Gold Over Love

The prize…

The three-man shortlist for the Golden Ball has been announced. In January, it will all be down to Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar – most likely, in that particular order. Which pretty much highlights all problems with the FIFA award.

Ballon d’Either-Or

Are we there yet? It is the fifth consecutive year when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have both been named as the finalists of a contest for FIFA’s most prestigious individual award. During that time, the intermediate step of picking out three remaining contestants always seemed like a profound waste of time. Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Franck Ribéry and Manuel Neuer have been simply placeholders; their instrumental roles in various trophy hunts always remained secondary to the sheer weight of impressions Messi-Ronaldo duopoly was delivering. It wasn’t just about unquestioningly brilliant performances from CR7 or LM9 brands; it’s the global imagination of masses that needed the world where two super-titans rise above everyone else to settle each battle between each other. Ballon d’Either-Or: that’s what it was. And that’s what might come to an end this year.

During all these years, we’ve all speculated who is going to be the first player to seriously undermine this New Football Order. Gareth Bale? At the age of 24, he absolutely dominated the Premier League – until his talent got absorbed by Real Madrid, where every player remains secondary to Ronaldo. Luis Suárez? Exactly the same story – only with a final stop at Camp Nou, in Messi’s shadow. Thomas Müller? Two, comprehensive semi-final defeats against the Spanish powerhouses have drastically reduced his chances. Eden Hazard? He was never close to getting to that level. Sergio Agüero or Marco Reus? Both scarred by the injuries. Almost like in George Orwell’s novels: every player to ever contest the current state of affairs has been either marginalized, taken out of the game by external factors or simply hired by the teams interested in retaining the status quo.

The Third Man

This years’ filler, Neymar, doesn’t really break out of the pattern. Pretty much doomed to join Barcelona from the start of his career in Santos, he even skipped the important step many of his famous compatriots have taken. Unlike Ronaldo, Rivaldo or Ronaldinho, Neymar never needed a jump-off point; a club, in which he could adapt to the European style of play and then perhaps aim higher was simply not in his plans. What he did instead is a sign of times we live in – times, when extremely gifted footballers and their agents have all the leverage in the world to make strong clubs fight for their signatures. His direct move to Barcelona signaled an era when clubs will be willing to pay ridiculous amounts of cash for young players. Neymar knew that, for Blaugrana, the risk of him flopping was nothing compared to the risk of him becoming a global superstar in some other big team.

Considering the enormous risk Barcelona have taken, the executives from Camp Nou can feel very lucky with the way their young Brazilian has turned out to be. It was Neymar, who’s created a three-way tie in top goalscorers’ table for 2014/15 Champions League, already making a statement about what he’s up to. Unlike players like Pedro, David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimović or Thierry Henry, he wasn’t going to just live in Messi’s shadow but stepped up and performed on roughly the same level as his five years older teammate. This fact has been highlighted during the 2015/16 part of the year, when Leo hurt his knee against Las Palmas. In the final stage of Messi’s recovery, Neymar contributes 13 goals and 8 assists in just 10 games in all competitions – and this was the last step between him and Ballon d’Or podium. He’s not going to win. But there is some chance for him to place second and break the unwritten rule.

Simply the Biased

Of course both for FIFA and for people who are marketing football to worldwide audiences, Ballon d’Or is merely a piece of larger, meticulously prepared spectacle; a spectacle aimed at cementing certain media image of the players who are supposed to be the most profitable – either now, or in the future. That’s why the most overrated youngster in Europe, Paul Pogba, has made the 23-man shortlist ahead of Claudio Marchisio. That’s why a bunch of sub-par performances by Yaya Touré were held in a higher regard than an astonishing year of world-class form from a similarly gifted player, Blaise Matuidi. That’s why Eden Hazard is there – even though both Willian and César Azpilicueta have easily outperformed him through the entire year. Let’s face it: if this was an actual, scientifically measured contest and not just a big-name parade, the list of players would’ve been entirely different.

The system of Ballon d’Or voting also goes as far as you can get from the standards of objectivity. With so many managers and active footballers involved, it’s no surprise that the contest turns into sort of a circlejerk. Furthermore, it would be naive to expect a person like Turks and Caicos’ captain to make a fully informed choice. Two years ago, that man, James Rene, has chosen Robin van Persie ahead of Messi, Ronaldo or anyone else; at the same time, Van Persie gave the nod to his Netherlands’ teammate, Arjen Robben. Two voters from Wales favoured Gareth Bale; Louis van Gaal filled up his list exclusively with lads he used to coach in Bayern. When Franck Ribery lost his only shot at the award that year, he publicly stated that the outcome of the voting process depends on players’ personal (implicitly: monetary) relationships with FIFA President, Sepp Blatter. All in all: taking the contest seriously would’ve been a serious misunderstanding.

…the glamour…

Apples and Oranges

So the question is: can we actually measure the performances of all top European players and then compare their records in a way that wouldn’t seem outlandishly ridiculous? It is, at best, a tedious task – but it’s already been attempted a couple of times. Algorithms have been created to mash-ups things like goalkeepers’ saves, defenders’ tackles, pass accuracy for the midfielders and goalscoring efficiency for the strikers. Which, in a way, has only muddied the waters. For example: in his 14 appearances this season, Sunderland goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon has made 57 saves – more than any other goalie in the Premier League. But how do we compare this fact with, say, fourteen goals by Jamie Vardy? Or 91.5% pass success by the recently injured Arsenal powerhouse – Francis Coquelin? It’s a problem simply bound to produce a wealth of rather hilarious results.

A good example of what happens when apples and oranges end up in the same basket would be WhoScored.com. It’s a website which, in terms of sheer statistical information, can overwhelm even the most fanatical football fan. However, this site’s authors weren’t satisfied with just pure analysis of every pitch move the players are making: they went a step ahead and introduced a rating algorithm to compare the incomparable. The results weren’t exactly what we’ve all expected (or were they?). As it soon turned out, players who have the ability to dribble past their man have quickly dominated the rating charts – and so did the teams that rely on individual skills rather than passing and moving. Messi, obviously a brilliant dribbler, would win Man of the Match award in every single game he appeared in; including all his fairly mediocre displays. Frankly – ridiculous.

Big-Club Preference

Fortunately for us, fans, WhoScored’s efforts weren’t completely futile. They ratings might’ve been biased towards certain types of players and teams – but in the process, they’ve accomplished something else. What WS has done on a very respectable level was highlighting the excellence of the footballers from clubs that don’t necessarily gain media spotlight. For instance: last season, they were the first to notice the emergence of OGC Nice’s left-back, Jordan Amavi. Couple months later, the Frenchman has earned himself a contract in Aston Villa and has quickly become the only strong point of an otherwise utterly abysmal team – at least until a season-ending knee injury struck him in a France U-21 match. Needless to say, with such a keen eye for footballers under the radar, Whoscored’s list of Ballon d’Or nominees differed greatly from the original one:

…the reality – according to stats.

As you can see, Amavi is up there alongside with the likes of Nolito, Franco Vazquez or Dimitri Payet: all truly magnificent players of which noone could ever possibly dream of having so much publicity as Messi or Ronaldo. And those are the guys who are forced to play alongside easily less technically and tactically gifted teammates! How far they would go if they had a chance to operate in a world-class environment in form of Iniesta, Rakitić, Kroos, Modrić, Thiago, Vidal, Verratti? Would such teammates further elevate their performance to the new level? Or, perhaps, it would’ve been the other way around: those who were ‘the big fishes in small ponds’; those who enjoyed the status of leaders in lesser clubs would fade away in a team consisting of many stars brighter than they are? Either way: that’s just yet another question never to be answered.

So… what is the right framework to pick objectively the best player? Well, there is none. The most we could do, the fairest award ceremony we could arrange, would be giving out some sort of achievement badges or medals, based on reaching certain landmarks by the players – just like it happens in some video games. But this will probably never happen; at least not in the days, when it’s still uncertain whether the U.S. attorneys can topple Sepp Blatter and his organization. After World Player of the Year award has been merged with Ballon d’Or, there’s literally no viable alternative to FIFA’s vanity fair. So, unless there’s a major change at the absolute top of footballing power: we’re all stuck with this. Which, I guess is fine – as long as people see the award for what it is: a mass-media spectacle.

Fleeting Impressions

In view of all that, it’s probably about time to relax and cherish the epilogue of Messi-Ronaldo era. With 48 goals each this season, they went toe-to-toe, right until the end. Alas, as we speak, Leo has all the good cards in his hand. His Champions League win combined with the fact that he’s been sidelined for over a month and still remained competitive in terms of all-year stats – those are the factors that should secure him his fifth FIFA award.

And then what? Cristiano will turn 31 in just two months – and, as much as a football cyborg he’s been through his career, a decline of performance will hit him sooner than later. Messi, 28 at the moment, probably has some more time, especially if he plans to take a deeper midfield role in the future to compensate for the impending decrease of his pace. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out than in the span of two, maybe three years, Ballon d’Or will finally find a new owner.

Behind the backs of those two, there’s chaos. Neymar, one step ahead of everyone else at the moment, will likely face a competition from James Rodríguez and a fellow Brazilian, Douglas Costa. Sergio Agüero and Alexis Sánchez could get in the mix as well – but only if they finally score a serious success with their English teams. With at least five viable, South American candidates for the award, the Europeans will fall behind. After all, players like Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fàbregas or Luka Modrić all had a fairly poor start to the 2015/16 season. At the moment, the emergence of an entirely new, young football genius seems more likely than their rise. But one thing is for sure: once new challengers appear on the scene, we, fans, will want more than just a circlejerk to determine who’s truly the best.

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