Missing the Ballon

Cristiano Ronaldo was crowned the best footballer in the world for the last year in a glittering awards gala last night, celebrating the best individual achievements in the game.  While the pundits and plaudits came out in force to hype and fawn over the players and managers on show, I can’t help but feel that the Ballon D’Or and the accompanying pomp and ceremony is doing the game an injustice.

The main prize on offer was of course the Ballon D’Or, an award originally given by the French Magazine France Football from 1956 onwards for the best player in European football but appropriated by FIFA in recent years to give added weight to their less prestigious World Player of the Year gong.  The three players in the running were of course the winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who won the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid while keeping up a phenomenal striking record across all competitions; Manuel Neuer, the pre-eminent goalkeeper of the last few years as he won the World Cup with his native Germany and yet another Bundesliga with Bayern Munich; and finally Lionel Messi, already a four-time Ballon D’Or winner and now a World Cup finalist to boot.  Ronaldo was the best player in the world last year, as Messi’s injury problems at the start of the year held him back while Ronaldo anchored a fantastic team but still managed to steal the show himself week-in week-out.  Messi v Ronaldo is without a doubt the major player ‘rivalry’ of our age, and while I do believe that Messi will go down as one of the best players of all-time, almost on par with the likes of Pele and Maradona, Ronaldo definitely deserves credit as well.

The Ballon D’Or is a material and tangible way of looking at which player is best in the world, voted for by key managers and players from around the world – who can look objectively at the players that grace the global stage and define for themselves who they think is the best.  But is such an award really necessary in a game such as football, which is supposed to be about team skill?  The whole of FIFA’s awards ceremony last night was designed to showcase the best individuals that play football, and while there is definitely some that are worthy of the attention and accolades that come with it, it seems to be missing the point.

Take FIFA’s newly announced World XI from last year.  Ask almost any football fan which was the best team of last year, and they’ll say the German national team.  They played with style and efficiency at last year’s World Cup and were thoroughly deserving winners.  Ask almost any football fan which was the best team performance of last year, and they’ll say Germany 7-1 Brazil.  It was a once-in-a-generation seismic shift in the way we see football, as football’s hegemon was humiliated on its own turf in the most high-profile way possible.  Yet only three of the German team made it to the World XI, including Ballon D’Or nominee Neuer.  Even more curiously, David Luiz – part of the rubble that was the Brazilian defence on that night in Belo Horizonte was included.  Even though the team was somewhat democratically picked by 20,000 professional footballers, it still begs the question as to why these players are chosen for this platform.  Of course football is about opinion and debate, but in the fan’s mind it’s also heavily tipped in favour of the big games – and when these players don’t perform in the big games their inclusion seems to be more than strange.

With the way in which football is now reported much in the way that celebrity news is, with gossip and people taking the place of the games themselves in many ways, the intrigue of the game is moving further and further away from the action on the pitch.  It is an entertainment industry after all, and if that’s what fans are interested in then it is of course the media’s duty to report it, but for me the focus on footballers loses the spirit of what football is about.

Football is not about individuals, and no team can survive on its own around just single players.  None of the Ballon D’Or nominees have had success on club or national level because of themselves alone.  Neuer has been a part of two of the best sides in history in the last year, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid are entering a new phase of the Galacticos while his country Portugal are floundering even with his help, and try as Messi might, he could not steer Argentina to the elusive third World Cup win while missing support from other stars such as Sergio Aguero.  Star players give a team an edge, certainly, but the teams that really succeed are the ones that are solid across the board and win the big games to take them to glory.  That’s what football should be celebrating.

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