The End of Independence For The Ballon d’Or: A Missed Opportunity For Global Awards

Ballon d'Or, Golden Ball, France Football, Cristiano RonaldoFIFA announced today that the two most prestigious awards in men’s world soccer, the FIFA World Player of the Year award (awarded by FIFA since 1991) and the Ballon d’Or (run since 1956 by France Football magazine), would merge together: FIFA’s paws once more taking hold of a previously independent and prestigious aspect of the global game.

“The winner is football because as of January of next year we will have one single trophy for the best player in the world and this will be the Golden Ball,” Sepp Blatter said.

For “football” in that sentence you can, of course, read “FIFA”.

To be fair to the merger, though, it does make some sense: the Ballon d’Or has recently lost its raison d’être due to the existence of the FIFA award and its own changed focus. The purpose of the Ballon d’Or has changed over the years: originally an award only for a European playing at a European club, in 1995 the rules were changed to allow non-Europeans playing at European clubs to win (George Weah benefiting from this that same year). In 2007, the award was expanded to a global scope, though no-one at a non-European club has come in the top three since. The panel of voters was also changed at this point, from the around 50 European-based journalists making their selections to around 90 worldwide. That shift in 2007 is starting to look like a long-term play by the magazine’s publishers to get into FIFA’s annual awards jamboree and the publicity it will bring for France Football, at least in the short term.

The FIFA World Player of the Year award, meanwhile, has been similarly Eurocentric, with no player at a non-European club finishing in the top three of the voting in any year. In this case, the voting is cast by the captains and coaches of all FIFA member nations.

So there’s no doubt there’s a certain redundancy to the two awards at this point: in 2007, Kaka won both awards, in 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo won both awards, and in 2009, Messi won both awards. In fact, the two awards have had the same top three players for three straight seasons, the last two in exactly the same order.

There will be a new voting system in place for the merged award, to be first given in January 2011 and named the FIFA Ballon d’Or.  France Football provides the details: votes will come from the national team coach, captain and a journalist from each of FIFA’s 208 member nations.

The close match between the two awards since 2007 suggests we will not see any surprising nominees. The benchmark will presumably remain the UEFA Champions League and the European Championships rather than the Copa Libertadores or the Copa América; a supposedly global award only further perpetuates a global focus on European-based competition.

Maybe France Football had it right in the first place (or at least the second place, when they allowed non-Europeans on European clubs to win the Ballon d’Or): would a smarter merger not have produced a broader awards ceremony, with a “Golden Ball” awarded to the best player on each continent, and then an overall FIFA World Player of the Year awarded alongside it (if we must have such an honour at all)?  This would, at least, give it an actual global meaning and some recognition to the best players in North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania, rather than an annual European procession.

Furthermore, it was not made clear by either FIFA or France Football if the same voting system will also be used for the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award, its existence continuing to give off the air of an afterthought (which, technically, it was: the women’s award was only instituted by FIFA in 2001). As we noted in December, voting in that award seemed to be even more skewed to checking the box based on a YouTube highlights reel than judgment on performance at a global level: the selection of Marta in 2009 over the more deserving Inka Grings showed this.

All in all, the merger misses an opportunity to create anything that really does anything for the global game besides affirming the same pointless bauble for a Ronaldo or a Messi.

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