Has the FIFA Ballon d’Or lost its prestige?

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In 1962, Josef Masopust won the Ballon d’Or.

Masopust may not even be the most famous player from Czechoslovakia at a time before the country balkanised into what is now the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. That honour would probably be bestowed upon Antonin Panenka. The Czech midfielder is famously known for his audaciously chipped penalty — a technique that is now referred to as the panenka — against then world champions West Germany to clinch the 1976 European Championships for his country.

But in 1962, Josef Masopust won the Ballon d’Or.

The Dukla Prague midfielder was declared Europe’s finest player at a time long before the Ballon d’Or merged with FIFA to become an award of fame rather than prestige. Masopust got his award primarily for being the catalyst for Czechoslovakia’s run to the final of that year’s World Cup in Chile. In the final, he scored the opener as Czechoslovakia took the lead against a Brazil side lacking the services of the injured Pele. But Brazil rallied, inspired by Garrincha and with goals from Amarildo, Zito and Vava clinched their second World Cup title on the bounce.

A case for Eusebio

Masopust did not win the World Cup, and neither had he won Europe’s grand club competition. That honour had gone to Portugal’s Benfica who had Eusebio in their ranks.  Eusebio had made his mark on the grand stage, leading Benfica to a European Cup (what is now known as the Champions League) win over mighty Real Madrid. In that final, Eusebio dominated a game which Real Madrid seemed to be winning and with the scoreline at 3-2, he stepped up, directly involved in the moves that saw Benfica go 4-3 up before lashing in the fifth from a free kick. The moment was even encapsulated in symbolism when at the final whistle, Alfredo Di Stefano, Europe’s best player of the late 50’s but who’s powers were waning, sought out Eusebio and handed him his shirt. The torch, it seemed, had been symbolically passed from one great player to the next.

And yet, even beyond that, the journalists that voted for the Ballon d’Or felt that Masopust’s achievement was more deserving.

Indeed, that had been the reason for the formation of the Ballon d’Or in the first place. Conceived in the mind of Gabriel Hanot, editor of French football magazine L’Equipe (Hanot had also been instrumental in conceiving the European Cup), the award was a means of recognising the player whose performances over a calendar year had been outstanding. The award was also a means of letting football fans know of other great players out there. That era was a time when football was not on television or readily discussed on social media and trips across borders were more stringent. In that regard, it was journalists who journeyed more, watching an incredible amount of football in different leagues as they covered it for their respective newspapers.

When objectivity reigned supreme

Based on the assumed objectivity of journalism, the award eventually took on the criteria of awarding the player who had so elevated his side to a unique unexpected level. Indeed, talent was always a mainstay, but in a team sport, the conveyers of the original Ballon d’Or rightly concluded that an individual’s talent must be applied to the context of the team.

That is why Masopust leading Czechoslovakia to the final of a major international tournament mattered more than Eusebio leading Benfica to a second successive club continental win. The thread persists. Winners such as Lev Yashin, Marco Simonsen and Florian Albert don’t particularly jump off the page in the manner of Alfredo Di Stefano, Marco Van Basten or Michel Platini. One only needs to consider that Michael Owen won the award in 2001 for leading Liverpool to the UEFA Cup — Europe’s secondary club competition. And that in 2004, whereas the general consensus was that Ronaldinho was the best footballer on the planet, the award went to Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko.

This is the main thing missing from the current edition of the Ballon d’Or. The award has become about the best, and not necessarily about the best performer. There is no argument that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are in a league of their own.  But as great as these two are, there is more to other people’s accomplishments that surpasses that innate talent.

The Messi-Ronaldo show

This of course is an unprecedented period in time, when two otherworldly superstars have taken the sport by storm. But it certainly is not the only time. The 1970’s probably had a similar period, with Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer miles ahead of anyone else playing the sport at that time. And yet, for all their dominance, the two only managed to finish top two for the Ballon d’Or only once, in 1974, predictably because both were World Cup finalists in West Germany that year.

Contrast that with the current times. Over the past eight years, Messi and Ronaldo have both appeared in the top three seven times, and have finished in the top two six times. Under the original format, players such as Xavi Hernandez in 2010, Franck Ribery in 2013 or even Manuel Neuer in 2014 would have had a better chance of winning the Ballon d’Or. Instead, the presence of Ronaldo and Messi made the result a fait accompli – a result already known with the third player merely making up the numbers because there is need for a third person in a top three.

Of course, this is not to bemoan the talent of Messi and Ronaldo, and they should not be punished for being so great. More often than not, there have been times when these two have deserved their awards. But there have also been cases for other players to win the award.

Indeed, it may just be that after watching Messi and Ronaldo so consistently perform at the highest level, the awe descends into under appreciative bashfulness. Maybe, if Ronaldo and Messi were not so good for so long, such assertions would not be flying around. It is of course the one major curse of greatness. Dominance tires over time as familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe, there is just a need to see someone other than Ronaldo or Messi win the award.

For if the Ballon d’Or were awarded with the same manner in which it was in yesteryears, then there would be many crying over the fact that Messi or Ronaldo deserved it over somebody else. Yet, that is the one thing that makes up the flaw of the award. In a team sport, the question of who is the best inevitably comes down to subjectivity. Asserting objectivity to a subjective foundation is an errand in impossibility.

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Posted on January 15, 2016, in Opinion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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