For the previous three years, the FIFA Ballon d’Or shortlist has, one way or another, been composed of the same four players: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Three of those play for Barcelona. All are based in Spain, and the award has been won each time by Messi, who has unsurprisingly walked away with the prize by quite a margin.
This year, the award for the best player in the world has another contender: Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery. Given the Spanish dominance since the Ballon d’Or merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2010, it is refreshing to see another league’s player nominated -- especially because Bayern and their five trophies have undoubtedly been the team of the year. But it is not enough.
Rewarding one player for his success is getting boring. That aside, it’s not actually a particularly fair way of rewarding those who don’t spend their days banging in the goals or setting up chances. Clearly, Messi has been the best forward in world football the past three years. For his performances in 2013, which saw him score 69 goals in 59 games for club and country -- and, of course, the fact he won our own ESPN FC award -- Ronaldo is the favourite to walk away with the honour on Monday.
But the question that has to be asked is this: Are Ronaldo or Messi’s goals more important to a team than the contribution of their defenders, defensive midfielders, left-backs, goalkeepers or wingers? It is a team game, with 11 players a side, after all. Sure, they can compete against each other, but why should they be directly compared to the likes of Philipp Lahm, Sergio Busquets or Petr Cech?
Looking back through the history of the FIFA World Player of the Year after its inception in 1991, it’s notable that attacking players are favoured heavily. Only Italian defenders Paolo Maldini (who came in second in 1995) and Fabio Cannavaro (who won after leading Italy to the World Cup title in 2006) and German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn (second in 2002) have made any headway for the defensive side of the game. Other than that, even when a defender does make the list, he is known more for his attacking forays, such as Roberto Carlos in 1997.
Naturally the defensive side is not as sexy or as beautiful to watch, but arguably an award that professes to showcase the "best in the world" needs to take into account the other side of the game. Even UEFA president Michel Platini said in his playing days that “in football, defence was always superior to attack.”
In 2010, when the Ballon d’Or was merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year, FIFA president Sepp Blatter insisted: "The winner is football because as of January we will have one single trophy for the best player of the world and this will be the Ballon d'Or."
The best player in the world -- the one player who above all others is counted as the best. If we are judging one player in such a way, why do we hear those who have just bagged a hat trick trot out the tired old line to the media each time: “I just did my job and have to thank my teammates. I'm just glad we got the three points for the team.”
No matter how well they play, one player can’t win a game on his own, so why is one player rewarded with a trophy like this at the end of the year?
UEFA used to have a series of awards -- goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and striker of the year -- that were handed out, somewhat underwhelmingly in all honesty, in between the drawing of the pots for the group stage of the Champions League. However, that was ended in the 2009-10 season, in favour of a single UEFA Best Player in Europe award (which this year went to Ribery.)
Perhaps somewhat aware that, in a sport where individual prowess should come secondary to the team, since 2005 FIFPro has invited all professional footballers in the world to compose their best XI of one goalkeeper, four defenders, three midfielders and three strikers. But with such a global following in the game, there is surely cause to supplement this effort (replacing the single FIFA Ballon d‘Or) with four for each position.
The outlay on extra gold by FIFA would surely be balanced by the equilibrium it would bring to a team sport. Perhaps the best summation of this came from Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago, who has played with two of the three nominees for this year’s award: "Leo's [Messi] the best in the world, but [Franck] Ribery has won it all this season, and this is a collective game."
A collective game that should recognise, and reward, its players by the position in which they play.
2013: Best players
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer
The Germany international was named the world's best goalkeeper by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) earlier this year, and teammate Dante believes it is well deserved. “We always aim to protect our goalkeeper and make sure he does not get into any difficult situations," the 30-year-old said at a news conference. "But you automatically feel confident when you know that you have the best goalkeeper in the world standing behind you. We are all very happy for Manuel that he was voted the world’s best and have already congratulated him on it."
Defender: Thiago Silva
Former France coach and now PSG boss Laurent Blanc backed up Carlo Ancelotti’s assertion in April. "I confirm everything that is said or written about Thiago Silva, whatever people think of him: He is the best in the world," he told Le Parisien. “He is very strong at defending, both on the ground and in the air. He is a complete player and has no faults. He is a modern defender because he is as strong defensively as many others, but has something more than the rest. When he has the ball, he knows what to do."
Midfielder: Franck Ribery
You need self-confidence to be considered one of the best, so we should leave it to Ribery himself to press his claims. "I am better than ever before at the moment. I am on top of my game. I am among the best and most important players in the world," he was quoted as saying by Kicker. "Everybody knows me and they all have a lot of respect for my abilities. I will do my utmost to make sure I keep performing at this level."
Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal coach Paulo Bento is one of many who has banged the drum for Ronaldo. “For me, he’s the best player in the world,” the tactician told reporters. “In any case, he has already done his job, he’s shown his talent and all there is to do now is wait. The affection the Portuguese people feel for him won’t change. He’s an extremely professional, talented and competitive footballer.” Monaco striker Radamel Falcao told El Tiempo: "Messi and Cristiano are the two most important players in the world today but, for me, Ronaldo is the best.”