AT the end of a year in which it has been accused of everything from corruption and vote-rigging to bribery and rank incompetence, you would think that the opportunity to hand out the Ballon d’Or to world football’s most outstanding player would offer the game’s governing body some welcome respite.
After all, identifying the best professional on the planet ought to be a relatively straightforward business, certainly more so than, say, choosing a host nation that will not bake the World Cup to a crisp. Unlike the controversies in which FIFA has been mired these last few months, the Ballon d’Or, or Golden Ball, is a celebration of all that is good about the game, a bit of harmless – if a little self-indulgent – fun to which nobody could object. Could they?
Well, since the 23-man shortlist was announced at the end of last month, more than a few have been irritated enough to question the merits of the prize, its meaning and raise the possibility that it might – shock, horror – be “political” in nature. Last week alone, the UEFA president, Michel Platini, got involved, together with Real Madrid and, yes, Jose Mourinho.
Behind much of it is the clamour to see the name of a German, most likely Manuel Neuer, on the three-man final shortlist – which will be announced by FIFA tomorrow – or even the trophy itself. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have hogged it for the last six years, are the runaway favourites of course, but it would be a strange contest that did not include a challenge from one of the 2014 World Cup-winning team.
Louis Van Gaal, the Manchester United manager, is among those who have suggested that the winner should be German. Johan Cruyff, who agrees, has singled out Neuer and Philipp Lahm as the most deserving candidates. When Xabi Alonso, the Spaniard who plays for Bayern Munich, dared to suggest that his club’s goalkeeper should be given the accolade, the Spanish sports newspaper, Marca, accused him of disrespecting his former Real Madrid team-mates.
Then, what appeared only to be rivalry between Germany and Spain took a turn for the worse when Platini waded in. The winner, said the Frenchman, should be “a world champion”. That, after all, had been the protocol in years gone by, so why not this time round? Of the German side that triumphed in Rio last summer, six are on the Ballon d’Or’s list of 23 – Neuer, Lahm, Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
No sooner had Platini voiced his opinion than Carlo Ancelotti, the Real Madrid manager, was objecting. So, too, were his employers, who issued a strongly-worded statement. In it, they pointed out that the president of UEFA was supposed to be impartial, argued that the prize rewarded individuals, rather than teams, and suggested that Ronaldo was the only possible winner.
“We believe that...Ronaldo has without doubt had his best-ever professional year individually, and has claimed the Champions League, the Golden Shoe and the record for the highest goalscorer in an edition of the Champions League, as well as the Copa del Rey and the top-scorer award in La Liga.
“In the current season, he has won the European Super Cup, scoring both goals in the match, and is achieving spectacular figures such as his 20 goals in the first 12 matchdays of La Liga, which confirm his great moment of form and ensure that, more than ever, he is deserving of the Ballon d’Or.”
If that sounds like a shameless attempt to shape opinion so that one of their own can take all the glory, that’s because it is. The Ballon d’Or comes a poor second to the trophies chased by Real Madrid, but the Spanish giants cannot help themselves. Their galacticos have global brands to protect.
It is exactly what Mourinho was complaining about the other day when he said that the Ballon d’Or was “not good for football”. His Chelsea players, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard, are on the list, but you won’t find him making their case. In a game that depends so heavily on the team ethic, he does not appreciate the cult of the individual. He does not enjoy, particularly abroad, seeing “stars” backed by what amounts to a political campaign. “In other countries, it looks like Obama is fighting again for the White House,” he said.
Not everyone has a face that fits the Ballon d’Or. Luis Suarez, for instance, is a glaring omission from the list of contenders, despite scoring 31 goals for Liverpool last season and earning a move to Barcelona. He is still paying the price for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup finals, an offence for which he has already served a four-month ban. In some quarters, FIFA has been criticised for punishing him twice, and for failing to judge his football on its merits. Steven Gerrard, his former team-mate, described the decision as “political”.
Neither does the prize tend to reward goalkeepers, none of whom has won it since Lev Yashin in 1963. This is bad news for Neuer, who conceded only four goals in a high-scoring World Cup finals, and was later captured, alongside Lionel Messi, on a photograph that went viral. Under it, the caption read: “Here you can see the best keeper and the best player at the World Cup. Next to him: Lionel Messi.” There is a big media push in Germany for Neuer to at least make the podium. “Blind people will have decided who wins the award if Neuer doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or this year,” said one of his international predecessors, Sepp Maier.
Neuer says that saving goals is less glamorous than scoring them. And, in a good team, you don’t have to do it very often. He does not have the “red-carpet lifestyle”, like some he could mention. He is not fashionable enough. “I’m not some guy who poses in his underpants,” he says.
This, of course, was Sepp Blatter’s theme in 2013, when the FIFA president suggested that Messi was more humble than Ronaldo, and therefore a more suitable winner of the Ballon d’Or. After it provoked uproar in the Real Madrid camp, Blatter postponed the voting date so that Ronaldo’s spectacular hat-trick against Sweden could be taken into account. The Portuguese won, and the award’s credibility was – just about – restored.
Last year, when voting was originally invited, Franck Ribery was the bookmakers’ favourite. No wonder the Bayern Munich player is another who has made disparaging comments recently. “The Golden Ball for the best player?” he asked. “I don’t believe that any more. In 2006 [Italy defender Fabio] Cannavaro won – because he was world champion, that’s all.”
In an interview for Sport Bild, he was asked which players would be his choice. “For me, Manuel Neuer or Arjen Robben have to win it. There are only two views. Manu has won everything, is a good person, not arrogant. Arjen played an unbelievable last Bundesliga season and after that an excellent World Cup. But I fear that there is still a lot of politics.”
Neuer and Robben, of course, are among Ribery’s team-mates in Munich, which is another flaw in the system. For as long as captains and coaches are permitted to join journalists in the voting process, it will forever be tainted by self-interest.
Before the final decision is announced at FIFA’s Ballon d’Or gala in Zurich on 12 January, they will have to ask themselves some big questions. Is it about individuals or the teams they play for? Do international achievements outweigh those at club level? And does it really matter anyway?
The answer to that one is “probably not”, but as long as the world keeps asking and arguing, even criticising the annual award, FIFA would be wise not to complain. You know what they say about bad publicity.