When Paul Pogba returned to Manchester United in an £89m deal in the summer of 2016, he declared: “One of my dreams is to win the Ballon d’Or.”
Pogba is a prime example of the kind of personality cult that has developed around players. Social media has also given rise to the celebration of the individual, over the collective, and the one thing that’s crystallised that obsession more than anything else in football is the Ballon d’Or.
Cristiano Ronaldo just picked up his fifth Ballon d’Or, drawing level with Lionel Messi on four each, and immediately declared to France Football:
“I don’t see anyone better than me. No player does things that I cannot do myself, but I see things others can’t do. There’s no more complete player than me. I’m the best player in history — in the good and the bad moments.”
Unfortunately for Ronaldo his, and the entire logic of the Ballon d’Or, is deeply flawed.
How exactly can David De Gea’s contribution as a goalkeeper, for example, be compared to that of Ronaldo? Also, would the Portuguese have even got half as many goals if it were not for his teammates? Did he win the Champions League and European Championship single-handedly?
The Ballon d’Or plays on the fact fans love to rank everything: teams, players,even trophies. It’s the Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate writ large and it’s beyond tedious. Both Messi and Ronaldo are brilliant, but both have their own unique traits and comparing the two, objectively, is impossible. They aren’t the same type of player. Also, their teammates could do with a little bit more credit.
“Football is losing a little bit the concept of the team to focus more on the individual,” Jose Mourinho once warned. “For me, football is collective. The individual is welcome if you want to make our group better. But you have to work for us, not we have to work for you.”
The Ballon d’Or impact goes beyond the celebration of the individual though; it’s now motivating players to seek out transfers in the hope of becoming top dog at their new club.
Look at Neymar and his decision to swap Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain. Money undoubtedly played a role but the opportunity to exist out of the shadow of Messi and maybe land a Ballon d’Or played an even bigger part.
Neymar might win plenty of titles in France and maybe a Champions League but the French league won’t make him a better player and won’t make him more likely to lead Brazil to glory in the World Cup – the supposed pinnacle of any football career.
There’s no denying, either, that the Ballon d’Or carries some commercial credit too – the footballer dubbed “the world’s best player” is always likely to land more endorsement deals than his peers. It’s another example of the nefarious role money is playing in the game we love.
If we must continue with the Ballon d’Or, here are some suggestions:
- Devise a points scoring system, akin to fantasy football, that means all players have a viable chance of winning.
- Do away with the individual award and double down on the team of the year of the award, making that the centre piece of the Ballon d’Or.
Celebrating team achievements over individuals is important. People play and watch football to feel like they are part of something; a team, a tribe, if you will. It’s not about egos, it’s about the collective and creating a sense of togetherness.
The Ballon d’Or celebrates everything that is wrong with football today: ego, money and greed. Let’s kick it out of the game for good.