FIFA released its Ballon d'Or shortlist on Tuesday, which includes usual suspects Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as well as a six-player contingent from treble-winners Bayern Munich, including recently-crowned UEFA Best Player in Europe, Franck Ribery.
Messi and Ronaldo have both had strong performances in 2013, but the only just result this year would be for FIFA to honor a player from Bayern. Although the award is officially designated as "individual," no player operates in a vacuum, and team success speaks in ways that expose the limitations of simple and isolated statistics like goals scored.
Quite simply, if scoring a lot of goals over the course of the year was all that mattered in football, Ronaldo's Real Madrid and Messi's Barcelona would have competed in the Champions League final in May.
Since he was named UEFA's Best Player in Europe, Bayern winger Ribery must similarly be a front-runner for world football's most prestigious individual award. He's the best player from indisputably the best team in world football, and that deserves recognition, even in spite of his relatively lesser prolificacy in attack when compared to Ronaldo and Messi, whose scoring records it must be admitted are otherworldly.
In today's stats-laden world of football analysis, much is said of the rate at which Messi and Ronaldo score. But the field of statistics can often be deceptive, and it's easy to draw seemingly logical conclusions from limited data. A player's value and quality is dependent on more than goals scored in all competitions.
Not all goals are created equal. Depending on the beholder, one goal may be more significant than five if the former is the winner in the Champions League final and the five make the score 4-0, 5-0, 6-0, 7-0 and 8-0 in a rout of a relegation-battling team.
Ronaldo's tally of 34 goals in last season's La Liga is brilliant, and the player deserves high praise for having one of the most prolific domestic seasons in the Spanish top flight. However, his record sounds much less impressive when considering that 19 of them came when Real had already taken the lead.
The reality is that although Ronaldo came up big in some important games, he often went missing when his team needed him most: The Portuguese was sent off in the Copa del Rey final and was a passenger in both legs of the Champions League semifinals, but for a single moment in which Real were gifted a goal from a weak back pass.
In the second leg against Dortmund, Real leaned on Karim Benzema more than anyone else for the inspiration that nearly saw them progress to the final. It may sound cruel to judge a player so heavily based on a couple games, but heroes are made and broken on a knife's edge, and so should Ballon d'Or winners be determined.
Similarly, Messi recorded a brilliant tally of 46 goals in last season's Spanish Primera. But his most common goal was one that made the score 2-0. Only 20 of his goals came with his team level or behind; 26 were simply piling the pain onto opponents that were often already defeated. To his credit, Messi's tally was not in vain as was Ronaldo's—the Argentine scored some winners and was rewarded when he lifted the title at season's end, whereas CR7 will finish the 2013 calendar year trophyless.
The category in which Messi really loses points is his performance in the Champions League. He was crucial in overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit to Milan in the Round of 16 but was of little use against PSG and Bayern. His lack of fitness at the time is a legitimate excuse, but the Ballon d'Or is an award that can only be won, not lost. And Messi did not make much of an appeal, as Barca were put to the sword by Bayern in the semifinals.
In terms of raw goals, Ribery does not even hold a candle to Ronaldo or Messi. Last season, he found the net just 16 times in all competitions. Even adjusting for the fact that he is more of a provider than a scorer (and gave 29 assists), the Frenchman is still nowhere near that level in terms of raw production.
But Ribery's contributions were more significant than those of Ronaldo and Messi; his goals and assists counted for more. He played a brilliant pass to set up the opener in the Champions League final, then directly assisted Arjen Robben's winner. With Bastian Schweinsteiger silent, Bayern needed someone to step up and provide the leadership they missed in the 2010 and 2012 Champions League finals. Ribery did just that.
Goals and assists are just the beginning of an individual's contribution to team football. Unlike Ronaldo and Messi, Ribery has changed from a rather individualistic player to one who is more complete, one who does often thankless tasks for his team. He let Mueller take center stage in April's 4-0 drubbing of Barcelona, and despite not directly contributing to any of his team's goals put in an excellent shift in tying down full-back Dani Alves and maintaining and winning possession.
Ribery presses opponents in the attacking half and tracks deep to defend as necessary. When Bayern win the ball back in their own half and need an outlet, he runs into position to receive a pass and shepherd the ball to safety (see video, right). Ribery is tremendously industrious for an attacking player and is never far from the ball. In the Champions League this season, he's run an average of 11,850 meters per 90 minutes played. This figure places him in the upper echelon of all players, even central midfielders.
Messi, by contrast, is purely a creator and scorer of goals, providing little more than that. He spends most of his matches walking around the pitch; he doesn't defend and rarely runs to the ball when in possession.
In a recent Champions League match he covered just 7,752 meters over the course of the full 90 minutes. This all is by design to avoid burning out: It's accepted that Barcelona will have to defend with one less player, which is acceptable at a club so adept at keeping possession and is worthwhile so long as Messi stays fresh and healthy and creates goals. When he's unfit and/or doesn't produce in attack, it's a serious problem.
Ronaldo walks less than Messi, but his work rate still is a far cry from that of Ribery. In fact, one of the reasons he often goes against strong defensive teams is that rather than running to the ball, he demands that it is delivered to him.
Dortmund ruthlessly exploited this tactical weakness in the Champions League, as Jakub Blaszczykowski often stood in the space between Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso. A more mobile and tactically savvy player would have moved to the ball or found space to run into. Ronaldo instead threw his hands into the air and barked at his teammate when the ball, unsurprisingly, did not reach him.
Jose Mourinho tried to improve the tactical areas of Ronaldo's game, demanding that the player track back and help his teammates defend. The trainer claimed that Ronaldo was dismissive of his advice, however, and the player's limitations often showed in Real Madrid's most difficult tests.
The Ballon d'Or does take into consideration performance over the first half of the 2013-14 season, but for good reason the fall campaign has never played a decisive role in voting; football's most meaningful games are always in the spring. Even so, Ribery has more than held his own.
The 30-year-old remains the best player on the best club team in the world and for the first time in his career is scoring and assisting at a rate of greater than one goal per game. Although his France have only qualified for a playoff spot in World Cup qualifying, it's hard to fault Ribery when his country finished just three points behind Spain and a mile ahead of the rest of their group.
Ronaldo, too, has begun the 2013-14 season in great form. And to his credit, he was instrumental in a recent Champions League win against Juventus. But his complete lack of effect for Portugal in 2013's World Cup qualifiers, barring one game against Israel, saw his side finish behind Russia in a resoundingly winnable group for Paulo Bento's strong Selecao. He has much to prove in November's playoff with Sweden.
Messi's 2013-14 season has started much like the last season ended, with the player producing goals but struggling for fitness. He's played well but has not electrified as Ribery, Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa have.
Before casting their ballots, the coaches, players and journalists involved in Ballon d'Or voting should carefully consider the gravity of their decision.
Messi deserves high praise for his productivity, especially while short of fitness—even at 50-percent healthy he is better than most. But a vote for Messi would be one to preserve the status quo; that the Ballon d'Or should be awarded to the most talented player in the world and that it's his to lose. If he doesn't play or isn't fit, it's not that he hasn't done enough to earn the award, it's that he hasn't had the opportunity to lose it.
Ronaldo deserves credit for his simply brilliant prolificacy at the start of the 2013-14 season—his efforts have saved Real's blushes on several occasions and helped make Carlo Ancelotti's first months in charge of the club much smoother than they could have been. But a vote for Ronaldo would be one to essentially reduce the Ballon d'Or to a Golden Boot award: forgetting the magnitude of a player's performance in key games, throwing away the significance of winning even a single title and disregarding values like teamwork, effort and leadership.
A vote for Ribery would be one in favor of a player who overcame his ego to play the best football of his life and as a result was able to achieve an historic treble. It would be an affirmation that selflessness, effort, teamwork and trust in one's teammates and coach are still valued. And it would go to show that the Ballon d'Or is still a contest between many top-caliber athletes, not just a two-horse race.
Football needs Ribery to win the Ballon d'Or. Time will tell how the voters decide.