Cristiano Ronaldo’s win of the FIFA Ballon d’Or award for the year 2013 was not without controversy. After a below-par World Cup qualifying campaign with his native Portugal, a chance at redemption came in the form of a playoff for second-placed teams. Portugal was to play Sweden for the right to be a part of the most watched sporting event in the world come June 2014. The Real Madrid forward put in a performance for the ages, almost single-handedly destroying the Swedes over both legs. A day after, the Ballon d’Or vote was reopened, ostensibly so those who had not handed in their ballots before the deadline could do so. This drew consternation as it was widely believed that Bayern München’s French winger Frank Ribery was in pole position at the previous closure of the deadline, and that this was a ploy to favor Ronaldo. The rest is history.
The saga got me thinking: much ado over individual awards. In a team sport too. Why is it even necessary? Why does one consider a particular footballer better than another? Football is played by teams comprising eleven players. It is innately chaotic: 22 men, one ball, two goal posts and 10,800 square metres of turf. In order to introduce a semblance of order, the team is structured along the lines of position and responsibility: defenders, whose primary responsibility is to prevent the opposition from scoring; attackers, whose primary responsibility is to score; and midfielders, whose responsibility is to secure the middle of the playing area and contribute to the other two departments. How then do we decide which department, or which player in that department, is the best? Instinctively, we are drawn to attacking players who score the goals and propel the team forward, especially with the new-found stat obsession in today’s world. It is tempting to forget that the team functions as a unit. For every flying winger or dead-eye striker, there is a hardworking defensive scrapper ensuring that the rest of the team is not compromised. Understated brilliance is brilliance nonetheless. What is the metric? If it is skill and technical ability, then I ask: is skill an end or a means? All the skill in the world will not score a goal. A subtle drop of the shoulder, a lightning change of pace, a quick shimmy and dribble, a feint and swivel: these are moves that are geared toward achieving an aim. A winger, for example, in a one-on-one situation with a defender, has to get past his opponent using trickery. Does that make him a better player than say a defender whose job is done by intercepting attacks and getting the ball out of his own penalty area? That is simply the skill his position requires of him. How do we decide who the best player is? Some say individual accomplishment, i.e. goal-scoring records. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a ton of goals in 2013, but won nothing with his club side or national team. Is this healthy? If we consider this a worthy criterion, then we prioritize the individual over the team’s success. This completely negates the idea behind team sports. Another school says the contribution of a player to his team’s success ought to be the determinant. On the face of it, this sounds nice. Bayern München won every trophy on offer in 2013, and Franck Ribery played a starring role. But then, so did the ten other players who shared the pitch with him at any given time. If the award should go to the best player in the best team, is there an empirical way of deducing who this individual is? How much more important to the team was Ribery than team captain Philipp Lahm, for instance, or stalwart central midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger? Or for that matter, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer? Would his skill, assists and goals have been as decisive if others had not been doing defensive work? The entire concept of individual awards in team sports is reprehensible and faulty. Teams are already rewarded for being the best by winning titles and trophies. Until there is a well-defined metric and less ambiguity as to what these awards actually mean, there will always be controversy and illogicality. Image source