Count the Ballon d’Or as one of those grand old institutions that’s insanely popular. There are several reasons for it, too.
There’s history: The Ballon d’Or dates back to 1956, which means it predates the European Championships, yellow and red cards, substitutions, color TV, remote controls and of course, FIFA (the video game). There’s the fact that top players really, really care about winning it: Clubs mount campaigns on behalf of their star players, guys like Cristiano Ronaldo (despite already having five of these at home) get annoyed when it gets canceled (like it did last year due to the coronavirus pandemic), while Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski’s face lit up like a child hearing reindeer footsteps on the roof when he found out he was among the favorites.
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And then there’s the fact that it’s natural fodder for endless discussions, both of the social media and of the bar room kind: If the sport is some kind of lingua franca, then this is the equivalent of talking about the weather, a natural conversation starter when you don’t know what to say.
That’s why Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi winning his seventh Ballon d’Or ahead of Lewandowski and Chelsea’s Jorginho is, to many, a big deal. Particularly since — after Messi or the yin to his yang, Ronaldo, had won 11 of the 12 previous editions — this looked like the year somebody else might get the crown.
I say celebrate it for what it is: some kind of global popularity contest/water cooler moment. And that’s fine. Goodness knows we can all use more shared experiences of the sort that don’t involve spike proteins. But please don’t mistake it for what it is not — some sort of equivalent of an MVP award in U.S. sports. In some ways, it’s closer to college football’s Heisman Trophy — standouts who play glamour positions at big schools with big fan bases who play in big bowl games tend to win it — albeit with two important twists.
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The first is simply the jury. In an effort to make this as inclusive and comprehensive an award as possible, France Football (the magazine that awards the Ballon d’Or) sends out ballots to 180 journalists from 180 different countries. (Why not 211, since there are 211 FIFA member nations? It’s one of the mysteries of the Ballon d’Or.)
Some are comparable to MVP or Heisman voters: folks who cover the nitty-gritty of the sport daily and attend plenty of games. Many do not, simply because they’re dotted all over the world, and covering elite football in person, in this day and age, is an expensive luxury for most news organizations.
The upshot is that certain players inevitably have advantages. Those who play for popular teams. Those who play for teams that win high-profile competitions. Those who play as forwards and attacking midfielders and therefore regularly make highlight packages. And those who have good social media/PR teams. You know how both the AL and NL MVPs in Major League Baseball this year, Shohei Ohtani and Bryce Harper, didn’t make the playoffs? Yeah, there’s a greater chance of Lil Nas X revealing that he is, in fact, Q than there is of something similar happening in football.
Lionel Messi speaks after winning the men’s Ballon D’Or for a record-extending seventh time.
The other reason is the criteria. The United States’ representative on the jury, Soccer America editor Paul Kennedy, explained on Twitter that there are three guiding principles:
1. Individual and team performance in 2021 calendar year (well, Jan. 1 to Oct. 24);
2. Talent and sportsmanship of the player;
3. The player’s overall career.
(Note too that while it says “calendar year,” in fact all votes had to be in by Oct. 24, so it’s really just under 10 months. Voters stick to the criteria, and whatever happens in November and December each year is totally irrelevant — consider it one of the quirks that make the Ballon d’Or so lovable.)
The individual-performance bit makes sense and is pretty standard award fodder. Based purely on that, and looking at the top three, you’d probably put Lewandowski (who scored 45 goals in 35 games for Bayern in the allotted period and broke a single-season Bundesliga scoring record that had been around nearly half a century) ahead of Messi (who had 31 in 36) and Jorginho (who had far fewer, but, hey, he’s not a forward). Put the “team performance” part in there, though, and you’re basically giving the edge to guys who play for very good national teams.
Take the top three, and you note that all three won silverware to varying degrees — Messi won the Copa del Rey with Barcelona and the Copa America with Argentina, Lewandowski won the Bundesliga with Bayern, Jorginho won the Champions League with Chelsea and the Euros with Italy. And since Messi and Jorginho also won with their national teams, that’s supposed to be a mark in their favor. Never mind the fact that Lewandowski happens to be Polish, which makes winning with your country that much more difficult.
Don Hutchison and Jan Age Fjortoft believe Robert Lewandowski should have won the men’s Ballon d’Or.
But it’s the next two criteria where things get really wacky. Talent and sportsmanship?
I can live with sportsmanship — none of the top three are cartoon villains anyway — but talent? Really? Not only is it supremely subjective, but it also means that what you’re born with (talent) mattes more than what you do with it (application). And by that criteria, defenders and midfielders really don’t stand much of a prayer. Not to mention it runs counter to the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), but then again, France is known to be a proudly secular country.
And then there’s the final criteria: the player’s overall career. This basically means that if you live in the era of Messi and Ronaldo and your name isn’t Messi or Ronaldo, you probably don’t need to bother in this category, because you’re not going to come close to either one.
Lewandowski is 33 and one of the greatest goalscorers in history, with 453 top-flight goals. Messi has scored a hair under 50% more goals (676). Lewandowski has won a Champions League; Messi has four. Lewandowski has zero Ballons d’Or; Messi had six before the voting. How is Lewandowski (or anybody other than Ronaldo, whose numbers are comparable to Messi’s) meant to catch up?
But maybe that’s the point of the Ballon d’Or. It’s not meant to be scientific — the criteria are silly and, probably, ignored. The voters range from folks with access and knowledge and experience to folks with a monitor, thousands of miles away, who will only ever see these players in 2-D.
It’s meant to be a celebration of the sport’s elite performers. The players we all admire, the stars we look up to, the folks who do what we can’t, but once wished we could (and often still do). If you take it like that, discussions over whether Lewandowski or Jorginho or Karim Benzema or Ronaldo deserved it more than Messi will be that much less stressful.