The selfish gene

Luka Modric ended the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi domination of the Ballon d’Or, but what questions the point of individual awards in a team sport…

In January, Real Madrid and Croatia midfielder Luka Modric was awarded the Ballon d’Or, the first player not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to be given the award since 2007.

The 33-year-old is also the first Croatian player to be given the prize since the Balkan nation achieved its independence in 1991. There is no question that Modric is a wonderful, elegant player, or that he had a stunning 2018. The midfielder won his third Champions League on the spin with Real Madrid, and inspired his country to the World Cup final.

What is less unanimously agreed is the decision to give the Ballon d’Or to Modric, with Ronaldo’s sister bizarrely blaming the mafia for the loss while Messi failing even to reach the top three was greeted with howls of derision from his many fans around the world.

There is some merit to their complaints though. If the Ballon d’Or is intended purely to reward individual excellence, the statistics are very much on the side of the two men who have dominated voting for over a decade. In the 2017-18 season, Ronaldo scored 54 goals in 55 games and provided 11 assists. Messi managed 46 goals with one game fewer, and provided 18 assists. Modric, meanwhile, got five goals and 11 assists in his 59 games for club and country.

Many would argue, with some justification, that the Croat was a key man in teams which achieved extraordinary success — but what, then, is the point of handing out individual awards in a team sport? Modric wouldn’t have been in the World Cup Final were it not for a late Mario Mandzukic winner against England, and it was Ronaldo’s goals which fired Madrid to their Champions League triumph. Is Messi to be punished for playing in an insipid Argentina team over the summer?

The Ballon d’Or, and individual awards in general, have come to mean far more over recent years, fuelled in part by the duel between Messi and Ronaldo. It’s widely accepted that Neymar moved to Paris Saint-Germain in the hope of winning the Ballon d’Or, while Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann have also openly coveted the prize.

A similar phenomenon has played out in the world of tennis, with the ‘Big Four’ of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray competing not only for Grand Slams, but to be world No. 1. That makes sense in an individual sport, but what value does an individual award have in a team sport like football?

A microcosm of this increasing individual focus in football can be seen with a visit to the Juventus museum in Turin. In the gallery are the Ballons d’Or of two club legends, Omar Sivori and Pavel Nedved. The former’s is a small, plated football on a varnished wooden plinth. The Czech, however, was awarded a huge, glittering trophy which one would struggle to life above one’s head. Nedved was, of course, the ultimate team player, and one suspects he’d trade that trophy for the Champions League he missed out on in 2003. And yet the difference in the trophies is telling.

There are other issues with the Ballon d’Or, and similar trophies like FIFA’s The Best awards. For one, the trophy almost always goes to attacking players. Lev Yashin remains the only goalkeeper ever to have been given the Ballon d’Or, while Fabio Cannavaro was the last defender to win it back in 2006.

In some respects a creative midfielder like Modric winning is a positive step, but what of Xavi Hernandez, Andrea Pirlo or Pep Guardiola? Other players never to win the prize include Paolo Maldini, Gianluigi Buffon and Ryan Giggs.

Is Buffon a better player than Messi? It’s a ridiculous question, given their respective roles have absolutely nothing in common. So why then do we accept an award being given to the notional ‘best player in the world’ every year?

Fans will remember Messi, Ronaldo and Modric for the players they were and the trophies they won as part of a team, not how many times they were given a somewhat arbitrary individual prize, based on criteria which are at best unclear and at worst unfair.

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