Why Cristiano Ronaldo's Ballon D'Or Sends the Wrong Message

Clark Whitney@@Mr_BundesligaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

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Last month, Cristiano Ronaldo opened a museum in his own honor in his native Madeira. Last week, he accepted the award of "Grand Officer" of Portugal.

One might think that he'd just retired, having won the World Cup for his homeland. Or maybe the Champions League. Or at least the Ballon d'Or.

No, at the time of each of his recent honors, Ronaldo hadn't won a single competition with club or country since the 2012 Spanish Supercopa.

History can remember them as premature celebrations of his being named winner of the 2013 Ballon d'Or, an award that sent a regrettable message to fans, aspiring footballers and especially Ronaldo himself: When discerning the wheat from the chaff, image is everything. Results hold little currency.

"He scored 69 goals in 2013" is the most common argument made in Ronaldo's favor. This is an indisputable fact that, without further context, is enormously impressive. Some take it a step further and conclude that because of his goals tally, Ronaldo was therefore the world's most decisive footballer in 2013.

He wasn't. In fact, he didn't decide a whole lot. 

There were five big matches in 2013 in which Ronaldo had a chance to play a "decisive" role for Real Madrid and Portugal: the second leg of the Champions League semifinal with Dortmund, the Copa del Rey final against Atletico, September's Liga clash with Atletico, October's Liga match with Barcelona and the second leg of Portugal's World Cup qualifying playoff with Sweden.

The Big Games

Ronaldo often struck a frustrated pose in Real's most important games.
Ronaldo often struck a frustrated pose in Real's most important games.Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Against Dortmund, Real desperately needed a leader, a hero to rally them as they sought to overturn a 4-1 first-leg deficit—and they nearly got that before their elimination. 

But it was not the rather harmless and off-form Ronaldo who was up for the challenge. Instead, it was substitute Karim Benzema who, following his introduction, brought bite into the hosts' attack as he scored and assisted in a 2-0 win.

Ronaldo had a chance to redeem himself a month later in the Copa final and things began well as he opened the scoring. But Atleti's defenders had his number and the underdogs came back to force extra time before going ahead on 99 minutes.

A more decisive player would have inspired his team to equalize, but Ronaldo let his frustration boil over and was sent off after kicking Gabi in the jaw.

Despite boasting the most expensive club squad ever assembled and allegedly the best player in the world, Real ended the 2012-13 season with complete and utter disappointment. They finished a whopping 15 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, failed to reach the Champions League final for the 11th consecutive year, despite facing semifinalists with a tiny fraction of their wage bill, and couldn't even claim the Copa as a consolation prize.

In August, a panel of journalists named Franck Ribery UEFA's Best Player in Europe; Lionel Messi finished second.

Ronaldo went on a tear at the start of the 2013-14 season, but once again went missing on the biggest stage.

In late September, Real were two points behind Barca and Atleti when they hosted their Madrid rivals. Ronaldo was a complete flop in that match, which Atleti won 1-0 following Diego Costa's solitary strike.

One month later, Real were three points behind Barcelona as they visited Catalonia. Neymar stole the show, lifting Barca to a 2-1 victory as Ronaldo was again impotent. Real could have drawn level with Barca in that game, but instead ended the matchday third in the Spanish Primera, six points behind Lionel Messi & Co.

The turning point for Ronaldo in winning the Ballon d'Or was Portugal's World Cup playoff against Sweden. He scored a late winner in the first leg, then a magnificent hat trick in the second. Suddenly, all was forgiven.

Players and pundits cried out in unison: How could anyone else be considered for the Ballon d'Or?

All the while, there was a gargantuan elephant in the room waiting to be addressed: In a group in which Russia and Israel were their biggest rivals, how did Portugal not qualify for the World Cup as group winners?

One reason was that the captain Ronaldo was unable to inspire his team to victory in all four matches against Israel and Russia, and was even found impotent when Northern Ireland held the Portuguese to a draw in Porto. He scored in only two matches in qualifiers.

Portugal's failure to qualify directly set the stage for a winner-takes-all, two-legged heavyweight bout: Portugal vs. Sweden. Or, as many quivering journalists billed it, Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Ronaldo then did to Sweden what he does in La Liga on a regular basis: He scored several goals to lead a star-studded team (Portugal are currently valued at €318.2 million) to victory over a vastly lesser-rated side (Sweden's collective worth is €110.95 million).

It was an important result. It was a surprise to precisely no one.

FIFA overlord Sepp Blatter promptly responded by reopening Ballon d'Or voting in a not-so-hidden attempt to make amends for some mostly harmless but utterly stupid remarks he'd made about Ronaldo in front of a small group of students at Oxford University. Since then, there's been only one favorite for the Ballon d'Or.

The 69 Goals: Impressive but Not Decisive

With the turning point in the Ballon d'Or race having been identified, it's important to address Ronaldo's scoring record. It would be foolish to say that his tally of 69 goals is anything less than phenomenal. Ronaldo deserves full credit for the number of goals he's scored.

And there is an award for that: the European Golden Shoe.

The Ballon d'Or is a different award; its voting is meant to take into consideration more than simple statistics with no further context.

In reality, all goals are not equal. In fact, even the Golden Shoe takes this into account. The winner is determined based on "points" that are calculated by multiplying goals scored by a coefficient that varies between one and two depending on a league's perceived quality. For example, a striker in the Latvian league will need to score twice as many goals as a player in Spain in order for the two to be level on "points."

Statistics Gathered From Transfermarkt

But even that methodology is flawed because it does not take into account the extra significance of, for example, the winner in a match against a top rival team as opposed to the near-pointlessness of goal number eight in an 8-0 rout of a relegation-bound side.

Ronaldo's tally of 69 goals may be immensely impressive on its own, but 29 (42 percent) came when his team had already taken the lead; 17 (25 percent) came when his Real or Portugal teams were already out of sight, with a lead of two or more goals.

For context, Ronaldo opened the scoring eight times last season. Marco Reus, whose goals tally (24) was not even half of Ronaldo's in the same campaign, had nearly double (15) as many openers—these goals were more decisive and therefore more valuable. Ask Ronaldo himself, and he would gladly have traded a few of his less important goals for a third against Dortmund.

Had Ronaldo been more decisive and scored more when it counted—or simply been willing to do more of the thankless, oft-overlooked tasks that distinguish true winners from also-rans—perhaps Real would have fared better.

But they finished a mile behind a very strong but beatable Barcelona last season and ended 2013 third in La Liga. Real's failure to impress collectively has discounted Ronaldo's goals tally, underlining how little value that number truly holds on its own.

The lesson to be learned from Ronaldo's 2013 is that a player can be exceptionally prolific while resoundingly indecisive. Scoring is only scoring; football is more than that.

Ronaldo's Ballon d'Or a Disservice to Fans and Football Alike

In recent years, the increased availability of highlights reels via YouTube and statistics by agencies such as Infostrada and Opta have changed fans' perception of football.

There once was a time when it was commonly accepted that the best teams are those that win and the teams that win have the best players.

To this day, Zinedine Zidane is considered a legend of the game. He won the 1998 Ballon d'Or and was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1998, 2000 and 2003. Yet in the 10 years he spent at Juventus and Real Madrid, he scored 75 goals and gave 43 assists, tallies that Ronaldo and Messi could exceed in well under two years.

During his career, Twitter didn't explode on a weekly basis with notifications of the next goalscoring record Zidane broke. But he was indisputably one of the greatest footballers of his generation because success followed him wherever he went. The attacking midfielder was a European and world champion with France, Italian champion with Juventus and Spanish and European champion with Real Madrid. He even led lowly Bordeaux to the UEFA Cup final.

Rather than drawing all the attention to himself and sucking the life out of his team, Zidane was a true leader. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic once said: "When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple."

Zidane was willing to adapt his game according to opposition and his teammates' form on the day. He was happy to do whatever it took to win, from phenomenal individual efforts to simple, thankless tasks.

Appreciation for that kind of magic is, sadly, fleeting in today's game. Statistics, bereft of context, are often given more attention than the incredibly complex synthesis of tangible and intangible factors that is football.

When a team enjoys 75 percent of the possession in a game, one must ask: Did the team win? How many opportunities on goal did each team produce? Was the opposing team complicit in the uneven distribution of time on the ball?

Similarly, when a player scores 69 goals in the season, one must ask: Did these goals beget team success? Against what clubs were these goals scored? What difference did these goals make? What else did the player do?

Ronaldo being awarded the Ballon d'Or simply enforces the sensationalism and gross simplification of modern football, affirming that all that is perceived as relevant to a player's greatness is a single number. No need for any further intellectual inquiry.

Ballon d'Or A Disservice to Ronaldo

The saddest part of Ronaldo being awarded the Ballon d'Or is that it is the next and greatest in a string of indulgences he's received that have only served to inflate his ego and underline that he has every right to be satisfied with himself as a player.

He was given the Portugal captaincy at the age of 22 before he'd shown any leadership ability. Since then, his star-studded team has labored to World Cup and European Championships following disappointing qualification runs, finishing behind the likes of Poland, Denmark (twice) and Russia in qualifiers.

In 2009, he became the most expensive signing in world football history, joining Real Madrid for €94 million. He then began to shoot on goal from nearly every free-kick within 40 meters, regardless of angle, no matter how many times he missed. No teammate or coach could keep him in check.

Satisfaction begets complacency and complacency begets stagnation. As hard as he trains in certain areas, there are glaring flaws in Ronaldo's game that, due to his self-satisfaction and overt stubbornness, continually go unaddressed.

Thus was the basis of Mourinho's falling out with Ronaldo. The trainer, who time and time again has made stars from even ordinary players who trusted him, was unable to affect his compatriot and criticized the player after his departure as head coach at Real Madrid:

I had only one problem with him, very simple, very basic, which was when a coach criticizes a player from a tactical viewpoint trying to improve what in my view could have been improved. And at that moment he didn't take it very well because maybe he thinks he knows everything and the coach cannot help him to develop more.

Mourinho saw more in Ronaldo, and the player ostensibly has more to offer. On talent, he should be the best player in the world. He has exquisite shooting technique, sublime one-on-one skills and unparalleled physical qualities.

Yet Ronaldo's ego keeps him from realizing the full extent of his potential. He is an incredible athlete, yet he can't be bothered to press. He doesn't run to the ball and is instead content to blame the midfield when he's unable to receive possession.

These deficiencies are rarely noticeable, but are consistently evident against elite teams that press high and defend well. That is why Ronaldo flopped in the most important matches of 2013. Yet as Mourinho explained, when a coach tries to highlight where Ronaldo can improve, the player ignores him.

As evidenced by his insistence upon taking every penalty and free-kick within a range far beyond his own limit, and his recent assertion that he deserves the Ballon d'Or every year, Ronaldo has an obsession with being the hero. His toxic attitude has essentially reduced his €415.9 million-worth of world-class teammates at Real to an accepted role of supporting cast.

It normally would be unjust to place so much blame on one player, but when that player accepts as much responsibility as Ronaldo, he must be held accountable for both success and failure. The best player in the world would get more from such star-studded teams as Real and Portugal.

A Comparison

Ronaldo is not the first footballer to have his ego stand in the way of success. Arjen Robben was similar until about a year ago and his story lends hope to the Portuguese.

A notoriously selfish player, Robben missed two critical penalties in the spring of 2012 as Bayern Munich ended their season without a trophy. The next season, he was relegated to the bench. That only changed in April 2013 when an injury to Toni Kroos gave him the chance to redeem himself.

Robben's failures sent him to the bench. He found his way back into the Bayern lineup when he became a team play.
Robben's failures sent him to the bench. He found his way back into the Bayern lineup when he became a team play.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

What we've seen since is a transformed Robben, one who has assisted nearly as many goals (18) as he's scored (23), made the effort to defend and allowed his teammates—many of whom are no greater players than Ronaldo's supporting cast—to take center stage from time to time, when in form.

It's no coincidence that Bayern only won the treble after the Dutchman's ego was brought into check. And it's no coincidence that Ronaldo's only Champions League title came when he was still part of the puzzle at Manchester United, not the only piece.

Looking Forward

If Ronaldo can undergo a transformation similar to Robben's, he could drive Real not only to their 10th Champions League title, but potentially a treble or more. But as he approaches his 29th birthday, the attacker still has not been given the reality check that Jupp Heynckes gave Robben.

Instead, Ronaldo has opened museums in his own honor and received countless awards that enforce his self-satisfaction, dulling the sting of Real and Portugal's failure to capitalize on their potential.

As great a player as he is, Ronaldo may never be the winner that he could be. All those who have coddled him over the years, and especially those who voted for him in the 2013 Ballon d'Or, have done the player and football as a whole a great disservice.

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