On Monday, January 12, 2015, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer will attend FIFA's 2014 Ballon d'Or award ceremony at the Kongresshaus in Switzerland.
Sitting patiently with bated breath and fingers crossed, each modern footballing legend will likely be unable to enjoy the hors d'oeuvres and panoramic views of Lake Zurich. Instead, they will be preoccupied with their potential acceptance speeches and being declared the greatest football player on Earth at present.
Or will they? Ceremonies, red carpets and immaculate silverware aside, many argue the Ballon d'Or is politically driven and far from objective and fair. Some may even feel the winner already knows he's got it in the bag and has cleared some space in his trophy cabinet in anticipation.
So what can be done to make the award less subjective? How can we ensure a player such as Franck Ribery doesn't feel robbed? He publicly told AZ in January 2014, via ITV Sport, that he "deserved to win the Ballon d'Or. It wasn't about football. It was a political decision."
Ultimately, what can be done to instil some faith in FIFA and save the sanctity of the award?
Better statistical technology would certainly help, as many experts argue the world's most popular sport is stuck in the Dark Ages of statistical reporting. Likewise, a level playing field with more appropriate and pre-agreed metrics would also be a good idea.
It would also dramatically help Neuer's case. He told Jonny Singer of Mail Online, "After the games, the main things they show are goals, the chances, the assists. Spectators don't tend to remember that the 'keeper stopped difficult balls by taking a big risk or organised the play from the back."
Also, removing—or reducing the impact of—FIFA's ambiguous "Rule of Allocation," which takes into account "overall behaviour off the pitch," would perhaps help combat harmful headlines, such as this article from The Independent titled "Manuel Neuer won't win the Ballon d'Or because he's not 'some guy who poses in his underpants'... like Cristiano Ronaldo."
Finally, thinking outside the box, it seems a theory proposed by Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician Lloyd Shapley could also have its advantages. Named "the Shapley value," it's a term used in economics to gauge individual productivity among people who work together in a team. Originally created as a means of dividing wages among members of a factory, it could just as easily be applied to football.
So in light of this year’s Ballon d'Or, here are two possible ways FIFA could improve the process so it no longer becomes embroiled in annual controversy and so football's governing body can start improving its tarnished reputation. That is especially important in view of its bribery allegations and private investigations, as reported by the BBC.
Better and More Accurate Statistical Reporting
A war of words rages all over the Internet as passionate fans take to their keyboards and quote statistics to prove why a particular player should win the trophy.
But despite many spirited efforts, some experts believe football is archaic in its grasp of statistical technology. Therefore, the facts and figures most people use—including the Ballon d'Or judging panel—might not be entirely accurate or the best ones.
In an article titled "Can football become the next metric-based sport?" published on the website Statistics Views, author Carlos Alberto Gomez Grajales states, "Being the most popular sport on earth, it is surprising the lack of serious statistical research done about it."
That's an idea supported by the 2001 satirical film Mike Bassett: England Manager, which follows the fortunes of Norwich City's boss after he's appointed as England manager.
It's a stark contrast to the advanced, high-tech, metric-based sport of baseball, as portrayed in Michael Lewis' best-selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Later turned into a film starring Brad Pitt, it documented the attempts of the Oakland Athletics to use statistical technology to gain an advantage in the transfer market. Comparing it to football, Will Evans of Sport Gazette wrote:
For all the questions that it answered about baseball, it raised as many for the world of football. Managers and supporters flocked to the UK’s cinemas to watch Brad Pitt star as Billy Beane, the front office executive who masterminded baseball’s statistical revolution.
Debate raged about how far a fluid sport like football could be reduced down to a game of numbers—to what extent could the philosophy of Moneyball revolutionise the beautiful game?
Matt Slater of BBC Sport argued that football could learn a lot from Moneyball. The author specifically points out that before the book was published, the metric of on-base percentage (OBP) in baseball was "a very underrated marker of a player’s worth."
He added, "For the sake of this debate, it is not important to dwell on what this actually means." It's just important to know this enabled coaches to find players other teams did not rate highly and combine them into a winning team.
Within the same article, Billy Beane—the renowned Oakland A's general manager the book was based on—spoke specifically about football. A huge fan, he said, "There are metrics for every business and sport that have a relevance and value. Identifying them is the trick—and having faith in them is the next step."
John McDuling of Quartz echoes Beane's comment about "relevance and value."
He analyses the oft-quoted statistics in the English Premier League and says, based on more comprehensive numbers from the 2013-14 season, "Manchester City's Sergio Aguero is slightly more likely to score or create a goal at any given time."
Yet his team-mate Yaya Toure got more statistical "airtime," as he was "third in the league in goals with 18, six of those were penalties; he [ranked] 27th in non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes."
Of course, each player's contribution to the team—and therefore, eligibility for the Ballon d'Or—could be eternally debated, but this does perhaps show football is using the wrong metrics and methods of analysis. Also, if the judging panel was able to upgrade its systems of evaluation, then maybe it could remove or at least reduce some of the inherent bias.
AC Milan seem convinced, having created the "Milan lab empowered by Microsoft," which serves to provide "the information for future management, availing of the data that has been gathered in past years," per the team's official website.
Learn from the Laws of Economics
Now for something out of left field. It seems most measures of performance in football are based upon shots on target, tackles made and so on. The only problem is, this doesn’t take into account a player’s total contribution to the team and the team’s results.
A form of measurement borrowed from the field of economics doesn't have that problem.
By way of review, the Shapley value was created as a way to calculate workers' contributions to the overall output of a factory. However, data and analytics provider Bloomberg Sports has taken the concept and applied it to football. In an article titled "Introducing the Shapley Value to Football," author Dan Altman says:
Imagine that you can form the same team many times over by adding its members one by one in every possible order. Each time a given member is added to the team, he has some marginal effect on the team’s results. By averaging all of these marginal effects across all the ways of forming the team, we can get some idea of how pivotal the given member is.
For instance, if he always has a big marginal effect, no matter when he joins the team, then he must be very important to the team’s results.
Computing the Shapley value for each player and his team would require millions of permutations. With Ronaldo alone, you would have to calculate his contribution to Real Madrid in domestic and European fixtures and then, of course, his contribution to each Portugal friendly, European Championship qualifier and World Cup campaign.
That would be no easy task, but it’s exactly this level of detail used in the sport of baseball and depicted in the film Moneyball.
Now, I humbly accept that it's a bit ambitious to try to solve the issues that have plagued the Ballon d'Or since its inception in one article. But hopefully, this raises some interesting points that could serve to remove the subjective and arguably biased judging methods of FIFA and usher in a new era of statistical advancement in football worldwide.