Thursday, September 28

Even Lionel Messi seemed slightly embarrassed to accept his seventh Ballon d’Or award for a less than stellar 2021, notes Susy Campanale.

While other competitions were crammed together in new formats or the schedule transformed by the pandemic, France Football decided not to assign the Ballon d’Or for 2020. It was a nonsensical decision, and therefore very much in keeping with the trophy’s general approach to this wonderful sport. What more or less everyone can agree on in 2021 is that Lionel Messi did not deserve to be named Player of the Year.

He arguably didn’t deserve quite a few of his now seven editions of this prize that for some reason remains prestigious, and that is true of practically every winner over the last few decades. Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi played tag with the golden orb since the Portugal international first lifted it to the sky in 2008, between them winning 11 of the last 12 editions, interrupted only by Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Croatia in 2018.

There were several worthy contenders for the accolade in 2021. For some time, Italy fans felt Jorginho would’ve been a suitable Ballon d’Or victor, because if the award is based on the silverware won during that calendar year, nobody could challenge the Chelsea midfielder. Between club and country, Jorginho took the Euro 2020 trophy, Champions League and European Super Cup. It would’ve been a nice change of pace also for the title to go to someone who does the quiet work and makes a team tick rather than just score the showy goals. But showiness is what the Ballon d’Or is all about and it wants only box office names.

Jorginho also had against him the continually confusing disdain with which many Chelsea fans continue to view the Azzurri player. Add in a couple of penalty errors in crucial Italy World Cup qualifiers against Switzerland and his chances were blown. As it happens, he finished third in the vote.

Robert Lewandowski would’ve won it hands down in 2020 and had every reason to expect the nod in 2021, if not as recognition for the pandemic-spoilt trophy, then for his on-going excellence at Bayern Munich. If the voters want showbiz and goals, then Lewa provides both in spades. He even broke Gerd Muller’s 49-year record of Bundesliga goals scored in a single season by bagging 41, surpassing the tally of 40 set in the 1971-72 campaign. The Poland international achieved that despite missing almost a full month through injury, netting 41 in 29 games.

Instead, Messi received the award despite one of Barcelona’s worst campaigns in decades, a season that culminated in him tearfully leaving the club that could no longer afford his salary and struggling to make an impact at the star-studded exhibition of egos that is Paris Saint-Germain. Yes, Argentina won the Copa America this summer by beating arch-rivals Brazil in the Final, the first ever piece of silverware that Messi has won with his country. La Pulga contributed four goals and five assists in the seven games of that tournament, although most of those were against Bolivia and Ecuador. Nonetheless, one gets the feeling that even if Argentina had emerged empty-handed again, Messi still would’ve received the individual award.

The Ballon d’Or used to be the trophy awarded by a hand-picked jury of journalists and pundits, whereas the FIFA Player of the Year Award gave a vote to coaches who barely watched any games and just picked the same stars over and over again. The two were melded together in 2010 and that is also coincidentally when the competition lost all credibility. They split again in 2015, but the damage was done and reporters from 180 nations contribute to what is essentially just a popularity contest. They are asked to pick their top five players of the year in order, with points given for each ranking.

Perhaps some criteria need to be clarified in order to bring meaning back to this annual parade of star power. Does the Ballon d’Or go to the most talented player, or is it the one who achieved the most during that specific calendar year? It is ostensibly supposed to be the latter, but that is not how anyone seems to vote on this. Giving Messi the award in 2021 was akin to the Oscar for Judi Dench’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Shakespeare in Love, a performance that lasted all of eight minutes on screen. As long as the voting process continues this way and its jury isn’t instructed to choose based on performances in that year rather than general talent, then it will remain the Messi and Ronaldo show for the foreseeable future.

At least Lewandowski can rest safe in the knowledge he’s in good company, as over the years the Ballon d’Or also snubbed the likes of Paolo Maldini, Raul, Thierry Henry, Franco Baresi, Xavi, Bobby Moore, Andres Iniesta and even the legend Ferenc Puskas.

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