Who is the best male footballer on the planet? It is a vague question demanding a definitive answer that is bound to split a polarised footballing fandom into several factions. And yet, this is precisely the question that France Football, one of the most illustrious magazines covering the world’s most-followed sport, has tried to answer on an annual basis since 1956.
On 29 November, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France Football will reveal this year’s answer at a characteristically glitzy gala by presenting the Ballon d’Or to the player who has fit their definition of being the “best in the world”.
The curious thing, though, is nobody really knows what being the best actually means.
Confusing criteria for the Ballon d’Or
The Academy Awards in Hollywood are given to those who have produced the most marvellous cinematic performances in a particular time frame. In American basketball, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) title is conferred on the player who has proven to be the most impactful in a particular NBA season, usually part of a championship-winning team. Closer to home, the Arjuna Award is bestowed on an athlete for prolonged excellence in their chosen field.
The Ballon d’Or in football is none of these things. The three criteria it considers as a pool of international journalists rank their top five choices in decreasing order of merit are — individual and collective performances or trophies in a season, player class (talent and fair play) and overall judgement of the player’s career.
The first criterion cannot be explicitly questioned. The point of any sport is to triumph and for an individual to be recognised in a collective game — they must win something. Having said that, the individual and collective trophies metric does not specify how much importance should be attached to each trophy. Nobody will argue that capturing a League Cup in England is not the same as lifting the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA Champions League trophy or even finishing as the golden boot winner in the latter two. But the Ballon d’Or spells out no weightage scheme that is assigned to an individual and collective accolades.
As for the second criterion, it is patently absurd. What exactly is the understanding of class, talent, and fair play that nominees must adhere to? Is running a match from midfield ‘classier’ than unleashing a series of goal-saving tackles? Is dribbling past four opponents on a weekly basis proof of greater talent than being able to score match-winning goals?
Third, in awarding an annual prize, why should France Football look at a player’s overall career? Does it not mean that serial champions like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will always have an advantage over their less celebrated peers? Worse still, does it not mean that Messi and Ronaldo (in particular) have actually enjoyed such an advantage already, considering they have won 11 of the past 12 awards?
Controversial calls in the past
In a sport like football, where different positions have starkly different roles, it is inherently unfair to single out one player as the best, irrespective of where they play. But France Football, which has only recently added a separate award for the best goalkeeper (known as the Yashin Trophy), takes a unique pleasure in clubbing all outfield players (and previously goalkeepers, too) in the race for the best.
The result? Attacking midfielders and forwards invariably come out on top. Only one defender, Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, has won the Ballon d’Or this century while only one goalkeeper, the Soviet Union legend Lev Yashin in 1963, has won the Ballon d’Or in its entire history.
The sidelining of goalkeepers, in particular, was starkly evident in 2015 when Italian shot-stopper Gianluigi Buffon could not find a place among the top 50 nominees for the Ballon d’Or (eventually won by Messi) despite leading his club, Juventus, to a domestic double and a spot in the Champions League final. Buffon, then captain of Italy, boycotted the 2015 voting along with his national team coach Antonio Conte (between 2010 and 2015, the Ballon d’Or, as part of its collaboration with FIFA, gave national team captains and coaches a say in the voting process alongside select journalists).
At the most recent Ballon d’Or presentation in 2019 (the ceremony was cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic), Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk came second to Messi despite faring far better than the Argentine in the most crucial continental competitions. In 2014, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer saw his chances snuffed out in a face-off against goal-scoring machine Ronaldo despite being between the sticks during Germany’s World Cup glory in Brazil. A year before that, Ronaldo had seen off Neuer’s then club teammate, Frenchman Franck Ribéry (who had called it an “injustice”), even though it was Ribéry who had stood out in the biggest games.
The putative explanation among Ronaldo acolytes was that the Portuguese had amassed more goals and assists that year, something which could only guarantee a fifth place for Messi when Croatia’s Luka Modrić attained pole position in 2018.
Not knowing how France Football prioritises a bunch of incongruous elements in its assessment; clubs, teammates, and ex-players launch a PR campaign months ahead of the Ballon d’Or to talk up the chances of their preferred players. For instance, track the social media handles of FC Bayern Munich, which have been blatantly advertising in favour of club striker Robert Lewandowski, seen as a prime contender for 2021.
All this hullabaloo means that players operating in the elite echelons of football are often obsessed with winning the Ballon d’Or far more than seeking silverware for their teams. Ronaldo, for one, has made no secret of wanting to have more Ballons d’Or than Messi. Imagine if Virat Kohli had said he wanted more ICC Cricketer of the Year wins than Steve Smith or Joe Root.
As football improves technically every season and tournaments increasingly appear to be won by ruthless units and not mercurial individuals, France Football must take stock of its most famous asset.
A fairer Ballon d’Or would attach a distinct weightage to a different team and individual trophies besides using a reliable statistical partner (like Opta Sports) to consider in-depth data curated through advanced analytics and reflected in a player’s match ratings (which are the most objective way of analysing a player’s performance) into the winning calculus.
A fairer football ecosystem would get rid of the Ballon d’Or altogether owing to its outsized importance and leave it to individual lovers of the game to anoint their own “best in the world”.
The author is a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex, UK, and a freelance journalist writing on sport, politics, and culture. He tweets @MarikPriyam. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)