The FIFA Ballon d’Or: Yay For The Right Choice, Yay For Those Who Got It Wrong

January 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

This piece first appeared on SB NATION on 10 January 2012

There have probably been less surprising poll results. In 1962, elections in North Korea achieved the democratic dream of a 100% turnout, with each victorious candidates — they were limited to one per constituency — attaining a 100% mandate. But when the only other horse in what could only loosely be described as a two-horse race doesn’t feel the need to turn up — Cristiano Ronaldo had very important Copa del Rey practice — then it does rather undermine even the pretense of suspense. And so it came to pass: Lionel Messi, for the third time in a row, won the FIFA Ballon d’Or and retained official recognition as the best player on the planet.

Tributes have been forthcoming, most of which have focused on the undeniable rightness of the decision. But one of the more pleasing wrinkles of the newly-merged FIFA Ballon d’Or is the publication of the voting lists. Thanks to this we learned that Messi’s greatness is so emphatic and inarguable that two international captains, Aaron Hughes of Northern Ireland and Bilal Rajab of Qatar, didn’t even bother voting for a top three. Messi, then clear air.

More fun still is identifying those players who apparently didn’t grasp that the rules prohibit voting for one’s fellow countrymen. John Terry, Mark van Bommel and Denis Lavagne, manager of Cameroon, all voted for their compatriots, selecting Wayne Rooney (3rd), Wesley Sneijder (1st), and Samuel Eto’o (1st) respectively. (Messi himself, captain of Argentina, placed Sergio Agüero in 3rd). Kind of cute, when you think about it …

“See, Wayne? I voted for you!”

“Aww, John, you sentimental booby. Hug!”

… and, given that egos float around football like dirigibles over steampunk, perhaps a diplomatic necessity.

“Why didn’t you vote for me, Mark?”

“Well, er, I, the rules, I … sorry, Wesley. Oh, don’t look like that. Hug?”

Of course, there are plenty of decisions that feel peculiar. Nahayo, captain of Burundi, has clearly been paying a lot of attention to Pelé, selecting the anti-impotence activist’s favourite Neymar in 1st place. Jaffar Khan, captain of Pakistan, overlooked both Messi and Ronaldo, preferring a top three of Thomas Müller, Andrés Iniesta and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Giovanni Trappatoni, coach of Ireland, didn’t vote for Messi at all while Ibrahim Mohamed Ibrahime, coach of Djibouti, looked over the entire wide world of football in 2011 and plumped for Karim Benzema as his number one. All of the above, naturally, have attracted much chuckling, because this is football and mocking people who get things wrong is what we do.

Except, of course, that there is no wrong answer. Voting is a preferential business — what do you think? — and preferences, so long as they’re honest, are never *wrong*, however misguided or idiotic or sentimental they might be. Maybe Messi once trod on Trappatoni’s toe. Maybe Müller and Schweinsteiger were once good enough to keep Jaffar Khan company while he was waiting for a taxi. Maybe Benzema once held a door open for Ibrahim, even though it meant an unnecessary delay of a few seconds to his own journey. It was once said of Bill Clinton that he could persuade the entire of the USA to vote for him, if only he could meet them all*; maybe Iker Casillas is just a really nice bloke.

* There is the possibility that this is a line from Primary Colors. In which case, for legal reasons, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Bill Clinton.

In addition to this, we must remember that those who play football experience other footballers differently to those who simply watch. It would be gratuitously peevish to deny a captain the right to base his decision on ‘that time I marked Ronaldo, he tore me to pieces’ or a manager on ‘that game where nothing got past Casillas, it was unreal’. And we can never discount the possibility of more malign forces. Wayne Rooney’s popularity in various “emerging markets” will doubtless be a great source of pleasure to those who spend their time counting beans for the Premier League.

I suppose you could approach the question ‘who do you think is the best in the world?’ as an objective matter, but taking the subjective route is both more fun and more human. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that people are allowed to be objectively wrong for their own reasons, however petty or personal they might be. That’s the point of people; that’s what opens democracy up to such galling manipulation by those that can afford to spend money to change the way people think. It’s a problem in politics; it’s a godsend in football.

Because footballers affect different people in different ways. There are people in this world who find Messi incredibly boring and people who consider him overrated. There are people who place great significance on the fact that he plays for a team that has been built around him, others that look significantly towards his relatively disappointing international career, and doubtless there are those who are uncomfortable with his childhood use of human growth hormone. Then there are those who despise Barcelona or Argentina, for whatever reason, and those who feel that attacking players get too much attention. Some of these people will also be footballers, or coaches, or journalists; some of them will have voted. Football isn’t a game of opinions, but having opinions definitely is.

The search for objective truth in shared human pleasures is the most inhumane of all pursuits and should be defied and resisted at every turn. Last night, Arsenal fans voted Thierry Henry man of the match before he’d even got onto the pitch. It was wrong, and it was ridiculous. But it was wonderfully, sweetly, and perfectly human. Long live the sentimental idiots, and long live the right to be wrong.


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§ One Response to The FIFA Ballon d’Or: Yay For The Right Choice, Yay For Those Who Got It Wrong

  • John says:

    Very enjoyable article, there’s also nothing worse than those who attempt to claim intellectual superiority by adoring Barcelona or waxing dolphinal about footballing philosophy. It’s not an intellectual game, it’s game of the heart and the gut.

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