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The Balon d'Or should change?

Is it still a talent award or has it only become a popularity contest

The Balon d'Or should change? Is it still a talent award or has it only become a popularity contest

Every religion contains within it sacred relics that, in their own unique ways, enable the onlooker or the beholder to feel something far greater than their sense of self, a connection to the heart of the narratives that bind the religion together. For many, the comparisons between football and religion are long-standing, sharing, in its own way, similar rituals. 

Without a doubt the most iconic of these footballing relics is the World Cup Trophy, in essence, the Holy Grail of the footballing world. Following the World Cup Trophy are, as you the reader can anticipate, the range of continental trophies available. Yet, there is a relic of football that exists outside of the team structure. The Ballon d’Or has, since 1956, been the most sought-after individual award for any player. The award, the brainchild of Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran, was created to honour the male player deemed to have performed the best over a calendar year, based on voting by football journalists. 

Balon d'Or History

English footballing icon Stanley Matthews was the inaugural winner of the trophy in 1956, and since, the most memorable players to have graced the pitches of - predominantly Europe given the fact players playing outside of Europe were excluded from voting until 1995 - have managed to obtain the rights to hold the ballon d’Or aloft. Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Baasten, and Michel Platini have managed to win the trophy three times, Cristiano Ronaldo five times, and Lionel Messi an unprecedented eight. Interestingly, Messi’s success this year makes him the first player to win the trophy playing outside of Europe when awarded, and he became the first player to win the award playing under three different teams. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, the Ballon d’Or, whilst being the most cherished of individual awards, has undergone a few significant changes in its history, the majority of which have occurred over the last few years. 

From 2010 to 2015 saw the Ballon d’Or merge with the FIFA World Player of the Year  creating the FIFA Ballon d’Or, although after the agreed five year period, an extension was not agreed. In 2018, the decision was made to introduce the Kopa Trophy, an award designed to honour the best under-21 player voted on by those who have won the Ballon d’Or. Kylian Mbappe won the inaugural award and since Matthijs de Ligt, Pedri, Gavi, and Jude Bellingham have all taken home the honours. In the same year, the Ballon d'Or Féminin was introduced to honour the best player in Women’s football across a calendar year, with Ada Hegerberg winning the inaugural award, followed since by Megan Rapinoe, Alexia Putellas (twice), and Aitana Bonmatí - Sam Kerr may feel slightly hard-done-by having been included in the top three over the last three seasons but never having won. 

Balon d'Or new rules

In 2022, key changes were introduced to improve the overall structure of the award. Primarily, the most notable change was that, as of 2022, the award would no longer judge a player’s performances across a calendar year - which in essence judged a player of two half-seasons - instead opting to adjudicate the award from August to July, a sensible change undoubtedly. Secondly, in 1956 there were sixteen judges, as of 2021, there were 170. Now, only the nations who rank in FIFA’s Top 100 for men, and Top 50 for women, will have the chance to vote. Typically, the writers at France Football have played the most major role in voting, now, Ballon d’Or Ambassador Didier Drogba will be added to the voting lists, as well as the individual deemed to be the most insightful during their voting the year before - for the 2023 Ballon d’Or, that was the Vietnamese Truong Anh Ngoc and among the women, it will be the Czech juror Karolina Hlavackova. 

The footballing world is often slow to change, and highly resistant when it does so. However, the changes to the Ballon d’Or seem intelligent and much needed - especially the inclusion of awards for Women’s football and for under-21 players. Yet, the Ballon d’Or is far from perfect, in actuality, the award is highly elitist both in terms of leagues to have players that have won the award, and the positions in which those players play. Only two non-direct attackers have won the award since 2007 - Kaka and Luka Modric - and classing Kaka as a midfielder is potentially up for debate given his primary role was to be a class attacking force. Franz Beckenbauer (1972, 1976), Matthias Sammer (1996), and Fabio Cannavaro (2007) are the only defenders to have won the award, with Cannavaro perhaps the most overtly defensive player having played the entirety of his career as a central defender, whilst Sammer played as a sweeper and Beckenbaur was so good he could play wherever he wanted. Only one African player, George Weah (1995) has ever won the award. Lev Yashin, famously, is the only goalkeeper to have won the Award. 

This has seen awards such as the Yashin Award being created in order to celebrate the best goalkeeper of the year, with Aston Villa’s Argentine star Emi Martinez winning this year. Additionally, in arguably the most controversial of recent Ballon d’Or issues, the Gerd Müller Award was given to Robert lewandowski in 2020 as a makeshift replacement for the Ballon d’Or he justly deserved, as France Football announced that, due to COVID, the Ballon d’Or would not be presented that year. The award is given to celebrate the top scorer in Europe across the season, meaning Lewndowski has won the award twice, and Erling Halland has won it once, his award coming this year. 

Yet, despite having awards for attackers and goalkeepers, midfield and defender awards are not yet on the scene. Given the fact that the Ballon d’Or almost always ends up being given to attackers, the need for an attacking award without implementing awards for all four positional areas looks somewhat pointless. The Ballon d’Or has been criticised for simply being a popularity contest, with little consideration outside of Messi and Ronaldo being evident since 2008, although their quality perhaps justifies this to a certain extent. 

The Balon d'Or problems

Goals win games, but preventing goals also goes an awful long way to winning a game. Players such as Rodri, for example, could feel very hard done by considering his achievements, winning the treble with Manchester City, and his obvious position as the best holding midfielder in the world. However, regardless of his quality and achievements, he doesn’t score goals regularly, meaning he is all but guaranteed to never win the award. This, as an example, is why many players and fans see the award as less impressive than it was in the past - it is essentially an attackers only award. 

So, whilst the broadening of awards has been a welcome change, there is far too much weight given to goals rather than other equally impressive aspects of the game. The need to adapt this narrow view of footballing quality and success is evident, there are many players who offer unique qualities but sit outside of the regular goal-scoring bunch of attackers. Moreover, perhaps more weight and credit needs to be applied outside of the top five European Leagues, although this is perhaps more a result of the market and the financial strength of European leagues and the ever increasing gap between top European sides and the rest of the footballing milieu. 

In a recent announcement, UEFA and Groupe Amaury, owner of media companies France Football and L’Équipe, have announced a partnership to co-organise the renowned Ballon d'Or from 2024. This will see a continuation of the processes currently at play, although there will be “two new awards added to the programme; a men’s and women’s coach of the year, which will recognise the invaluable contribution of coaches to the success on the pitch.” A welcome addition, but as mentioned, midfielders and defenders will continue to feel excluded. 

Despite the critics, the Ballon d’Or is likely to remain a central part of football. Yet, regardless of the positive changes in recent years, more needs to be done to address the attacker-priority issue, as well broadening the parameters of who is likely to win - there is something magical about past players from less prominent teams - Igor Belanov at Dynamo Kyiv and Flórián Albert at Ferencváros to name a few - winning the award. Perhaps I am being overly romantic and lacking pragmatism, but in my opinion, the Ballon d’Or requires further change.