Oral Tracey | Ballon d’Or a publicity and marketing stunt
The outcry of several discerning football fans and experts against Argentine Barcelona star Lionel Messi being awarded the 2019 Ballon d’Or appears wider and more intense than on previous occasions, relating to the criteria and the process of deciding the winners of the once-perceived prestigious and valuable award.
The criteria for making the nominees shortlist have caused less contention, as there are generally very few, if any, doubts as to who the top performers and potential winners are. The authenticity of the process and the objective of the exercise come into question when the final choices are made, by whom they are made, and the reasons for which they are made.
As it now stands, national team coaches, national team captains, and select journalists constitute the voting cohort. There are no strict guidelines or stipulations to the voters in making their choice. People simply vote for the players they like or who they think deserves the award. There is no sophisticated technical football reasoning behind the process.
It is, therefore, no surprise that forwards, goalscorers and creative players have won all but four of the Ballon d’Or awards since its inception in 1956. Russian goalkeeping legend Lev Yashin, in 1963, remains the only goalkeeper to have won this award, while German defender Franz Beckenbauer in 1972 and 1976, and FIFA World Cup-winning Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 are the only defenders to have ever won this 63-year-old prize. That ridiculous and blatant bias towards attacking players remains as contemporary club bullies Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi have won 11 of the last 12 awards.
As the premise for winning this award remains an individual subjective choice, from the perspective of a football purist, another poignant flaw in the process is its disregard for the fundamental principle of rewarding individuals for the title-winning impact of their performances. Apart from the superior popularity of a player like Messi due mainly to his exciting style of play and his individual statistics, which are, by and large, dominated and exaggerated by his dominance of weak teams and low-pressure games.
When the pressure is on and the stakes are high, Messi, as he is prone to do, tends to disappear, as he did in this year’s crucial UEFA Champions League semi-final against Liverpool, as his team got shellacked and discombobulated. Those facts, however, will never be held against Messi by his adoring fans, who will continue to point to his incredible individual stats, devoid of in-depth analysis, while other teams and players run off with the ultimate prizes.
If the Ballon d’Or was a totally credible football award and not a popularity contest, there is no way Messi could have been given that token this season, ahead of Brazil and Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker. The Brazilian, who was the top-performing goalkeeper in the Champions League, as well as the top-performing goalkeeper in the South American Championship, the Copa America, playing pivotal roles for both his club and his country on their way to lifting both these massive titles, disposing of Messi and his teams in both competitions.
Virgil Van Dijk, Ronaldo and Sadio Mane all had big individual club seasons and far more impactful and successful international seasons than Messi, and would have been more credible winners of the Ballon d’Or in conventional football terms. Of course, this debate is now redundant, as the world slowly but surely recognises this Ballon d’Or charade as a mere popularity, publicity and marketing stunt, which Messi and his fans must cherish dearly, since he is clearly unable to actually WIN big international titles and trophies.