, and you'll hear rhapsodies to the Spanish clubs' approach to developing talent. No less impressive than F.C. Barcelona's winning "the treble" in 2009 is that Barca did it while starting seven products of its own youth system.

Cash money. Spanish sports are awash in it, at the grassroots and the summit alike. Public and private patrons poured pesetas into sporting facilities in conjunction with the Barcelona Games, and we're witnessing the results. And this year Real Madrid -- which rakes in more revenue than any soccer club on earth -- dropped 162 million Euros on Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Social change. Before its rebirth as a democracy in 1978, Spain hadn't had a chance to seed sport among the masses to see what might grow. But since then-- and especially since the country's accession to the E.U. -- an improved diet has helped the average Spaniard of the current sporting-age generation grow 50 percent taller than his European counterpart. Prosperity has built a leisure class, whose byproducts -- a more athletic citizen and a more affluent fan -- reinforce each other.

More than that, though, there's been a revolution in the thinking of young Spaniards born during the decade between their country's hosting of the 1982 World Cup and the 1992 Olympics. From an excuse, to a responsibility, to an expectation.

It may take some imagination, but think of Prince Felipe and King Juan Carlos, faithful fans when the Iberians take the field or court, as Jack Nicholson and Rocken Rollen, only in finer clothes.Agree with this selection? Give us your Sportsman pick here

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