Tarnished lustre of the Ballon d’Or

The usual names adorn this year’s Ballon d’Or shortlist.

A salad of supremely gifted attacking players from Europe’s top leagues, with regulars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in contention.

The ceremony is on January 9th, but can anybody really say that they are looking forward to it?

Every year, the event receives a big billing from pundits, players and fans. It almost seems like an excuse to glamorise and draw even more attention to the sport. Attention which, by and large, doesn’t focus on the collective beauty of football, but rather on its individualistic and commercial value.

“Behind every significant footballer is a web of capitalist structures, from PR spokespeople to advertising companies”

Arsene Wenger rightly condemned the accolade last year for its tendency to “encourage selfishness”.

The award unashamedly prides itself on earmarking individual excellence. It appears to ignore the sport’s intrinsic collective spirit. The Ballon d’Or demands that great players think solely about themselves, their achievements and how they improve a team, rather than how their talent is extracted and nourished by team-mates.

This development is depressingly symbolic of contemporary western society. Thanks to neo-liberal capitalism and the withering away of our formerly Christian values, the emergence of ‘selfism’ has been ushered in to replace historical collectivist preferences.

This societal change is reflected in the continuing prominence of the Ballon d’Or. Football has not been able, or sought, to shelter itself from these changes.

Capitalist structures

Take the ever-growing commercialisation of sport. How fervent do we imagine Puma, Nike or Adidas’s interests are in the shortlisting and eventual winner of the Ballon d’Or?

When Adidas awarded Messi with the Golden Ball at the last World Cup, he looked like he had been handed a dead baby. He knew he didn’t deserve the honour, but Adidas were very keen on their baby soaking up the plaudits. The merit was shared between the player and the brand.

“The Ballon dOr is also consistent in its disregard for certain kinds of players”

Behind every significant footballer is a web of capitalist structures, from PR spokespeople to advertising companies.

The appeal radiated by the Ballon dOr, therefore, is now shared by the corporate visionaries who help to promote and brand ‘world footballers’.

This cannot be considered a healthy presentation of our sport.

Sure, the world of promotion hasn’t escaped team structures either: the major clubs receive huge financial incentives to display sponsors on their shirts and stadia. But at least it’s a celebration of team, unity and partnership, rather than a spotlight on an individual.

Disproportionate acclaim

The Ballon dOr is also consistent in its disregard for certain kinds of players.

Players of bloated goal tallies or attacking flair – as opposed to dominating centrebacks and title-winning goalkeepers – are in receipt of disproportionate acclaim.

“The household names will be back once more, posturing in their finery and bathing themselves in glory”

This should make football fans think about why the defensive side of the game, or the art of not scoring, is so often overlooked and underappreciated.

In the history of the Ballon dOr, only three winners were defenders: Franz Beckenbauer in both 1972 and 1976, Mathias Sammer in 1996 and Fabio Cannavaro ten years later, after leading Italy to World Cup glory.

The story of goalkeepers is even more dire. Only Lev Yashin, a Soviet great, managed to win the Ballon d’Or (back in 1963) from between the sticks, and we seem a long way from presenting the award to a goalkeeper once more.

Bias

It is easy to associate the goalscorers and headline-grabbers as being the game’s greats, but too often we overlook those who do the dirty work.

The holding players, the ferocious fullbacks and centrebacks who lead both on and off the pitch are worthy of mention. The Ballon dOr, though, isn’t so interested in them.

Perhaps those at the heart of selection and nomination have an ideological bias that they cannot seem to work past, or perhaps the art of defending has indeed been forgotten.

Either way, the Ballon dOr will return to our screens in just a couple of months’ time.

The household names will be back once more, posturing in their finery and bathing themselves in glory that cannot be attributed entirely to them.

How anybody can stomach it is beyond me.

Feature image courtesy of Carlos Torres via Flikr Creative Commons.

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