In Germany, Bild called Messi’s Ballon d’Or award “scandalous.” In Italy, they angrily ignored or minimized the award, calling it “theater.” In most of Latin America, discontent is also felt within the sports press. Several elite soccer players spoke out in disbelief. Iker Casillas, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, among others, do not understand why Lionel Messi won his seventh Ballon d’Or yesterday. But the answer is there, in the numbers, achievements, performance, and, above all, the underrated context.
During the last decade, a narrative was established that, in my opinion, is misleading: Messi and Cristiano won more Ballon d’Ors because it suited the soccer business. “It’s marketing,” said some greats, like Mr. Vicente Del Bosque.
There’s probably a bit of truth in that. But if you do your homework and evaluate the golden balls that both Messi and Cristiano won, you will notice that in all the galas there were enough arguments to give them their awards. It was not about theft, injustice or conspiracies; it was simply that, in an award where the criteria was never enlightening, there were two outliers who imposed their law year after year.
This season, in particular, neither Messi nor Cristiano had their best individual years. However, there was also no player who stood out scandalously above the rest.
Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, with his great goal-scoring year, had the misfortune of missing out on the Champions League knockout rounds and missing the most important moment of the season at club level. In addition, Poland did not perform well at the European Championship, finishing last, despite his three goals in the group stage. However, on his side, he had the argument of being Europe’s top scorer and the most in-form striker of the last two seasons, as well as maintaining local dominance with Bayern Munich in Germany. Was he enough to be the winner? Perhaps, but it is not unreasonable that he did not win it.
Karim Benzema also positioned himself high in the fight for the Ballon d’Or. His level with Real Madrid and the French national team was brilliant. In both teams, he was almost a collective support and a goalscorer. He performed in almost all the important matches. He won the Nations League, but fell short in the Champions League (semifinal), in the league (second place) and in the Euro Cup (eliminated in the round of 16.)
For me, Benzema had more merits than Lewandowski to win the award for some reasons: he played, at club level, in a more difficult context. His level in the Euro, Nations League and Champions League was better. However, the criteria for awarding the Ballon d’Or has never been entirely clear and it is usually intended to reward the player who had the best individual performance in addition to collective achievements. This year, there was neither one nor the other.
Jorginho, for example, won the Champions League with Chelsea and the European Championship with Italy. He achieved that argument of collective achievements and was, from his role, a key figure in winning the titles. However, he can hardly be considered the best player of the season; he shone in collectives where many players were equally or more important to achieve their respective championships. It seems to me that the top-3 for him is a fair award, but the Ballon d’Or would have been a bit of an exaggeration.
Then comes the winner of the award: Messi. It was his seventh overall. At the club level, like Benzema, he was the collective mainstay of a team in decline (Barcelona). His season, after a somewhat sluggish start, was excellent; being the top scorer and assist in the Spanish League and also the best scorer and passer in the Copa América in Brazil, where he finally won his long-awaited title with Argentina. He also lifted a Copa del Rey, being key in the tournament. However, he fell short in the Champions League (round of 16) and in LaLiga (third place). In addition to the statistics, his footballing display was extremely high, the player who created the most scoring chances, dribbled the most, shot the most and scored the most from outside the box.
The reality is that there was a lot of parity between the four favorites. However, Messi was the one who best matched the “collective achievement + great individual performance” formula that had prevailed in other years. Therefore, there are solid and concrete arguments to reward, with justice, the Argentinean. The indignation of the international press is incomprehensible, especially when it downplays historic and important titles such as Copa America, which tipped the scales in Lionel’s favor.
Then there is the obvious: the subjective criteria of France Football and the voters. That’s why I must say that I found yesterday’s award incomprehensible, but not because of the Ballon d’Or to Messi, but because of the way the list of the thirty best players in the world was put together. N’Golo Kanté came fifth for a couple of good months at Chelsea. Thibaut Courtois did not figure in the top five best goalkeepers of the soccer year. Nicolò Barella, one of the best midfielders of the season, came in a very low 26th place. Federico Chiesa did not even appear on the list. Romelu Lukaku out of the top-10. The real scandal was there, but little was said about the top-30.
In the end, the sports press, which always complains about these awards, collaborates directly with the mediocrity of these awards.