As the end of the year approaches so too do the award ceremonies for two of soccer’s most prestigious honours: the Ballon d’Or and the Best FIFA Men’s Player award (formerly known as the FIFA World Player of the Year).
For the first time since their union in 2010, French magazine France Football and soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, will hand out separate awards. Reverting back to its original format, the winner of the Ballon d’Or will be selected by a group of journalists. The Best FIFA Men’s Player will be chosen by votes comprised of international teams captains and coaches (50 per cent), selected media representatives (25 per cent) and online voting (25 per cent). But with the FIFA ceremony not until January, paired with the scandals and controversies that have plagued the organization in recent years, and the voting format of the FIFA awards, the Ballon d’Or is the more coveted prize.
The FIFA award is a glorified popularity contest more or less. International team coaches and captains will most likely vote based on loyalty to their countries or employers at club level rather than merit. For example, Portugal-skipper Cristiano Ronaldo will probably cast a vote for his Real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale or his countrymen Rui Patricio before he even thinks about voting for a player from Aletico Madrid or Barcelona.
A similar bias also exists with fans who will vote for their favourite player regardless of their performances in comparison to other nominees. Captains, coaches and fans account for 75 per cent of the vote for the FIFA awards and they’re going to vote based on what they can observe, goals and trophies, but the devil is in the details. Statistics like key passes per game, successful take-ons and player match ratings are better indicators of a player’s success than the amount of goals they’ve scored. And who’s going to know all those nitty-gritty details? Journalists. Those whose job is to observe and write about soccer regularly, all while maintaining journalism’s core values of truth, fairness and objectivity.
Now, the only question that remains is who goes home with the golden spheroid: Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Although there are 21 other perfectly capable footballers in contention for the award, it seems inconceivable that any one of them will usurp the eternal rivals. Messi or Ronaldo have won the Ballon d’Or/FIFA Ballon d’Or each year for the past eight, Messi with five to Ronaldo’s three. The last person other than Messi or Ronaldo to claim the Ballon d’Or was Kaka in 2007. Since then, collectively Ronaldo and Messi have collected six Champions League trophies, nine league winners medals and have scored over 800 goals for their clubs. Most players would be considered legends to achieve even a quarter of that.
With those numbers it’s hard to argue that the eight Ballon d’Ors are undeserved but at the same time, is that really all the Ballon d’Or is about? Where’s the allure in that? What about defenders and goalkeepers? Football is an art to be admired and appreciated not a science to be calculated.
In 1956, the first year the Ballon d’Or was given out, France Football awarded the trophy to Stoke City winger Sir Stanley Matthew. Matthew had passed his peak and was not the best player in the world but it’s believed that he was given the trophy as a life-time-achievement award of sorts, recognizing his longevity and iconic status. Imagine what a shame it would be if Leonardo DiCaprio retired without winning an Oscar.
Too often the Ballon d’Or tug-of-war between Messi and Ronaldo overshadows the achievements of others; think back to 2010 when Wesley Sneijder lead Inter Milan to its first treble (Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League) and almost captured an ever-elusive World Cup for The Netherlands. It’s not just about winning, it’s about achieving something special.
To find something special one need not look any further than the exploits of Messi’s Barcelona teammate Neymar and Ronaldo’s teammate Bale. The Brazilian play-maker captained his side to a first-ever gold medal at the Summer Olympics, which was staged in Rio de Janerio, as well as picking up a second consecutive domestic double of winning Spain’s top-flight division and La Liga and the Copa del Rey. While Bale lead his country to new heights, as he and Wales were knocked out of the European Cup in France by eventual winners Portugal, it was the first time Wales qualified for a major tournament in 40 years, something not even greats like Ian Rush or Ryan Giggs could manage. Bale also won the Champions League this year alongside Ronaldo.
But the most special thing achieved in the world of sport, let alone of football, was Leicester City’s march to the English Premier League title last season. A team of misfits, rejects and virtual unknowns lead by a manager, who was always the bridesmaid and never the bride, overthrew the hierarchy of England’s elite clubs and shocked the world on the way to a first Premier League crown. Part of what makes the story of Leicester so special is the modesty in which it occurred. Unlike teams like Chelsea, Paris St. Germain and Manchester City, Leicester found success without having to rely on huge investments and big-money signings. And if that wasn’t special enough, striker Jamie Vardy broke a Premier League record scoring in 11-straight games.
Former Barcelona manager Pep Gaurdiola once said, “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed.” Although he’d never admit it, he knows Ronaldo belongs at that table too. But just because the rest of the world’s players aren’t allowed at their table doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be fed.