Ballon d’Oh? The award that has raised some eyebrows since its inception
Lionel Messi has now bagged his eighth Ballon d’Or award. But was Erling Haaland more deserving?
Argentinian soccer legend Lionel Messi recently added an eighth Ballon d’Or to his numerous individual accolades, further decorating one of the most impressive and memorable careers in sporting history.
The award comes after he captained Argentina to glory in 2022 at the Fifa World Cup in Qatar. He now has three more Ballon d’Ors than his long-time rival, Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, questions are being asked about whether Messi deserved the top award – especially when he was up against the likes of Erling Haaland.
So close, yet so far
The Norwegian superstar had a phenomenal debut season in the English Premier League after joining Manchester City from Borussia Dortmund before the start of the 2022/23 season. As Pep Guardiola’s men stormed to a historic treble, winning the league, FA Cup and Champions League, Haaland was front and centre.
The forward found the back of the net a staggering 52 times in all competitions in his debut campaign. Of those, 36 came in the Premier League. Haaland shattered a record that had stood for 29 years. In 1994, Andy Cole scored 34 goals in 40 league games for Newcastle.
Many tried and failed to top the achievement – until Haaland bulldozed it aside in just 35 games last season.
Nevertheless, the 23-year-old’s scoring exploits – instrumental to City’s treble success – were not enough to see him beat off competition from the Argentinian veteran. He came in second, with Messi’s former Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) teammate, Kylian Mbappé, rounding off the top three for 2023.
While there were no issues with Mbappé’s placement, debate continues to rage over whether Haaland should’ve won his maiden Ballon d’Or ahead of Messi.
The attacker scored 21 goals across all competitions. Of those, 16 came in the league that was finally won by PSG. Messi also topped the Ligue 1 assists chart with 16.
“You can’t debate opinions. When journalists are involved and vote, they vote for whatever they want. When you look at the votes in the history of the Ballon d’Or – not only in my year – you look at the top three and you’re, like, “really?” So, it is what it is. You can’t debate opinions,” said former Arsenal and France forward Thierry Henry on CBS Sport.
Henry famously missed out on the coveted golden orb in 2003, edged by Czech midfielder Pavel Nedvěd that year. This was in spite of the French striker scoring 32 goals and providing 28 assists from 55 games in all competitions.
Nedvěd managed 14 goals and 17 assists in the same period. He did help the Italian club win the league, as well as reach the Champions League final that season. Henry and Arsenal had only the FA Cup to celebrate.
Regardless, the feeling was that Henry was the deserving winner that year. So when he did not win, some questioned the credibility and criteria used to dish out the award.
The men’s award is voted for by journalists of countries in the top 100 of Fifa’s rankings. For the women’s award, which was introduced in 2018 and was won by Spain’s Aitana Bonmatí this year, it is the top 50 nations that vote.
Individual performances in the previous season are also taken into consideration. Team success during the previous season is also a key factor. As is the player’s behaviour and fair play during the season in question.
When Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder failed to even make the top three for the award, questions were also asked. He was snubbed despite winning the league, Coppa Italia and Champions League at Inter Milan – as well as playing a pivotal role in the Netherlands reaching the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa.
He was far from being a bystander during that memorable campaign for club and country, standing out with magical passes and the odd goal.
Sneijder’s 16 goals (including eight strikes for his country across friendlies and the World Cup) and 15 assists were impressive numbers for the playmaker, especially during a period when analysis and statistics were not as influential as they are in today’s soccer.
Still, when the final three for the most prized individual award in the game was announced, the Dutch midfielder was nowhere to be found. Instead, Messi – as well as his Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta – made the final cut.
The midfield duo had, of course, beaten Sneijder in the World Cup final with Spain, with Iniesta scoring the winning goal. Nevertheless, the feeling was that one of them should have made way for the Dutchman, who was flying high at the time.
Individuals in a team
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once shared his misgivings over individual awards in team sports. The Frenchman said such awards bred selfishness and encouraged the pursuit of individual glory.
“I would not vote for any Ballon d’Or,” Wenger said in 2015. “I’m totally against it. I’m a team lover and a specialist… somebody who loves teamwork.”
Wenger is not the only one with such strong feelings. The question has always been, how do you fairly compare a centre-back to a striker? Or a goalkeeper to an attacking midfielder? How do you quantify Paolo Maldini’s brilliance in defence? Or Manuel Neuer’s extraordinary performances with the gloves?
Hence the winners of the award are disproportionately spread across attackers and midfielders. The likes of Eusébio, George Best, Gerd Müller, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Roberto Baggio, Luis Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho have all clinched the award since its inception in 1956.
In that time, only three defenders have collected it. The last to do so was Italian Fabio Cannavaro, in 2006. Before him, German duo Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer took the honour.
Only one goalkeeper has won it in the award’s history – Russian Lev Yashin in 1963. In 2014, Germany’s Neuer was third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.
“The truth is that I think it’s impossible [for a goalkeeper to win it now]… The votes don’t go towards goalkeepers. It’s what happens. It’s a bit difficult,” Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said after the 2022 Ballon d’Or was awarded to French striker Karim Benzema.
The debate is a tricky one. Do we completely do away with the title of “best player” in soccer? And perhaps have the best goalkeeper, best defender, best midfielder and best striker awards? Maybe that is the solution. Considering the weight that the Ballon d’Or holds though, it is highly unlikely.
As for Messi, his latest win likely brings down the curtain on his Ballon d’Or duopoly alongside Portuguese legend, Ronaldo. The pair share 13 of the awards between them, dating back to 2009 – most of them emphatically deserved.
“We deserve a lot of credit for having managed to stay at the top for so long. Because as they say, it’s easy to get there. What’s difficult is staying there,” Messi said of his rivalry with Ronaldo following his latest Ballon d’Or success.
“We stayed at the top for 10 to 15 years. It’s very difficult to stay at that level, and it’s spectacular [that we did]. It remains a good memory for all those who followed us.” DM