In the parallel universe which professional football inhabits, some of the normal rules of life simply do not apply. There is such a thing as a free lunch if you’re name is Sepp Blatter, time can stand still if you’re Sir Alex Ferguson, and for just about everybody, winning is everything. Of course, in terms of league championships and cups, there’s something to that argument. Football has been professionalised for one hundred and thirty years now, and if you’re paying somebody to do a job for you, then it is understandable that some sort of return on your investment becomes important. From a supporter’s point of view, whilst shrugging your shoulders at a defeat rather than running to your favoured social media outlet to issue death threats to the chairman, the manager and a man whose name rhymes with that of the referee is an admirable personality trait, there are only so many times that watching your team get easily beaten in front of rapidly diminishing attendances can be a little, well, wearing.
So winning is important, and we mostly accept that. There are times, however, when that lust for gold plated trinkets and – perhaps more importantly, in this day and age – the plum sponsorship deals that come with them becomes a little undignified. The Ballon D’Or is one of football’s less important trophies. It is, dare I say, quite nice for a player to be voted the best in the world over the course of twelve months, even if there is something fundamentally odd about running the time span of the award over a period of time that doesn’t correspond with that many football seasons, but in comparison with winning, say, the Champions League or the World Cup, it is surprising to find that there is anybody, whether amongst those who have a chance of winning or those of us who gawp at it all from the outside, who actually cares about it. This year, however, something is different. This year, professional football, which has come to be the sport that could start a fight in an empty room, has started to get angry about a late change to the voting for the Ballon D’Or.
This curious little story emerged late last night, when FIFA announced that, because too many of those who could vote on its shortlist of twenty-three players – international coaches, captains and representatives of the international media, apparently (and no, we didn’t get a vote although, since The Ghost Of Ferenc Puskas inexplicably failed to make the cut, Sepp Blatter would have only found himself looking at a spectacularly spoiled ballot paper anyway) – had missed the deadline of the Friday before, voting would be extended until the twenty-ninth of November. Hmm, said some, this has all come about about suspiciously soon after Cristiano Ronaldo scored an outrageously brilliant hat-trick to send Portugal to next summer’s jamboree in Brazil at the expense of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, sorry, Sweden, it might be presumed that FIFA have extended the voting in order to help him catch up in a vote that he was reported to be running behind in.
Well, hell hath no fury like a footballer scorned of the opportunity to put on a bow tie and collect a golden football-shaped trophy whilst having his ego massaged all evening. Or, as it turned out, those acting on his behalf. The Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, who now apparently also finds himself working as the chief whip for the Lionel Messi Party, stated that only “political pressure” could stop his diminutive Argentine genius from lifting the trophy for the fifth year in a row, while another voice from the Barca sympatico side, former player Hristo Stoichkov, went even further, saying that, “The Ballon d’Or disgusts me”, an opinion that he presumably didn’t hold when he won its predecessor award in 1994. We look forward to him returning his award, preferably by lobbing it through a ground floor window at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters, live on the television. That, we strongly suspect, would show them. Stoichkov’s apparent viewpoint is that this all has much to do with the machinations of UEFA’s Michel Platini in favour of Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery, another of the players who is understood to be showing strongly in the voting from those that have actually remembered to return their voting slips.
It’s not only the Barcaorientated that have been upset by this year’s Ballon D’Or award, though. Cristiano Ronaldo, a player apparently born without a sense of self-awareness, has been reported as being so outraged by injudicious – and, more importantly, extremely unfunny – remarks made by Blatter about him having “more expenses for the hairdresser than the other”, when asked to compare Ronaldo with Messi. “I do not have to prove anything to anyone”, Cristiano retorted, presumably through pouting lips and with a bubble of snot hanging from one his nostrils. Those who side with Ronaldo are, similarly to the pro-Messi camp, getting their point across when asked about it, which seems to be often. His Portugal team-mate Miguel Veloso told one reporter that, “It would be an injustice if Ronaldo was not the winner”, while Fernando Gomes, the President of the Portuguese Football Federation, made his pitch for the Ronaldo Marketing Board by stating that, “He has had an extraordinary year and he deserves to win the Ballon d’Or.”
All of this leads us towards an inevitable conclusion that football has now completely succumbed to the cult of celebrity. As briefly alluded to last night, a thrilling and tempestuous play-off match between Portugal and Sweden was reduced to Ronaldo vs Ibrahimovich and, whilst both players lived up to the hype, that hype started at the very moment that the two countries were drawn to play against each other. If an alien had landed on earth last night and been sat in front of Twitter to watch it, he/she/it could easily have been forgiven for thinking that this was an individual sport. And perhaps this new breed of super-players feed off this. It may just be possible that, in a sport in which the margins between victory and defeat can be wafer thin at times, other players find themselves, whether conciously or not, cowed by the constant stream of talk of how superior the super-players are in comparison with them. After all, they’re all top athletes, who train regularly and hard. They all know what they’re doing. Perhaps that extra iota of doubt makes a significant difference at the highest level.
All of our alarm clocks are primed, and on the thirteenth of January we will find out who has won this year’s Ballon D’Or. And as we sit, popcorn in hand, holding a sad looking home-made penant with “The Ghost Of Ferenc Puskas” scrawled on the side of it, we may just break away from the excitement and the razamatazz of the occasion for a few moments. Somewhere deep in the recesses of the mind, a memory flickers and stirs to life, a memory of a collective sport played, yes, for money and for trophies, but also for the glory of winning and with the challenge of competition, a game played with a smile on its face. A game which was never perfect, but which at least didn’t pout, didn’t sulk, didn’t get angry about who might be awarded a trinket that is ultimately meaningless to every single person in the world apart from the player who wins it (and possibly their mother). When faced with the sight of these people, their sense of entitlement and their absolute lack of humour and self-awareness, it’s tempting to think that perhaps losing isn’t quite so bad after all.
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