The Politics of the FIFA Ballon d'Or

Ross Edgley@@rossedgleyFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2014

Real Madrid's Christiano Ronaldo of Portugal, FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi of Argentina, and Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery of France, from left, the three nominees for world soccer player of the year, take part in a press conference prior to the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2013 Gala in Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Michael Probst/Associated Press

An aura of political disrepute surrounds FIFA’s coveted Ballon d’Or this year.

Not surprising when you consider it takes place against a backdrop of bribery allegations and private investigations, as reported by the BBC. Or abandoned long-standing, multi-million pound sponsorship deals, as detailed by The Telegraph and Reuters.

But surely the sanctity of the Ballon d’Or is safe? Surely there is some watertight judging criteria in place that removes all bias? Some means of objectively measuring footballing talent so this year Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer can all rest assured knowing the better man will be crowned the greatest player in the world at present?

Unfortunately, for both fans and players, it seems it’s not so simple.

Looking at the official, “Rules of Allocation” published by FIFA, you can see some clauses practically invite ambiguity. For example, “The Awards are bestowed according to on-field performance and overall behaviour on and off the pitch.”

Now, granted, “on-field” performance might be easier to determine, as is evident from a passionately written article published on the official Bundesliga website. Entitled, “Five reasons Manuel Neuer should win the Ballon d’Or,” the author states objective metrics such as:

Of all the goalkeepers with over 100 appearances under their belts in the Bundesliga's decorated history, the former FC Schalke 04 stopper is the only one to have conceded fewer goals (216) than appearances made (264). Fact.

Equally, the impressive video montages broadcast on the Bundesliga’s YouTube channel further support Neuer’s case. Paying homage to Germany’s “sweeper keeper,” very few people could dispute Neuer’s impenetrable aura after watching this.

But it could be argued there are just as many video montages and statistics that support Ronaldo and Messi’s claim for gold. Which is why the second part of the marking criteria—the vaguest and most political part—becomes even more important. Specifically, “Overall behaviour on and off the pitch.”

This factor is clearly of huge significance, since it was this marking criteria alone that, according to ESPN, “likely led to Luis Suarez's Ballon d’Or snub,” as he didn’t even make the 23-man shortlist.

But where does this leave the final three nominees? Does Messi’s charity work outweigh his involvement in a tax evasion scandal? Also, it stands to reason that Ronaldo, with his 31.6 million followers on Twitter, would be able to send his charity ALS ice bucket challenge viral far more than, say, Neuer, who has a humble 2.23 million.  

Clear to see is this particular rule of allocation is completely open to interpretation.

But the politics of the Ballon d’Or don’t end there. Just as hazy is how the, “Winners of the awards are selected by a diverse international jury made up of coaches of national teams, captains of national teams and specialist journalists.” Adding, “Captains and coaches of national teams can vote for players from the national/club team they represent” and, “Specialist journalists can vote for players and coaches who are from their own country.”

Therefore, when FIFA released details of the voting for the 2013 Ballon d’Or, was it any wonder French coach Didier Deschamps, French captain Hugo Lloris and even French media representative Gerard Ejnes all voted for Franck Ribery in first?

Or why, when given the opportunity to vote as team captains of their respective countries, both Ronaldo and Messi refused to acknowledge each other’s brilliant “on-field” performance. Clearly not wanting to give away an advantage, Ronaldo voted in order of Radamel Falcao, Gareth Bale and Mesut Ozil. Equally defiant, Messi voted in order of Andres Iniesta, Xavier Hernandez and Neymar.

Even the honest and open voting system employed by FIFA has caused problems. For example, in 2013, a spokesperson from the German football association told Sport Bild (h/t Goal) that national team coach Joachim Low, “refused the chance to vote in the Ballon d’Or,” suggesting he did not want to "single out one of the five players from his side who have been nominated.”

But wait, there’s two more twists in the tale. The first comes in form of the number of people who actually vote, since, according FIFA’s website, there are “209 associations affiliated.” In theory, each association or country has three votes in the form of a national coach, national team captain and one media member.

However, according to an ESPN article published in 2013 entitled “Decoding the Ballon d’Or,” the author states:

Add up the number of voters and you'll note that a total of 505 people cast ballots: 170 captains, 170 coaches and 165 members of the media. (Actually, 169 media members cast votes; it's just that four of them were registered as "no votes" because they handed in ballots that were incomplete or voted for people who were ineligible, which doesn't reflect too well on my profession.)

This means 118 people did not vote for reasons we'll probably never know.

In 2010, there was even more confusion—even for those who did manage to cast their vote. According to the same ESPN article, the captain of Zambia, Chris Katongo, publicly stated he voted for Xavi, but his vote counted for Xabi Alonso. Following the controversy, no re-vote was made and to this day we'll never know if the 2010 Ballon d’Or was a true reflection.

In summary, like many ballots and elections, the Ballon d’Or is open to subjective bias. Franck Ribery seems to think so, telling AZ in January (h/t ITV Sport) he did not understand why he didn't earn the award for 2013:

I won everything I could win with Bayern and individually. Ronaldo on the other hand did not win anything. I am not sad that I missed out, but it does hurt a bit. I deserved to win the Ballon d'Or. It wasn't about football. It was a political decision.

With this in mind, the exact results perhaps need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Or, perhaps, need to be taken more seriously.

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