Lev vs Isaiah: The Ballon d’Or Conundrum

-Real de Madrid/Espanyol Barcelone- Liga - 12.05.2007

Isaiah: With the Ballon d’Or voting coming to a close whenever UEFA stops pushing the date back, Lev and I decided to have a Point-Counterpoint discussion regarding whether anyone should even care. Going into this clash of the brainy titans, we have our sides squarely figured out: Lev thinks the Ballon d’Or is the bee’s knees and I think it’s as useful as a prophylactic in the Barcelona dressing room.

My main contention is that Most Valuable Player awards in team sports are stupid because they devalue the contributions of the winner’s teammates. The Ballon d’Or purports to pick the best European-based player over the last 12 months, but given that there are 10 other players on the field (most of the time, if you’re not playing with Pepe) and it’s hard to take on a solid mass of players with no defense to back you up in case you fail, I’m not convinced that there’s any particular merit to “being the best”. What I think Ballon d’Or means is “person people liked watching the most this year” and that is almost always a forward.

Lev: I am not sure whether a discussion between a person who understands and uses words like prophylactic and an ignorant bastard such as myself is a fair one, but here goes…

I don’t think the Ballon d’Or devalues the contributions of the winner’s teammates. On the contrary, I quite believe that the majority of players would want the best footballer of the world on their team to help them win the prizes that really matter, such as league championships and CL trophies. Only boys in thongs put their screwfaces on when their balls are not voted certified gold. And although I do agree that what constitutes “the best” in any given year can be a murky affair, the jury is made up out of a wide selection of journalists, coaches and team captains. The fact that the award is almost always given to a forward / attacking midfielder is very logical – they are usually the best players. The Ballon d’Or, while neither terribly important nor perfect, is simply a way of recognizing and paying tribute to the most influential footballer of the year.

BdO: when being rich, handsome and great at football isn't good enough.
BdO: when being rich, handsome and great at football isn’t good enough.

Isaiah: I think you’ve sort of hit the nail on the head, if possibly inadvertently: as far as I know, there’s no actual criteria for the Ballon d’Or, so it ends up being a popularity contest rather than an actual discussion of who is the best player at the time and popularity is so often measured in goals and highlights that it’s hard to separate the 2. In 2009 and 2011, Victor Valdes was absolutely crucial to Champions League victories—remember his string of saves to start off the 2009 CL final against Manchester United?—yet he was never even mentioned for the prize. In fact, I think only 3 defenders and 1 goalkeeper have ever been selected (Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, Mathias Sammer in 1996, Franz Beckenbauer in 1976, and Lev Yashin in 1963). The idea that “journalists, coaches and team captains” make for a responsible set of voters is, to me, laughable. In last year’s voting, Dutch captain Wesley Sneijder vote for Robin van Persie first. Spain’s captain, Iker Casillas, voted for Sergio Ramos. Germany’s coach voted for Mesut Ozil followed by Manuel Neuer. Colombia’s media representative voted for Falcao. Ivory Coast’s for Didier Drogba. Spain’s for Iniesta. Possibly notably, Germany’s journalist voted for Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi in that order. In the end, however, it is almost meaningless who specifically votes for whom because it will end up being a popularity contest rather than an actual discussion of what “most valuable player” really means.

Footballers or diplomats?

Lev: Are you suggesting Victor Valdes deserved a Ballon d’Or in 2009 or 2011? More on that later. If you are going to turn this into an argument about how to improve the voting process, then we can only agree. I personally think we should ban voters from electing countrymen and teammates in order to avoid what you outlined above. I also find it ridiculous that we are supposed to judge players on how they performed during a calendar year instead of one complete season. If FIFA applied these two quick and painless fixes the BdO would avoid a lot of criticism. Of course, no matter what they do, there will often be some room for discussion over a decision which is never reached unanimously to begin with. However, I don’t see that as a problem. As for Valdes, I think his best season was 2010 and I struggle to see how the argument can be made that he was more deserving than La Pulga in either of the seasons you mentioned. Goalkeepers are a completely different animal altogether, of course, and you can’t really compare them to outfielders. They should have their own award. As for the popularity contest and the influence of goals scored in determining the winner, it simply comes back to what I wrote earlier: forwards and attacking midfielders are usually the best players, which makes the ones who excel at those positions logical BdO candidates.

Isaiah: It’s not that Victor Valdes deserved the Ballon d’Or for being the best player in any particular year (whichever of those you deem his best, and it should be noted that the Ballon d’Or specifically does suffer from the calendar year versus season problem), it’s that without him, Messi would not have been considered the best. That’s the whole point: without a supporting cast, it’s impossible to succeed in a team sport. I like your particular tweaks to the voting rules, but in the end your last sentence is exactly what I disagree with: forwards and attacking midfielders aren’t usually the best players, they’re the most glamorous players because so few people understand what defenders and defensive midfielders do though they’re quick to jump on them for mistakes. To take a Barcelona example, Pique can have an immense game, but if the opposition scores because, say, Messi didn’t defend properly and let a 2v1 develop, it’s Pique that gets the stick for being “out of position” or “slow” or whatever adjective anyone wants to use to describe him. That’s not to say that Pique is always faultless–far from it–but in a team sport where ebb and flow is so important, end results are perceived as products of individual moments (ie, goals are scored by brilliant finishers and the last pass is always the most important one) rather than as the intersection of a million interconnected variables (a ball is recovered on the flank and a series of passes moves the ball up one side, a run down the other side by a winger draws a defender a step backwards allowing a forward the space to receive the ball). If we’re to talk about there being a major difference between goalies and outfield players to the point where there should be a second award for them, I would argue that there should be 4 awards: best goalie, best defender, best midfielder, and best forward. Comparing apples to oranges can be an enjoyable experience at a bar over a few rounds of beer, but the truth is that these are subjective notions and as such are remarkably affected by personal biases already in place.

Lev: Well, the difference between goalkeepers and outfielders is incomparably bigger than the difference between defenders, midfielders and forwards. And although your argumentation for soccer being a team sport where all the players depend on each other is sound, it fails to take into consideration a fundamental truth: the most talented footballers play in forward positions. Europe is filled with players who one day started out as attackers but were not good enough on the highest level until they were converted towards more defensive positions. Our own club is rife with examples of the same. Jordi Alba didn’t make the cut as a left forward, but he’s a fine left back. Puyol started out as a striker. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst was a playmaking midfielder at Feyenoord. Edgar Davids made his debut as a winger, as did Winston Bogarde. The list is endless and the reason very simple. Ball control, dribbling, vision and scoring are skills that are more special and therefore more difficult to develop than say, defensive positioning, tackling and build-up play. It is easier to prevent a goal than to score one, and easier to destroy than to create. Really this is about as subjective as 1+1 = 2

See? It’s easy.

Isaiah: Oh, so now we’re going to get into math? Did I ever mention that I love statistics and once attempted to design an efficiency rating for individual players because, well, that’s the sort of thing I used to have time to do? Well, I did. And here’s what happened: it fell flat on its face because there’s no way to assign an objective, numbers-driven statistical analysis to the contributions of an individual in such a dynamic sport as football. You seem to agree with this and then you digress into the idea that the most talented players play up front. Is that what the Ballon d’Or measures? The most talented player over the last year? I was under the impression that it was fetting thebest player. And, since we’re using statistics, wouldn’t on-field success define “best” more objectively than any other criteria? Whereas, if we were really talking about a Most Valuable Player, we’d be talking about a player whose contributions to his team led them to a greater performance than their talent would normally allow? Because talent is unquantifiable, how do you determine who is the most talented and what’s even the point?

But I’m not sure I accept your premise that the most talented play up front. There’s a particular genius that I’m thinking of: he’s not much to look at physically and he’s not really a goalscorer, preferring to pass, but the talent Andres Iniesta displays is hardly lower than all but one or two players on the planet. There are days when I think that he’s better than Messi and certainly there have been days when he was more effective. If Cristiano Ronaldo is the apex of the Real Madrid talent world, why is that Mesut Ozil’s departure was a major blow to the tactical makeup of that team? To take an example out of Real Madrid’s slightly more ancient past, remember when Claude Makelele departed and the team didn’t seem to function properly for years? So, then, the absence of a player seems to be as big a factor as the presence of another. It’s not that Makelele went on to light the world on fire–never his style–it’s that his style lent itself to allowing everyone else to flourish. So is that talent, value, or just destroying? It’s not that Iniesta or Makelele aren’t talented, it’s that they’re not goalscorers and as such aren’t the sexy footballers the media can rave over. Is this a beauty contest or a question of who contributes more to his team throughout the year? Can you quantify the number of points a mid-table team wouldn’t have without a particular player? What about a team at the top of the table?

Thank you Flor for selling Makelele!
Thank you Flor for selling Makelele!

Levon: Of course nobody can quantify the number of points any particular player contributes to his team. If it were all mathematical, which thankfully it is not, then FIFA could just pull out their calculator instead of having people vote. As it stands I think they should be judged on a combination of factors, talent being one, how well they performed another, and the value of their individual perfomance over the year to their team.

As for the talent question, I definitely include attacking mids in the top tier along with forwards. Özil is a rare gem who I find a lot more enjoyable to watch than Cristiano Ronaldo, but you can’t seriously think that he was a more important player for M*drid than the great Preener from Portugal. And are you suggesting that Claude Makelele should at some point of his career have won a Ballon d’Or? You are right that he was an exceptional player. His best shot might have been 2002 for what he did at M*drid, but of course his teammate Fat Ron went on a tear in Korea/Japan and, you know, France got torn up, so there’s that… 2003 and 2004 were kind of weak years, the first of which went to Nedved, despite the fact that Thierry Henry was taking the EPL by storm and ’04 should have gone to Deco or Ronnie or Henry but they gave the nod to Shevchenko instead. The case can definitely be made for Claude not to have received enough recognition during that time. Either way Flor made a monumental mistake when he refused Makelele’s request for a salary bump, as he stupidly thought he could substitute the Gaul for a Galactico. The problem was not just that the big guy left, though. Our dear president (hehehe) completely messed up the balance of the team by not only failing to replace the man, but the whole position.

Still, I am not arguing that defensive-minded players can’t be the best, or even most talented, player in any given year (have you ever known me to take the dogmatic approach?), but I will maintain that they form the exception rather than the rule. In general terms, attacking players are definitely more gifted footballers. Andres Iniesta is an attacking midfielder whose incredible abilities include most of the skills I mentioned earlier, namely vision, ball control and dribbling… Imagine how good he would be if scoring were part of his repertoire. He might, by the way, be better than Messi on some days, but there are never any days that I think he is a better footballer than Messi.

Come to daddy...
Come to daddy…

Isaiah: So it can’t be quantified, but it’s as easy as 1+1=2?

Here’s a real world example: in 2006, a team from nowheresville, Spain reached the Champions League semifinal. They were led by a brilliant, talented, and altogether incredible player named Juan Roman Riquelme. That Villarreal side had no business in the Champions League semifinal and they very nearly made it to the final but for a missed penalty. Their semifinal opponents were Arsenal, the team finally reaching the heights their previous brilliance had deserved. If you can name me 4 players from that team without looking, I’d be impressed. I can name probably 9 of Arsenal’s starting lineup from the resulting final. Riquelme was backed up by some good talent–Marco Senna, Juan Pablo Sorin, and a young Santi Cazorla), but the striker in front of him was Guillermo Franco. If taking that team to the semis of the Champions League doesn’t deserve some sort of credit, what does? Riquelme’s subsequent stand on the Ballon d’Or podium was inspiring–oh wait he didn’t make the top 3. Fabio Cannavaro won it, with Gigi Buffon and Thierry Henry 2nd and 3rd.

In 2010, the award went to Messi, with Xavi and Iniesta backing him up. Of course, there was a team that won the treble that year–Internazionale–and a player who not only won the treble, but also led his team to the World Cup final. Yet Wesley Sneijder was snubbed, failing like Riquelme to make the podium in a year when he was in scintillating form and failed only to have his teammate (Arjen Robben) score a 1v1 (created by Sneijder, if I’m not mistaken) against Iker Casillas. That was Sneijder’s grand failure of 2010: having a teammate that couldn’t score the goal that would have won a World Cup. So it was Messi, whose team was crushed 4-0 in that World Cup’s knockout rounds, whose team lost to Sneijder’s in the Champions League semifinals, and whose team was bounced from the domestic cup in the round of 16. That only makes sense, of course, because Messi scored an outrageous number of goals throughout the calendar year (Sneijder also won the Club World Cup with Inter).

In a lot of ways, the question for me is whether it’s more impressive for Leo Messi to take Barcelona to the Champions League final or for Riquelme to take Villarreal to the semifinal? Because the answer to that is a complex question involving teams, it renders the concept of a Most Valuable Player award in a team sport meaningless. If Messi were to beat Stoke on a cold Wednesday night you could easily argue that he had prodigious talent around him to help him along with that, but if Messi took Stoke to the semifinal of the Champions League, everyone would chalk that up to a fluke and poo-poo his Ballon d’Or chances because maybe they didn’t win the Carling Cup or it’s a World Cup year and clearly the winner of that team deserves the accolades (as if winning the World Cup isn’t enough personal glory).

This isn’t tennis, where you do all the work. And if it’s doubles, the whole team wins (and everyone agrees they had equal shares of the title), but somehow there’s an individual distinction amongst 11 players (10 outfielders, since you refuse to give goalies their full player citizenship!). I don’t get it.

The journalists' pick of 2010, Wesley Sneijder.
The journalists’ pick of 2010, Wesley Sneijder.

Levon: You are twisting my arguments. Whoever should win the Ballon d’Or in any given year is not quantifiable in mathematical terms, but attacking mids and forwards being more talented than defensive footballers is indeed as easy as 1+1… The fact that you proceed by making the BdO case for two classic number 10s seem to underline that particular talent question, but let’s move on from that.

I always felt that Cannavaro was a cop-out choice made to reward an Italy side that won a World Cup by playing maybe one good match during the whole tournament. Then again, no player stood head and shoulders above the others that year. Ronnie’s chances were crippled by a disastrous WC, in which Zidane shone after sleepwalking through the club season. Riquelme (or Henry) would probably have been more inspiring choices…

As for Sneijder, he was the heart of the treble-winning Internazionale side and of the Dutch team that somehow made the finals of South Africa 2010. My enduring image, however, was of Wesley yelling his lungs out at Howard Webb for failing to give us a corner when his free kick bounced off of the Spanish wall instead of tracking back to defend against the last-minute goal that cost my country the World Cup it historically so deserves. Still, if anything, his chances were hurt by the fact that the BdO is awarded for the performance during a calendar year and he did play like crap in his second season at Inter. Tellingly there were very few protests from the Dutch media and/or public when Messi was chosen above him. The Argentine’s brilliance was widely acknowledged.

So there you have it. As with most individual awards in team sports, there will be years where the winner is debatable, and the current set-up of the Ballon d’Or is total crap far from flawless. It is important to remember that as far as prizes go, this is just a bonus one, of which even its detractors like to argue over who should have received it. I don’t see anything wrong with honoring a single player every year with an award. The difficulty of determining who that player should be doesn’t make it meaningless… provided that we don’t seek to give it too much meaning to begin with!


Categorized as Barcelona

By Levon

Culé since way before football boots were of the neon yellow and lizard green variety, Levon is a deep thinker with increasingly shallow thoughts. He lives in Barcelona with his gorgeous wife and daughter. The lucky bastard...


    1. I really like that analysis.
      Everyone has forgotten the half-season that changed our fortunes forever when Ronaldinho joined us. No, not the first half, the second half where Edgar Davids and Xavi played a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1.

      For me, I’d love a midfield trio of Vidal – Cesc – Busquets where defensively Vidal and Busquets would provide excellent cover and offensively Vidal and Cesc could get forward in turns.

    2. You know whose name came up today? Oriol Romeu. Man, talk about the natural Busquets substitute. The breaks were bad for him, and he’s doing very well at Valencia now. I’d love to see him back in the colors.

  1. I love this, from Pique (excerpt from an AP story about his presser today):

    Wednesday’s comments came days after Cristian Tello and Marc Montoya said they could look to leave at season’s end if their minutes did not improve.

    Pique says “I understand Tello and Montoya, but this is Barca and we all fight for our starting place. The exit door is always open if you aren’t happy.”

    1. He has been doing very nice work. The other problem for me is that Sanchez and Neymar aren’t really scorers, but creators who can score. We have a team full of creators, but nobody whose actual job is to put the ball in the net.

  2. KXEVIN – If Barca goes for a striker, does it go for a garden gnome type (Aguero) or a big unit (Gomez). I’ve always favoured the big unit myself who can provide aerial power.
    Surely, Tata is only using Cesc as a false nine to retain team harmony. It’s a political decision. Wonder how he breaks free of that, and all the legacy players he’s inherited.

    1. That is the million-dollar question. If you look at the roster, it is built to play in a way that opponents have figured out. So now what?

      This doesn’t even get into Tello, Afellay and Dos Santos, who will all need to go to their forever homes in summer. And I am presuming there will be a gold watch ceremony for Puyol. Pique needs real competition, Iniesta needs to adapt and Xavi needs a situation that allows him to be his best, which might be playing every other match.

      That’s a lot. In addition, there is the striker question. Aguero is a non-starter for me. I would love it if Lewandowski was in the picture, but he is Bayern-bound. If Lewandowski unsettles Mandzukic, that would be an interesting quandary worth considering.

      But the striker has to have size, be mobile, have good control and be able to pass. He also can’t be wasteful (even as we note that all strikers are wasteful). The Dzeko rumor had traction for a bit, but man, expensive player for what we need, since I don’t see a 9 being a full-time, gala XI starter.

      A name like Jackson Martinez impresses, but Porto … that means top dollar, a price that would make matches where he has to sit on the bench rather … um … noteworthy.

    2. Agree. Big tall back-to-goal striker with some mobility who can play wall passes with Messi. Anything to keep those pesky CBs honest.

  3. I’m not overly concerned with height for our striker. Lewandowski is probably the only big player that I could see us signing.

    Aguero would cost an absolute truck load and I’d much prefer to sign Luis Suarez for similar money. If anyone has watch him this season he is probably the best striker in the world by a country mile.
    When he was with Ajax he said that we were his favourite club and he is a genunine goal scorer.

    I think we need to add height to our team certainly, I think in midfield and full back positions we are very short, and a bigger keeper might help also for set piece situations.

    I’m disappointed at how many of our youth players are so impatient. Montoya, Tello, Sanabria etc. I’d hate to see Montoya leave for free and I think Sanabria could be worth a lot more than his €3m buyout clause. Tello I understand as he isn’t improving and he gave the club this season to see if he could break into the team which isn’t really happening. The season is long though, he might improve yet.

  4. Off topic but really sad, if inevitable, news about Mandela. Our school has an exchange scheme with one of the township schools there and the youngsters just arrived here today with beaming faces 🙁

    1. A man dying at the age of 95 years old is not sad news to me. May his life be celebrated for a very long time. If only more world leaders were like him. I am in awe of the man.

    2. Just colour me soft then, Lev. I remember watching the day he walked out of prison. One of few days in my life I’ve felt we as a race took a step forward. Time for celebrating tomorrow maybe.

    3. Oh, I don’t think it is about being hard or soft, Jim. Just a different outlook on life and death, I guess.

      Nelson Mandela took a huge step forward for all of mankind. His life should serve as a beacon to all (which is why it is a shame that so few followed).

      Anyway, let world affairs be world affairs. Barça’s got a huge game coming up against the mighty Cartagena.

    1. Spain nearly has a Group of Death on its hands! The Germany/Portugal/Ghana/USA and England/Italy/Uruguay/Costa Rica groups should provide some good games as well.

      France sure got off easy, considering how they struggled to get to this point!

  5. The draw was an absolute joke.
    Switzerland being a seed? Ridiculous.

    Brazil – Croatia – Mexico – Cameroon is tough
    Spain – Holland – Chile – Australia is tough
    Uruguay – Costa Rica – England – Italy is tough
    Germany – Portugal – Ghana – USA is tough

    Switzerland – Ecuador – France – Honduras is poor.
    Argentina – Bosnia – Iran – Nigeria is poor.
    Colombia – Greece – Ivory Coast – Japan is poor.
    Belgium – Algeria – Russia – Korea is poor.

    So 4 really good groups and 4 bad groups will mean that a lot of really good teams will be going home when the likes of Greece and Switzerland will be going through.

    1. It was inevitable given the way the teams were seeded.

      It could have been worse though – something like Spain, Italy, Japan, Netherlands was entirely possible (as was Switzerland, Algeria, Honduras, Greece)

      Still, there will be a Round of 16 game between either Brazil and Spain or Brazil and the Netherlands. And that’s way too early for such a game…

  6. people, watch pedro’s goal celebrations vs cartagena and tell me that isnt a shout out to abidal. very cool. and great goals for the P!.

  7. Also, very happy for Dongou – goal in his official debut even if it’s a tap-in. Hopefully, he will shine in the first team (as opposed to Barca B). He scored in most of his appearances with the first team in the pre-season too

    1. That was a lot more than just a tap-in. His positioning was excellent, and he put some welly on it and all. Very happy for him. And I adored how Puyol ran the length of the pitch to congratulate him.

    2. yes i love that too! how puyol congratulate him, would be a positive moral boost for youngster. Happy for Doungou debut goal

  8. So what role was Song playing? A sort of box-to-box false-nine? Sometimes he was almost standing with the CBs. I think Tata has visions of using him as a back-to-goal forward. Then he can use his strength to play wall passes with the midfield.

    1. He was in front of Busi most of the times but didn’t really penetrate. When I saw the line up, of course I hated that we played with 2 DM’s against a 3rd division team but I was hoping that Tata would ask Song to be more aggressive offensive wise.

    2. Song did get into the box a few times, and Tata said something after the game about him having to adapt into an attacking midfield position (as it doesn’t come naturally to him).

    3. I thought that Song should’ve just played in DM instead of Busi and Cesc playing the AM role. There is a stat going around where it shows that Cesc is much more useful as a AM then as a false 9.

      Besides the stats, it is about time that Cesc gets to get a chance to take over Xavi’s role. It has to happen sooner or later. Why waste his (Cesc) talent in false 9 when he is so much more productive in midfield where he belongs and will have to carry the team for many years to come.

      There was a great chance to play;


      Tata could’ve let Dongo’u play in his natural position, #9 or try Alexis out at false 9 which he can, probably the 2nd best after Messi in this team. And play Adama at LW and Pedro at RW.

      Or Alexis and Pedro in the wings and Dongo’u in the middle where he belongs.

      Cesc at F9 experiment has to stop!!

      Of course the players are to be blamed for the lackluster (another!) performance but the manager has to carry some of the blame for the poor line up. The substitutions last night were poor too. I don’t understand why he had to wait so long to make changes when the win was already in the bag, against a 3rd division team!

      Hopefully we’ll get to see more fringe players and youngsters in the 2nd leg.

      Or play Adama at L

  9. I found this moment so funny and adorable! Dongo’u getting his face squeezed by Puyol. Dongo’u is nearly half Puyol’s age!

    Thankfully I recorded the match on DVR and I recorded it this clip on my phone and uploaded it onto YouTube.



    I hope there is an IT genius here who can do a GIF of this funny moment. If you need photos instead, I’ll take multiple photos as I still have the match on DVR just in case 🙂

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