Just a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spend time with Jonathan Northcroft, a super talented sports correspondent for the Sunday Times. He subsequently crafted an honest and insightful piece to which I could only admire. Luckily for me, and I guess you guys as well, Jonathan was aware of the previous guest post by John Bradley and offered to write a post of his very own, to which I was only too pleased to accept. So here’s the second guest blog, Jonathan’s take on the Ballon d’Or. But is the once coveted award now a commercial monster, rather than fundamentally rewarding those nominated? Let me know your thoughts, as me and Jonathan will be scanning for feedback and comments.
This weeks’ guest blog is from Johnathan Northcroft, football correspondent for the Sunday Times. Follow and message him here @JNorthcroft
GABRIEL Hanot was a fine football player – but a great football journalist.
As editor of L’Equipe it was Hanot who conceived the European Cup. He did what the best journalists do: posed big questions and then went looking for the answers. The European Cup was born because he wanted to know who, among Europe’s domestic title holders, was the greatest team.
Hanot, who won 12 caps for France as a full back in the early 1900s, died 44 years ago. Were he alive, would he even recognize the Champions League, with its ‘coefficients’, its glitz and cash, its exclusion of champions from smaller nations and its inclusion of even fourth placed teams from the major countries?
He might be even more bewildered by what has befallen another of his ideas. Hanot was also curious to identify the best footballer in Europe and arranged a vote of leading journalists from around the continent. So began the Ballon D’Or: Stanley Matthews was the first winner in 1956; another giant, Alfredo Di Stefano, was next.
Today? Well, UEFA might have mangled the old European Cup…but UEFA are mere amateurs at ruining things compared to FIFA. In 2010, those moneyed kings of self-delusion staged a takeover of the poor old Ballon d’Or and merged it with their own newer, and never as esteemed award, the ‘FIFA World Player of the Year’. Inevitably, the famous ‘Golden Ball’ became more than a little plastic.
No longer simply for the best player in Europe, it is now a ‘world’ award. Nothing wrong with that, except the nominees remain almost exclusively Europe-based. On the current list of 23 only Neymar and Didier Drogba play somewhere other than Spain, England, Germany, Italy or France. What: there are no other great footballers on the planet? How about Leandro Damiao or the brilliant Egyptian veteran, Mohamed Aboutrika?
Worse, the ‘FIFA Ballon D’or’ is now presented at televised gala in Zurich as just one element in a whole, cheesy, pseudo ‘Oscars’ night alongside baubles like the ‘Presidential Award’ – a sort of ‘lifetime achievement’ gong, for ‘services to football,’ selected at Sepp Blatter’s discretion. The list of winners is bizarre. Sir Alex Ferguson was last year’s recipient but the two winners before him? You won’t guess. Desmond Tutu and Queen Raina of Jordan. Yep, whoever Sepp fancies getting his photo taken with. Or, given Haiti and “Women’s Football” are also past recipients, ‘causes’ on which Sepp wants to land a great, patronizing, political pat on the back..
Sadly, FIFA also now have a say in the nominees, through one of their committees. The 2012 list looks like not the best 23 footballers in the world but, more or less, the 23 most famous and marketable ones. They’re still trying to keep things vaguely plausible but give FIFA a few years – Ronaldinho and Beckham will be on it.
The winner will be one of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Iker Casillas, Anders Iniesta, Xavi or Andrea Pirlo and who could argue with their inclusion among the 23? But why is Mario Balotelli on it? For Italy at the Euros, Antonio Cassano and Claudio Marchisio were more consistent. For Manchester City, David Silva and Vincent Kompany were better. But none of these made the list.
Did Wayne Rooney really have a good enough 2012 to merit inclusion? The reasoning given on his FIFA pen-pic is weak: “with 14 goals between February and May 2012, Wayne Rooney was indispensible for Manchester United.” Why is Gerard Pique there? Good player, but a mediocre year. Ah, wait, he might bring Shakira to that gala night in Zurich.
Sergio Busquets? Baffling. Manuel Neuer? Tremendous keeper but can he really be the only player from the Bundesliga worth including – when there are none from the dazzling German champions, Borussia Dortmund. Queen Raina of Jordan? Decent centre-back but…okay, I’m joking now.
My biggest hope is Blatter will get Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood to compere the ceremony and give the occasion the ‘dignity’ it deserves. The sad demise of the Ballon d’Or got me thinking about the wider subject of judging football players. In a results-driven industry, performances are there for everyone to see on the pitch, so do players need graded by journos like me or, worse, a committee?
Surely, the only ‘shortlist’ that it really counts a player makes is the 11 players his manager nominates to start a game. And, presumably (Joey can answer this), the only esteem a player really wants to gain is from his own teammates – and his club’s own fans.
Still, it seems part of the modern condition, to want to rank things – just for the hell of it. With that in mind, we should look on awards as a bit of fun – but not serious or definitive statements about a player’s ability. Sir Alex Ferguson has held that opinion ever since 1999, when even though Manchester United won the Treble, not one of his players won either PFA Player of the Year or FWA (the football writers) Player of the Year. Instead the recipient of both awards was David Ginola – who scored three goals for a Tottenham side who finished 11th in the Premier League.
That, to me, is confirmation players can be just as bad at judging each other as we journos are at judging them. I’d be interested to see what marks out of ten they’d give one another for performances. The marks out of ten that appear beside newspaper match reports are an old tradition but are they worthwhile?
Well, here’s how it works. You’re reporting on a match. You have 900 words to write about the game, which has to be completed and sent to your editor – during the match itself. The physical act of just typing 900 words takes (assuming an average speed of 40 words per minute) more than 20 minutes. You also have to make notes, watch replays on your monitor in the press box, take calls from your editor and send your copy by email. Probably half of the 105 minutes available (the game plus half-time) is spend on simply the mechanics of reporting.
So you have about 50 minutes to actually watch the game. In an average match only about two-thirds are spent with the ball ‘in play’. Basically, the reporter is only fully focused on watching play for about 30 minutes per match. As Americans say, do the math: even if you focused your eyes solely on each player in turn (surely the only way to grade a performance – you need to see everything, off the ball movement etc as well as what happens when the ball is at a player’s feet) you’d have a little more than one minute per player through which to arrive at a grading. But of course you can’t even do that – you’re having to watch the general flow of play for the purposes of your main responsibility, your match report.
Players – and fans – take the marks out of ten perhaps even more seriously than your match report itself. My advice would be: don’t. Treat it as a bit of fun. I would say the same when it comes to player of the year awards…except FIFA haven’t half sucked the fun, along with everything else, out of the famous old Ballon d’Or.