Individual plaudits in team sports are strange beasts. In judging sportspersons as distinct from sports teams, the clear-cut rubrics of tournaments, league tables, cups and playoffs are reluctantly abandoned in favour of the shaky ground of subjective opinions. ‘Best’ is a term you can at least attempt to quantify in trophies. It doesn’t lend itself quite so conveniently to comparing the merits of one athlete versus another.
You can compare goal tallies and the likes until the cows come home, but statistics will ignore the numerous players who created the chances a striker despatched, for example, alongside various other contextual elements.
Teams are a sum of their parts. Individual awards try to reduce these multi-layered chemical reactions to simple arithmetic. Whilst the awarding body will gloss over its obvious shortcomings with ample amounts of pomp and circumstance, it’s crucial to remember that they are simply sport’s opinion polls. They are characterised by inherent, thinly veiled national and institutional bias, and shouldn’t be taken nearly as seriously as they are.
The official publicised voting results for the Ballon d’Or are littered with examples of cronyism. Gianluigi Buffon gave his first preference to Andrea Pirlo. Diego Lugano, captain of Uruguay voted for teammates Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. Vincent Kompany voted for his Manchester City colleague Yaya Touré, and his fellow Belgian teammate, Eden Hazard.
Steven Gerrard voted for Suárez in third. Unsurprisingly, both the coach and media representative from Argentina voted Messi in first, Portugal preferred Ronaldo and France named Ribery. The only hard and fast rule the voters seem to follow is to always stick to what they know.
There’s no real problem with the award as long as people don’t forget what it is, based entirely on the opinions of a selection of players (some of whom have ties with the nominees, or in the case of Messi and Ronaldo, are the nominees), coaches (who are also likely to be biased) and the media.
Questions of whether or not Ronaldo was the correct eventual winner are essentially moot. It doesn’t really matter if he actually deserved it and no one will ever know if he did. The wide-ranging Ballon d’Or electorate decided that, in their collective opinion, he did. If it was formulaic, there wouldn’t be a vote at all.
Context is critical. We’ll never know for certain who was the ‘best ever’ in sports or indeed in anything. The standard of competition is ever-evolving and the media is ever more circus-like. Could Pelé or Maradona have coped with the excesses and pressure of modern football in the way their contemporary counterparts have done?
Equally, are Ronaldo and Messi worthy of singling out, or only as good as the players around them? You could argue that they would both perform just as well, if not better, by contrast, playing for Yeovil Town as they have done for Real Madrid and Barcelona, but they win medals as a team. Even if you’re a striker scoring 30 odd goals a season, if the men around you aren’t good enough to win trophies, you can forget about a Ballon d’Or.
In some disciplines nowadays, we find ourselves unsure of whether the achievements we witnessed with our own eyes were real, and for that we tip our hats to performance-enhancing drugs. The debate, then, revolves around ‘what ifs’.
For example, what if Lance Armstrong hadn’t dosed up? Would he still have been good enough to win cycling’s highest accolade, the Velo d’Or, five times? The awards have now been stripped from him and handed to the second placed cyclist in each instance, but while these will appear on those individuals’ historical tally of honours, they’ll probably feel hollow and disputed.
Major League Baseball has had its own steroid shake-up recently, with so much paranoia on the use of performance-enhancing drugs that, last year, the Baseball Writers Association of America declined to nominate anyone to the Hall of Fame.
This year, hyper-critical and super-caustic US sports blog Deadspin bought a vote from a BWAA member and turned his ballot over to a public poll on their website to expose the farcical hypocrisy of the process. Whether it was valiant protest or a publicity stunt, it took a lot of shine off the inductions of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas into the national baseball museum in Cooperstown, New York.
The sticking point with these awards is that people act like they represent the ultimate answer to unanswerable questions, as if it’s an exact science. The PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 2009 went to Ryan Giggs even though he had made only 12 starts that season. David Ginola won the same award (and the Football Writer’s Player of the Year) in 1999, when he was up against members of Manchester United’s Champions League winning team.
Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and Dwight Yorke split the vote, allowing the Frenchman’s fantastic domestic season with Spurs to steal the glory. Where’s the justice in that?
So, how about we all stop fretting over whether Ronaldo is better than Messi, or if Luis Suárez’s name can even be uttered in the same breath, and enjoy the fact that we can watch all of these players, who are, even objectively speaking, at least superlatively talented, week in week out?
Once in a while, Andy Murray will win an award with the word ‘personality’ in it. Life isn’t fair and sport doesn’t make any sense. Deal with it.