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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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!