Congratulations to Cristiano Ronaldo on winning his fourth Ballon d’Or award on December 12th. Whether you agree or not, it is a fantastic achievement and one which is befitting of his contribution to the game and the record he has amassed over the years.
There’s a problem though. The Ballon d’Or is an award often confused. Based on the criteria, methodology, and eventual winners, it is an amalgamation of a most valuable player award and a popularity contest.
How can subjective votes from a few produce an always fair representation of the game’s best? There’s no intrinsic problem with this, but labelling it a best player in the world award is not only a misrepresentation of what is rewarded, it is inherently biased to top scoring and assisting players from top teams and countries.
With the wealth of statistical data available, isn’t it simple to determine who has performed the best over a year? There can be provisions made for match difficulty and other variations. Any trepidation about this reducing a best player award to numbers can be allayed by the advanced statistics that essentially do the eye test for you. If a player only pads his stats by scoring and not contributing much else, then he cannot hide. There are statistics to expose these inconsistencies. Limiting how we determine performance to goals and assists immediately devalues the contributions of players in the mould of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, or Toni Kroos, often the engines and facilitators of these statistics compiled by the two men who have made the Ballon d’Or their own in the last decade.
This is not to say they have truly performed better but in this regard, football can take a page from the books of sports like baseball and cricket in applying modern analyses to approximate performance.
How much should team titles matter?
This is the question for which the answer has completely shaped this award. Clear preference is given to players that have won major trophies. The obvious problem with this is that there are 11 players playing on a team at any given moment and 14 maximum during a competitive match. This means trophies are won collectively and not individually.
Take basketball for example. Michael Jordan is, in the minds of many, the greatest basketball player to ever live. Do you believe he could have won those NBA titles playing for the then Vancouver Grizzlies? Absolutely not. Regardless of how good he was he required the help from his teammates to excel collectively and garner those often elusive title rings. Without the help of Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoč, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr we could possibly be talking more about a Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, or Charles Barkley. Would his inability to win a championship due to the lack of a strong supporting cast diminish his chances of being regarded as the best player ever? It shouldn’t, but it most definitely would.
It’s so much simpler in sports like golf. We know Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the best because their accomplishments are their own; 100% their own. This is not to say that Jordan wasn’t instrumental to his team winning. However, disregarding the parts that constituted the whole of the successful Chicago Bulls organisation does a great disservice to the team and the idea of a team sport. The same goes for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for example. He is quite possibly the best quarterback to have ever lived, but to use his Superbowl rings as the main marker by which to judge his greatness is dangerous. The whole must be considered or else we run the risk of eliminating players not so fortunate to have been on a championship calibre team from the discussion of best player.
Of course, the mental fortitude it takes to pilot a team to a championship is one hallmark of a great player. Eli Manning, an above average quarterback in the regular season from a stats perspective, has the same amount of Superbowl triumphs as his older brother, Peyton Manning. Peyton is one of the greatest to have ever lived while his brother is not. How do we know this? His individual statistics.
Pelé is one of the best players not because he was part of three World Cup winning teams, but because he was one of the best players. Same for Ricky Ponting, LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Maradona.
The Ballon d’Or finalists
On the strength of their performances this awards cycle, few would argue that the three finalists were undeserving of being in the conversation. However, Antoine Griezmann cannot be seriously considered to be one of the three best players in the world, with all due respect to his standing as a top player. The top three is often a merger of popular and most prominent major title winner. If Lionel Messi didn’t have the supporting cast as he does at Barcelona, it is a guarantee that his statistics would not look that superhuman. He could very well be the best player scoring 35 goals and assisting 20 at Villarreal or Southampton for example; but would he be seen as a better Ballon d’Or candidate than Luis Suárez if he won the Copa America, La Liga, and Champions league whilst having slightly inferior basic statistics (goals and assists)? Almost certainly not.
Therein lies the problem with marketing the Ballon d’Or as a best player award. It simply isn’t. Football must evolve with the times and make the distinction clear. Players from teams that have little chance of winning an international tournament such as Wales, Ivory Coast, or England must feel they have a chance too at a best player award.
FIFA World Player of the Year
The ending of the marriage between the two awards presents another opportunity to make the criteria behind the awards crystal clear to everyone. Each year, fans should be able to recognise one as awarding the player that has made the most telling contributions to his team and the other awarding the player who, regardless of the team and country he plays for, has performed the best individually and is befitting of the best player label. We should know that the Ballon d’Or is an MVP award and not wrongly tout our favourite as the best in the eyes of the voters if he in fact does win.
It is undeniable that Cristiano is deserving of this MVP award. He defied odds and expectations with an average Portugal team to help his team across the line at Euro 2016, missed final or not. His team was significantly impacted in a positive way by his contributions in winning the Champions League. He may have not been the best overall player in either of these tournaments; we’re not absolutely sure without a careful statistical analysis that approximate the eye test. Again though, the cumulative impacts that he made outweighed any other player and separates him from Messi with the superior statistics and Griezmann with deep runs for both club and country.
One suspects that the best player over the course of the year may not have even been in the Ballon d’Or top three, for whatever reason. Luis Suárez would likely have been a worthy challenger to Messi in terms of pure individual performance. The fans harping for Messi must recognise that the award is skewed to the title winners – the ones who made the material difference – and not those who missed a penalty and retired. He is almost certainly the player with the best statistics and still the best player, but with the implied definition of the Ballon d’Or, the award is for Cristiano.
We now wait to see just who is the best now that the MVP has been crowned. #consistency