Congrats to Messi, but Ballon d'Or isn't sound for soccer
On Monday, at what convention dictates we describe as a glitzy ceremony in Zurich, Lionel Messi won the Ballon d'Or for the fourth year in a row. Which was the right decision. Or the wrong decision. Or just a decision, based on the votes of international coaches, international captains and journalists from around the world, that really doesn't matter at all, that sums up football's silly obsession with celebrity.
Actually, scrap that last line: that makes it sound as though the award has no significance. It does: it's a deeply insidious phenomenon that is antithetical both to good football and to the sound running of the game. Cristiano Ronaldo, who made up the shortlist with Andres Iniesta, signaled defeat long before the results of the vote were announced by suggesting that while he'd like to win, the award isn't the be all and end all. But then he went on. "Fair or unfair," he said, "the decision will be what it will. I'll be very happy maybe or very sad. But that's life."
Fair or unfair? How dreadful it must be to live in a world in which you believe there's a global conspiracy to stop you from winning a meaningless gewgaw. Jose Mourinho, speaking at the beginning of December, was even more explicit.
"The Ballon d'Or has already been given," he said. "When the heads of football speak and make the campaign, there is nothing you can do."
A cynic might almost be tempted to think that with his side on a dreadful run of form and his future at Real Madrid in doubt, Mourinho wanted to deflect media attention to something else.
Last year in Spain, where the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry has reached preposterous levels of paranoia, each vote was pored over, read for signs of bias or manipulation. Some, admittedly, were pretty weird or clearly made for political reasons, but it's an open vote of individuals. What do you expect? It's opinions, and opinions are, necessarily, subjective. If you want objectivity, well, football already has a perfectly good system: goals that win games and points that accrue from them to form league tables. And if Ronaldo wants to look at them, he'd see his club side, Real Madrid, lies third in La Liga, 16 points behind leader Barcelona, while his country, Portugal, lies third in UEFA qualifying Group F, behind Russia and Israel. From a football point of view, you'd hope that bothered a player more than whether he picks up some arbitrary trinket at a self-aggrandizing FIFA gala.
When the Ballon d'Or was established, in 1956, there was a certain point to it. There was little televised football then, even domestically. It was all but impossible to watch football from abroad. The correspondents of the august -- and internationalist -- French magazine France Football got together, made cases for the players they thought had performed well in the previous year and cast their votes accordingly. It fostered discussion and spread knowledge. FIFA set up its own version, the FIFA World Player of the Year, voted for by coaches, in 1991, and the awards were merged in 2010.
But whoever runs the award, whatever the voting system, the award can never get over its central paradox, that it is an individual award in a team game. You often hear the argument that Barcelona would be nothing without Messi or that Messi would be nothing without Barcelona: both are self-evidently ridiculous, and yet the fact that both arguments co-exist hints at a central truth: a player makes sense only on the context of his team and a team makes sense only in the context of its players. You don't have to go as far as Valeriy Lobanovskyi in insisting the coalitions between players are more important than the players themselves to accept that in the best teams the whole is greater than the sum of the 11 component parts.
Individual awards are insidious because they deny that truth, because they encourage individualism. When a player receives the ball his first thought should always be to do what is best for the team, to make the run or pass or shot that best fulfills the team's needs at the time, be that scoring a goal or keeping the ball from the opposition. Dangle an individual award in front of him, and the temptation will always be to perform a trick, to do something eye-catching that will make it onto highlight reels and perhaps win votes.
Goalscoring awards are even worse: imagine the scores are level in the final minute of a game a team needs to win. A player who needs one goal to win the Golden Boot is clean through with just the keeper to beat but approaching the goal from an acute angle. He could square it to a teammate who is almost certain to score, or he could take on a much more difficult shot himself. By trying to win the award, he would become a worse player.
Not all players, of course, think like that, and there is a certain irony to the fact that the player who has dominated individual awards for the past four years is a minimalist genius. It is part of Messi's greatness that he so regularly chooses the action with the lowest tariff of difficulty to complete any given task. He is capable of the flashy and technically complex, but if something simple will suffice he does that. He can be jaw-droppingly brilliant but is essentially efficient. Paradoxically, it's because he is so undemonstrative, such a team player, that he is such a great individual.