In one of the less surprising announcements of the last few weeks, this year’s Ballon D’Or (which they used to just call “The European Footballer Of The Year”, but such is the power of modern marketing) has been won by Cristiano Ronaldo. It seems peculiar that a player whose year will most likely be defined in the history books by a petulant attempt to earn himself a massive pay increase through engineering a transfer and not doing very much in the the finals of a major international tournament. He scored in the biggest club match of his year, but also missed a penalty in the shoot-out which would, had it not been for John Terry’s slip, have cost Manchester United the trophy.
None of this is to say that he isn’t an extravagantly, almost ludicrously talented footballer. However, his behaviour during the summer should really have excluded him from contention from the award in the first place. Manchester United supporters will, of course, be delighted that he won the competition, but it’s worth asking the question of whether they would have been so unquestioningly behind the award had he got his “dream move” to Madrid in the summer. If anything, Ronaldo’s award shows up the rotten core at the heart of football. You can behave as appallingly as you like, treat the supporters of the club that are paying you lavish amounts of money with absolutely unashamed contempt in order to earn even more money, as long as you “deliver on the pitch”. The fact that he treated them like idiots will be forgotten should he help to bring home another trophy or two come next May.
Quite aside from the lack of moral consideration taken into account by the journalists that voted for the award, there are several other problems with the Ballon D’Or. The most fundamental of these is the notion of picking one individual as a “winner” in a team match. This can be seen every week at more or less every ground in the country with the “Man Of The Match”. How many times have you seen your dismal monkeys get beaten 4-1 at home, only for the match sponsors to award the bottle of champagne and gift voucher prize to the guy that scored your team’s late consolation goal? The Ballon D’Or follows the same principle. If you make people go “Ooh! Aah!” a few times, then more or less anything else will be forgotten. Great team players will more often than not be forgotten in favour of the several trick ponies. There is a far more cogent case, for example, for calling Iker Casillas of Real Madrid for this year’s Ballon D’Or. He was an essential component of a team that overhauled Barcelona to win La Liga, and then followed that up with consistently outstanding goalkeeping to help bring Spain their first major international trophy in forty-four years. For Casillas to have won it, though, he would have needed to buck an almost insurmountable trend – Lev Yashin is the only previous goalkeeper to have won the trophy, and that was forty-five years ago. When Fabio Cannavaro won the award two years ago, he was the first defender to win it since Franz Beckenbauer in 1976.
The other main problem with the Ballon D’Or is the timing of it. Sure, the end of the year is a nice sort of time to hand out presents, but football doesn’t work to the Gregorian calendar. Our own version of seasonal affective disorder works slightly different to everyone else’s, with the torpor of the dark months of winter hitting home at either the end of May or or the middle of July – and that’s only those of us in Western Europe. The Americans, Argentinians, Brazilians, Russians, Scandinavians, Japanese and Irish are just some of those that play to a different calendar to even this. Setting aside these considerations, the FIFA-approved football calendar is the middle of July. The end New Year’s Eve of the football calendar. The irony of choosing the European Footballer Of The Year at the start of December. December isn’t really the conclusion of anyone in Europe’s season. Effectively, the assembled hacks asked to make the decision for the Ballon D’Or were being asked to decide The European Player Of The Second Half Of Last Season And The First Half Of This Season.
The Ballon D’Or, then is an arbitary award that is handed out at the wrong time of year, and can usually only be won by just over half of the players on the teams (the ones that have the opportunity to take on three or four players and score, or fire in long range shots on goal). Although you don’t have to be European to win it any more (that rule was relaxed in 1995) and you don’t have to be playing in Europe to be nominated any more (hence the name change). It does, well, help to be playing in Europe. No African-based players appeared in the list this year, which is all the more surprising when you consider the performances of the likes of Al Ahly’s Mohammed Aboutrika, who failed to make so much as the shortlist of thirty, in spite of winning the Egyptian league championship, the African Champions League and scoring the winning goal for Egypt in the final of the African Cup of Nations. Ballon D’Or? Ballon De Hot Air, more like.