The Ballon d’Or, or the European Footballer of the Year award, is considered one of the most prestigious individual awards in football. It’s the only award to be decided by journalists, with 96 journalists deciding the award from a selection of fifty contenders.
This year’s selections were made last week, and unofficially, the award is seen as being awarded to the best player in the world, though it is not the official title, which is FIFA’s select World Player of the Year.
While I won’t go through all the names on the list, the obvious candidates are there, Ronaldo, Messi, Kaka, Casillas, Xavi. However the debate of this article is not to examine the individual cases of each individual player, but rather to examine what is perhaps more likely to sway the minds of the judges/journalists involved.
This year has witnessed a packed footballing schedule, with the obvious domestic and European commitments, joined by the international tournaments, the European Football Championships and also the Olympic Games.
When deciding who to vote for, the judges will have to decide which is more important—domestic dominance or international victory?
While this might sound like a bizarre argument, think for a second, what defines greatness in a player? What is it that attracts the most attention? Perhaps like me you will come to a similar conclusion—international football.
International tournaments are normally the tournaments where the great players make their mark. Look throughout football history: Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Maradona and Zidane all made their mark on the highest possible stage, and as such are accorded the tag of “great” and held in high esteem because of it.
Domestic success, while obviously important, plays a less significant role. If a player dominates on a domestic level, then he is seen as a very good player, but domestic success seems to lack the cache of international dominance.
Players who dominate domestically are not held in that upper echelon of opinion which the great players are held. Obviously, the great players dominate domestically more often than not, but they aren’t remembered because of that, it merely adds to their legend.
A look at the previous winners of the Ballon d’Or seems to bear out this feeling; the awarding of the prize throughout its history seems to be linked intrinsically to how players perform at these tournaments.
For example, Fabio Cannavaro won the award in 2006 on the back of Italy’s win at the World Cup.
Ronaldo won the award in 2002, in spite of playing little to no football throughout the year, bar the World Cup in which he finished top scorer.
Matthias Sammer won it in 1996, when the Germans triumphed in Euro 96.
The awarding of this award is linked to how the player’s play on the biggest stage. Is it little coincidence for instance that Zinedine Zidane, a player believed to be the best ever, was only given the award for the first time after the French triumphed at the World Cup in 1998?
So we can see that, for the most part, winning the award is very much the preserve of those that dominate the international tournaments over the years.
With regard to this year’s awards, I feel that this is an important point to remember.
Cristiano Ronaldo, a player for whom every superlative has been awarded, enjoyed a phenomenal season last season for Manchester United, scoring a massive 42 goals, taking the breath away of almost every football fan around the world, and truly setting alight the Premiership in a way which few players have done.
Yet Ronaldo, in a sense, failed at the highest stage internationally for Portugal where he played poorly as they went out with a whimper against the Germans.
Bear in mind that a nagging criticism of Ronaldo is his failure to shine in the big matches. For instance, there is that match for Portugal, the penalty miss in the shootout against Chelsea, and also remember that many felt Ronaldo missed out on the award the year before because he was anonymous in the Champions League semifinal, whereas Kaka, the winner, outshone him utterly.
Now, while for many he has far and away the standout player on the domestic scene in Europe, these failures could perhaps cost him, bearing in mind that international success has in the past been a determining factor for the judges deciding who gets the award.
As a result, the cases of a number of other contenders, who on the basis of domestic form would struggle to compete with Ronaldo, actually become a lot more promising.
For instance, Lionel Messi, a player who perhaps is coming closest to fulfilling the "new Maradona" tag and who has started the season very well for Barcelona fresh from winning gold with Argentina at the Olympics, could come into consideration.
The cases of Spanish stars Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres, and Xavi Hernandez is also strengthened further.
Casillas, who also enjoyed domestic success with Real Madrid, captained Spain to triumph and also broke an international record for time without conceding. His is a very strong case, while Torres scored the winner in the final, and enjoyed a fine season with Liverpool—albeit a trophy-less one—while Xavi was named player of the tournament at Euro 2008—a tag which instantly strengthens his case.
So, as we can see, who wins this award could very much come down to the journalists deciding what they perhaps consider the overriding factor behind their decision. If they follow the historical precedent and base their choice on international matches, then there are a few contenders to choose from.
However, if they reason that the case for domestic dominance is so strong that it sways their decision, then there is only one winner.