Evolution of the Ballon d’Or: Past, present and possibly the future
The Ballon d’Or, the Golden Ball.
The footballing glitterati will be out in full force on the night of 12 January 2015, when the honour will fall to one of three exceptional footballers. And while battle cries have been issued from the respective camps (admittedly a lot more muted in that of the world’s favourite little Argentine), history would suggest that the night will belong to one Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese forward is riding a wave of popular opinion, his loyal subjects swelling in numbers, overwhelming the staunch supporters of the man who has lifted the prize a record four times. It has taken me this long to actually take the name of Lionel Messi, and with good reason.
Everything the Messiah touches these days seems to turn to ash, as Barcelona walk around like a prize-fighter well past his prime, taking punches left, right and centre. Don’t even get me started on the stupid grin now permanently plastered on David Moyes’ face.
The Ballon d’Or is a curious thing. While its importance has been blown way out of proportion in recent years – at least from a purely footballing perspective – it is certainly worth taking a look at how the prize has grown to become what is essentially a glorified pissing contest between two men who have towered over their contemporaries for a few years now.
Whether that is a fair assessment is a matter of personal opinion; we certainly seem to have an overdose of those nowadays.
The Ballon d’Or – a slow evolution
We have Monsieur Gabriel Hanot, of the prestigious France Football magazine, to thank for the one night in football where individual accomplishments take precedence over all else. The magazine initially christened the award the ‘European Footballer of the Year’, before giving it a far more French twirl as the “Ballon d’Or” in due time.
And true to its initial wording, non-Europeans were ineligible for the award until 1995. This would explain why a cursory glance at the honour roll would have Diego Maradona fuming. It’s safe to assume that FIFA’s decision to bestow upon Pele an honourary Ballon d’Or (or Ballon d'Or Prix d'Honneur) in 2014 did not find much favour with the Argentine either.
In 1995, France Football expanded its horizons by stating that any player – regardless of nationality – who was playing for a European club was eligible for the prize. George Weah promptly came galloping along to become the first African, and, by extension, the first non-European footballer to win the Ballon d’Or that year. And with goals like this one in his time in Paris, it is easy to see why French hearts warmed up so quickly to him.
The Big Merge
It would be another 12 years before the magazine ruled that players from non-European clubs were now included in the fold. It was a decision that seemed immaterial since the premier talent had long since begun immigrating to European football, but it did sow the seeds for the eventual merging of the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year awards, which came about in 2012. Their baby is now called the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
The France Football magazine had initially taken to polling the opinions of the continent’s premier football journalists to determine the winner each year. With the merging of the two awards, the captains and managers of national teams have their say too, in addition to a worldwide collage of journalists.
The reasoning for the merge were quite straightforward – from 2005 to 2009, both awards had gone to the same player. The Ballon d’Or had been around a lot longer than FIFA’s version (which commenced in 1991), and FIFA were opportunistic enough to back the winning horse. It doesn’t hurt that “Ballon d’Or” sounds a lot sexier than the rather tame “World Player of the Year”; no doubt this is what tipped the scales in Sepp Blatter’s mind.
It was a minor miracle when he toed the official party line and went on yapping about how a “universal” game like football deserved just one standout prize for the world’s best player, and how “football is the real winner” at the end of it all. It may have been the only time the man has been near a microphone and not left a major sh*t-storm trailing in his wake.
The Ballon d’Or in numbers
1 – The number of goalkeepers who have won the Ballon d’Or. The honour belongs to The Black Panther Lev Yashin, who won in 1963.
4 – Lionel Messi’s record Ballon d’Or count.
5 – The number of defensively oriented players who have lifted the accolade – Lev Yashin, Franz Beckenbauer (twice), Mathias Sammer, Lothar Matthaus, and Fabio Cannavaro. It has to be mentioned that Beckenbauer was primarily a sweeper, while both Sammer and Matthaus were defensive midfielders who would function as sweepers later in their careers.
10 – The number of times a Barcelona player has walked away with the award; Juventus and AC Milan follow with 8 winners apiece.
20 – The age at which Ronaldo (the Brazilian one) lifted the award, to become the youngest ever winner.
None of this is in the least bit surprising. As the stats above have shown us, defensive players have largely been overlooked when it comes to football’s glamour night. Football, as a commodity, has a far clearer selling point in the magicians who make the world go round, as opposed to the soldiers who grind attacking momentum to a halt.
The FIFA Ballon d’Or - Where do we go from here?
As such, there may be no place for guts and blood on a night where skill and flair are prized above all others. And while few will dispute that the past winners have not deserved their moment of glory on stage, there is a sense that more can be done to value the contributions of the men who are hardly the stuff of slow-motion collages.
One suggestion that has been put forward has been the introduction of a Ballon d’Or position-for-position, which would see four winners annually, i.e, a goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward. That’s a reasonable suggestion indeed, with only the brand wagons of the game’s biggest stars complaining, as the spotlight will not rest solely on their respective ambassadors.
This brings us to the next suggestion which talks of incorporating clearly-defined categories for each player during the voting process. Voters will assign certain marks in each category for an individual nominee, and the man with the highest count at the end of it all will be crowned the best player over that calendar year.
What these categories will look like is unclear as yet, but it would give voters a much clearer idea of what it takes to be the world’s best player. Take, for example, last year, when Cristiano Ronaldo powered his way to a second Ballon d’Or in the wake of his one-man show against Sweden; an effort that took Portugal all the way to the World Cup.
FIFA had extended the deadline for the votes in the wake of that sublime performance, which dramatically shifted public opinion in favour of the Portuguese.
Questions raised on criteria for voting for a player
Now while we will refrain from insinuating that Ronaldo did not deserve to win last year (that would be ridiculous), there can be no doubt that the timing of his hat-trick on that night was crucial to securing the votes. What we will do, however, is raise the question of the factors involved in the crowning of a champion.
"I still haven't understood the criteria. One year it's about performance, the next it's about silverware." – Ronaldo in 2012
And he has hit the nail right on the head.
Messi’s crowning in 2011 in the wake of a disappointing World Cup was in stark contrast to Fabio Cannavaro lifting the prize after a spectacular World Cup in 2006. Franck Ribery spent a good six months blowing his own trumpet after Bayern Munich romped to the treble in 2013, only to see Ronaldo walk away with the glory on the basis of a quite scintillating 90-minute performance.
The importance of public opinion
All of this leads us to believe that timing, in life as in football, is crucial when it comes to the Ballon d’Or. As a consequence, there has been far too much preening and posturing in an attempt to sway public opinion.
Ronaldo and Real Madrid were furious at Sepp Blatter when the latter asserted that Ronaldo was an on-field commander who spent way too much time at the hairdresser’s. But everyone with half a brain learnt long ago that FIFA’s president considers the day wasted if he hasn’t said something that offends at least one major community. This is the man who makes sexist and homophobic comments with such disarming naivete that you begin to wonder if he really means any of it.
This time around, Real Madrid were outraged when Michel Platini voiced his opinion on who should win the Ballon d’Or, simply because the president of UEFA hinted that he would rather have a German winner in a year that saw Germany lift the World Cup.
Which brings us to Manuel Neuer’s assertion that he had little chance of triumphing over “underwear model” Ronaldo, whose global brand value makes him even more agreeable as a Ballon d’Or candidate.
Not that the Messi camp is far behind. Adidas are an official FIFA partner and have the exclusive right to promote Ballon d’Or merchandise. This has meant that Ronaldo has not been able to cash in on his Ballon d’Or triumphs in the way his great rival has in the past.
Of including Zinedine Zidane and excluding Luis Suarez
All in all, there is an air of political manoeuvring that would have Francis J. Underwood (played by the excellent Kevin Spacey in the political drama series House of Cards) licking his lips in glee. Case in point – Luis Suarez was excluded from the 23-man shortlist altogether this time around, despite enjoying a stellar season with Liverpool.
And for all those who (rightly) say that his conduct at the World Cup was responsible for the snub, it may be worth it to turn your attention to Zinedine Zidane. The maestro’s head-butting endeavours at the 2006 World Cup certainly didn’t stop him from finishing second in the World Player of the Year shortlist that year; he was in the top 10 in the Ballon d’Or shortlist as well.
Zidane enjoys a far more exalted position in our hearts, in a manner that Suarez can only dream of. To watch the old hero walk past a tempting World Cup as he made his way down the tunnel that night pulled at our heartstrings. Suarez, at best, can hope that the intervening years will earn him a measure of forgiveness outside his circle of loyalists.
Football has certainly come a long way since the time an unassuming Sir Stanley Matthews was first honoured with the Ballon d’Or. One only has to look at this year’s front-runner Cristiano Ronaldo to see that.
The Englishman was as self-effacing and modest as you could hope to be, even shifting deeper and deeper once defenders began giving him increased attention; all with the intention of being able to use his pin-point delivery to aid the team. Although it is hard to see Ronaldo adopting a gentlemanly attitude similar to Matthews, the similarities between the two are striking.
Sir Stanley’s longevity (he played at the very top level till he was 50 years old!) was attributed to his almost religious obsession with fitness and diet – a trait that has seen Ronaldo become a feared machine in the modern game. And while the Portuguese is without doubt the outstanding candidate for this year’s award, he will know that the efforts of his teammates demand to be lauded just as much.
It is no coincidence that Barcelona’s fall has seen Messi relegated to a spot in the background – a place Ronaldo inhabited when Real Madrid were beset by turmoil and in-fighting.
It is this that the Ballon d’Or will need to address in the years to come – for the Neuers, Lahms and Schweinsteigers of today, and for the Maldinis, Nestas and Vieras of yesterday. And what of the Tottis and Henrys who somehow never got their hands on football’s biggest individual honour? This game of ours will always have too many shining lights for the focus to remain solely on one electrifying individual.
Arsene Wenger has long since railed against the culture of individuality that hurts the “essence of our sport”. There are many who are inclined to think that the man is out of touch with reality, for a multitude of reasons. But for all his faults, Le Professeur has certainly schooled us in a lesson we ought to have learnt by now – no player takes precedence over the team.