There were genuine contenders for the prize beyond Messi and Ronaldo, writes Graham Ruthven
Cristiano Ronaldo has come to define himself by the Ballon d’Or and how many times he has won the award.
It has become an obsession of his, viewing the prize as the pinnacle of his own personal fulfillment. On Monday he became only the second player to win it four times. Yet more fulfillment.
The problem for Ronaldo is that the only other player to have clinched the Ballon d’Or more than four times is his great adversary, Lionel Messi. He boasts five golden balls on his mantelpiece, something that won’t sit well with Ronaldo until he too has five. Football’s greatest individual rivalry is now viewed through the prism of its greatest individual award.
But while Ronaldo and Messi might have finished in the top two of the Ballon d’Or voting once again, 2016 was the year their duopoly was finally broken. For the first time in a long, long while there was a genuine discussion to be had over who the best player in the world over the past 12 months had been. The championing of names other than Messi and Ronaldo are no longer so outrageous.
In fact, Ronaldo’s fourth Ballon d’Or triumph underlines how the award is broken. Luis Suarez was the best player in the world over the course of 2016. He scored 59 goals in just 53 games last season, helping Barcelona to a league and cup double. The Uruguayan, more than both Messi and Neymar, was integral to the success his club enjoyed this year, becoming the first player other than Messi or Ronaldo to win the Pichichi (Spain’s top goalscorer award) in seven years.
Suarez’s opener in the Clasico earlier this month brought his tally as a Barca player to an astonishing 96 goals in 114 matches, also contributing 48 assists in that time. Griezmann too made a strong case to be considered the best in the world, winning La Liga’s Player of the Award for his exerts with Atletico Madrid, leading France to the Euro 2016 final with six goals in as many starts.
But Ronaldo was the easy choice. Footballers and coaches were often pilloried for their lack of pragmatism when lodging their Ballon d’Or votes under the former model, but it would seem journalists suffer from a similar deficiency. There’s a certain tribalism, politicking about the voting procedure now. You’re either Team Messi or Team Ronaldo with very little scope for anything in between.
This lends itself to the impression there are only two choices. To pick anyone other than Messi or Ronaldo would be to betray the narrative of this footballing era, like claiming a band other than Blur or Oasis were the best during the Britpop years. This, however, is down to an issue with the Ballon d’Or as a concept.
At the heart of the award’s fundamental flaw is the mixed criteria over the success of an individual and the success of a team. Ronaldo won on Monday because of the achievements of his teams, both Portugal and Real Madrid, not necessarily because of his achievements as an individual, although with 51 goals to his name for 2016 there wasn’t too much to bemoan in that regard.
Football’s struggle over the separation of individual from the team is perpetual and is often crystallized by the Ballon d’Or. Take 2010, for instance, when Wesley Sneijder was put forward as a potential Ballon d’Or winner after leading Inter Milan to Champions League glory and reaching the final of the World Cup with Netherlands.
It could be argued that for both club and country that season Sneijder was outshone, but he was put forward because he provided the link between the success of two different teams. Griezmann’s candidacy this year was in a way made on a similar basis, although the Atletico Madrid and France forward is certainly more worthy of the Ballon d’Or than Sneijder ever was.
Of course, another prominent factor in any individual award is marketability and common appeal. The Ballon d’Or by its very nature a popularity contest and so Suarez, no matter how many goals he scored, no matter how many assists he contributed, was always likely to be up against it, especially when Messi and Ronaldo command such followings. Even the man himself admits that. “I don’t have a chance [in] the Ballon d’Or,” he confessed earlier this year, “because it works around marketing and I don’t have that.” Demagogues only win votes in politics, it would seem.
Indeed, 2016 was the year popular vote provided both Brexit and Donald Trump as president. But football isn’t quite ready for its convention to be levelled. Ronaldo is the 2016 Ballon d’Or winner and that in itself proves something is wrong with the system.