The 2014 FIFA Ballon D’or 2014 ceremony has come and gone and once more all the usual questions are being asked, almost always preceded by “Wait, what?!”. The Ballon D’or ceremony now includes the three biggest awards in the game today, the Ballon D’or award for the best player of the year, the FIFPro World XI and the Puskas Award for the best goal of the year.
FIFA itself has not had the best year. Actually that’s an understatement; this is probably the worst year for FIFA since its formation. The organisations reputation has taken a battering, from allegations of corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability to internal schisms. It’s been a PR nightmare for FIFA, every time FIFA has tried to clear the muddied water a new avalanche of filth just seems to fall back in. The Garcia/Eckert report which was designed to clear FIFA from any wrongdoing has only served to exacerbate the accusations. So this all begs the question, is the Ballon D’or still a day for the footballing purists or is even this no longer immune to FIFA’s failings?
FIFA Puskas Award – Winner: James Rodriguez
Usually the most contentious award down to its subjective nature, this year’s award added a whole new level of controversy. Since its inception there has always been two elements of contention; the subjective nature of a beautiful goal and the fact the award is given “without distinction of championship, gender or nationality”. This year’s 3 candidates checked off every element of controversy possible. James Rodriguez’s goal, the winner, though sublime was the kind of goal you will see 5-6 times a year in the Big 5 Football leagues and international competitions. Robin Van Persie’s flying header was incredibly unique though it is questionable whether or not it was as beautiful as some of the scorchers competing with it.
The final and easily the most controversial goal came from Stephanie Roche – A female footballer playing in Ireland scored in a match against Wexford Youths. The inclusion of Roche’s wonder goal has been accused of tokenism, that it was scored against poor opposition and ultimately wasn’t actually better than many other goals scored that season. Proponents of Roche’s made two arguments; if Messi or Ronaldo had scored this goal no one would question it and secondly that it is good for women’s football. To the first the point, though valid, doesn’t deal with the fact that Messi or Ronaldo will never face such poor opposition and that goals scored by the likes of Rodriguez and Van Persie were scored against the highest calibre of opposition on the biggest stages. Whilst the criteria of the award does excuse this retort it isn’t a criticism that should be ignored – the calibre of the opposition, particularly the defence, has to be taken into account, otherwise there is no gradient for measuring quality. The second point, though valid, has the distinct issue that it is political in nature and frankly, who cares, this is football not politics. Many people agreed with the inclusion of Roche’s goal and voted for it simply because it was the only female candidate and they wanted to promote equality in the game. It became a viral pop culture moment in the game, where politics invaded the space, where because people wanted this goal to be the best goal in 2014, they decided that it was the best goal in 2014, regardless of quality of the goal, the opposition or of the other goals scored in the year. I’m an egalitarian and I’d love Women’s Football to be as good as the men’s; hey, if it means I’ve got more great football to watch then frankly I couldn’t care less about gender, nationality or league; I just like football. But just because I want it to be a certain way, doesn’t mean it is.
There is criticism to be held of Rodriguez’s victory and inclusion as well. As said before this goals was world class, but a few goals of this ilk will be scored year on year. This goal was included because it was at the World Cup and we know how much FIFA likes to promote the World Cup. If Rodriguez had scored this goal for Monaco I truly doubt it would have won, and maybe it wouldn’t have even been included.
Whilst I can understand these goals inclusions and even the victory it once again goes to show just how deep the political tendrils of FIFA are embedded in all aspects of the organisation. This award is still hugely politicised and full of hypocrisy; Rodriguez’s goal was included because of the competition it was scored in, whilst Roche’s goal was included regardless of the competition it was scored in. Though this award came down to a public vote it was no more democratic than a Chinese election; you pick who to vote for, but they pick your options.
FIFPro World XI
The FIFPro World XI is often accused of favouritism, but it is decided by over 50,000 professional footballers from over 70 nations, all picking their own best XI. Of course the sides are often unbalanced as there are no distinct positions, only areas (Specifically 1 Keeper, 4 Defenders, 3 Midfielders and 3 Attackers). Here’s this year’s team:
Whilst some players are nailed on, like Neuer, Lahm, Ronaldo and Messi, there is some eyebrow raising stuff in there. Let’s get some perspective firstly, here’s who didn’t get into the team; Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze, Diego Godin, Diego Costa, Joao Miranda, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Luka Modric, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eden Hazard and Luis Suarez.
So yeah, no World Champion Mats Hummels, who was a star turn in what was probably the finest international defence at the tournament, no Vincent Kompany, who captained Manchester City to another Premier League title, a League Cup title and took Belgium to the quarter finals. No. That position goes to David Luiz; who won… Oh wait, nothing. In fact it was actually the year he had his reputation as a defensive liability solidified, dropping out of the Chelsea first team and taking Brazil to a defensive horror show at their own World Cup. A similar argument could be had against Thiago Silva, whose only triumphs came in the comparatively diminutive French League, but was he more worthy of a spot then either Hummels or Kompany? Or what about Godin or Miranda, who performed miracles in defence to see Atletico to a league title in a thoroughly monopolised league? I think not. And what about Andres Iniesta? We all know what a talent the little Spanish playmaker is and there are no doubts that he will be remembered as one of the all-time greats, but what about his 2014? He won nothing, no Copa Del Rey, no League title and an appalling World Cup. Here is a player in on reputation, because there is no way I can be convinced that he had a better 2014 than the likes of Sami Khedira, Yaya Toure, Mario Gotze, Luke Modric or Bastian Schweinsteiger. Arjen Robben, though the most understandable and perhaps agreeable controversial inclusion, did have an excellent year, but it was one marred by exceptional levels of unsportsmanship, with the player having made several high profile dives, most notably against Mexico in the World Cup. Was he any more deserving than Luis Suarez, Diego Costa or Sergio Aguero?
Now some will question these criticisms, they’ll say it was a subjective vote by professional footballers and it’s not always going to turn out how it should have done. But there is still room for what I’m calling ‘intended error’. Face it, there’s no way that this side couldn’t have not included some Brazilians, not after they held the World Cup. The problem is that there isn’t a single Brazilian in any of the Worlds Leagues who could be said to have had an exceptional year, not on a par to their rivals that is. They’ve at most been important cogs in machines, rather than the stars of the show. But David Luiz? Really? I know he’s a popular man, particularly in Brazil, but his inclusion after his train-crash of a year really does have me wondering about ‘soft-power’ manipulation in FIFA. His inclusion bares all the hallmarks of political inclusion, rather than one earned on merit or ability.
The Ballon D’or – Winner: Cristiano Ronaldo
Saving the best till last, the most talked about and debated award, the FIFA World Player of the Year Award, now known as the Ballon D’or. In recent years it has been a straight up fight between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and you could hardly argue against it; between them in years gone they’ve been setting all the benchmarks and every year they’ve each won at least one trophy, title or landmark that sets them about from all the rest. This year was slightly different though, as though they both had fantastic years by anyone’s reckoning, and though they are in all probability the two best players in the world, this year it could easily be argued that a couple of other footballers had better, more remarkable years. This year Lionel Messi won nothing, with the exception of a dubiously awarded World Cup Golden Ball. He had an excellent season, scoring 49 goals in 59 games for club and country – but for Messi this was his lowest scoring season since 2009 and when you add in the fact he failed to lift a single piece of silverware it was probably a year to forget for the Barcelona man. On to Ronaldo, the eventual winner of the Ballon D’or. He too had a sensational year in terms of his goal scoring, netting 56 times in 56 games for club and country and he compounded it by guiding Real Madrid to La Decima, their tenth Champions League title as well as the Copa Del Rey. But again there is a mitigating factor – the league showing of the club was dismal, dropping to third place behind Atletico and Barca. He also had a shocking World Cup, with Portugal not even making it out of the group stages and Ronaldo himself scoring just the one goal. Manuel Neuer was the clearest cut though in terms of his year, winning the German League, the German Cup and being the best Goalkeeper at the World Cup, being vital to Germany’s World Cup win. He may not have been an avid goal scorer like Ronaldo and Messi, but the German goalkeeper picked up a gargantuan 29 clean sheets in 59 games for club and country. Similar stats can be broken out for Phillip Lahm, who though not being a top 3 contender was my personal pick for the Ballon D’or due to him captaining both Bayern Munich and Germany to their feats. But why didn’t they win? Well for one a defender or goalkeeper just isn’t that sexy of a position, unlike the strikers they don’t get the big moments, the pandemonium inducing goals that set stadiums alight with joy. Goalkeepers and defenders are only really noticed when they make a mistake or do something wrong, the rest of the time they fly under the radar as the strikers get all the replays. But that being said everyone noticed Manuel Neuer, that’s just how good he was this season, and he has probably set himself up as not just the greatest keeper of this generation, but probably of all time as well.
But, like the FIFPro XI, this award is voted for by players; by the captains of the national teams and the managers as well as small selection of journalists. Each voter gets to vote for 3 individuals on the shortlist in order. It would be a fairly pure system, if it weren’t so horrendously abused. Year after year we see cases of tactical voting, voting on club or country lines or voting for personal reasons (ex-club mates, friends etc). This system sees certain types of players horrifically ostracised from any likelihood of victory. Notably; any player who has played exclusively in one country, any player who has played for exclusively one club, players whose clubs have mostly one nationality (as they are likely to have fewer national captains on their side) and any player who has not cultivated a large reputation. Notice any one player who checks off almost that entire list? Yep Manuel Neuer, or Philipp Lahm. It most heavily favours Cristiano Ronaldo, who of course won. The proof is in the pudding and the tactical or heavily biased voting is easy to see. Here’s a selection of who voted for whom:
Cristiano Ronaldo: Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema (Ronaldo clearly doesn’t think Messi is even in the top 3 players in the world…)
Lionel Messi: Angel di Maria, Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano (Messi returns the favour, suggesting that teammate Mascherano is clearly a superior footballer.)
Wayne Rooney: Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Bale (You’d think Rooney once played with Ronaldo, as he again suggests Messi doesn’t make it into the top 3.)
Neymar: Messi, Ronaldo, Mascherano (Voting on club lines, but at least this one’s a lot more reasonable than the others.)
Iker Casillas: Ronaldo, Ramos, Thomas Muller (Real, Real, German… Sure, Messi you are just clearly inferior. All of these professionals don’t even think your top 3 material here.)
Joachim Low: Neuer, Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger (Hey guys, I found the German.)
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Neuer, Lahm, Muller (Oh look, there’s two of them. The Germans clearly don’t rate Ronaldo or Messi. Such poor players.)
Robin van Persie: Robben, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neuer (Wow… Really… I don’t even need to be sarcastic here…)
Once more the Ballon D’or illustrates that the award is not given on the basis of the best player in the world, it’s a heavily politicised award that essentially gets given to the most popular kid in school.
Whilst you might agree with many of the awards recipients, whilst you might find that ultimately they get it right most of the time, the process and reality of how these players pick up these awards is quite clear; it has absolutely nothing to do with football. Football’s the sideshow and this award is given on political or personal lines. The question now is how much credit do we give these awards; frankly, none. The lack of any accountability or any objectivity for that matter, in the voting processes shows that these awards are about as democratic as Soviet Russia. This would be fine if these awards were given based on expert opinion, from concise, reliable objective analysis, but we don’t even get that. From FIFA and World Cups to the awards for the best footballers and goals, politics and personal rivalries have oiled their way into every element of the game. Only one question yet remains;
Since when did football stop being about the beautiful game?