Depressing sameness of 'best player' lists reflects direction football is going
It's a bit like the way some folks respond to news of tragedy in faraway lands. The first few times, you may have an emotional response: anger, sadness, empathy, whatever.
And then you get numb, maybe because it seems normal. The status quo. Or perhaps you just get bored and you need something else over which to get annoyed.
I rather felt that way when I looked at the 55-man shortlist for the FIFA/FIFPro World XI on Monday night. This is the list from which 50,000 professional footballers got to vote for their team of the year; in the end, some 23,000 from 70 different countries had their say.
Here are some numbers that you likely won't find surprising.
The 55 players come from just 11 clubs. Nine of those teams also happen to be the nine biggest in the world by revenue, according to the 2014 Deloitte Money League report. Another, Borussia Dortmund, sits in 11th place. The outliers are Atletico Madrid, who were 20th.
Fifty-eight percent of the guys on the shortlist play for either Real Madrid (12), Barcelona (10) or Bayern Munich (10). Those three clubs also happen to rank first, second and third in the Deloitte Money League.
Now, these 55 are the highest vote-getters at their respective positions (goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, striker). It's not a list from which the voters must choose, like the initial Ballon d'Or shortlist. So if, say, Daniel Sturridge or Carlos Tevez or whomever did not make the list, it's not because he was excluded; it's because not enough people voted for him.
The clear knock on the FIFPro Award is that while the guys who voted for it might be very good at playing football, they don't perhaps watch that much of it. So they go for the guys who are most popular and play for the biggest teams in the biggest competitions.
So I compared the FIFPro list with three other top 50 lists: the one compiled by the Guardian (it's actually a top 100, but I only looked at the top 50), the one put together by EA Sports for FIFA 15 and, for hipster value, the top 50 produced by Norwegian magazine Josimar. (Full disclosure: I was on the jury for the latter.)
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Here's the disheartening thing. Every single player in the Guardian list comes from one of those 11 aforementioned teams. The EA Sports FIFA List? It's 49 out of 50, the exception being Tottenham's Hugo Lloris. The Josimar list? Marginally better; it's 45 out of 50, the highest being Hugo Lloris at 39, the others being Raheem Sterling (Liverpool), Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Vincent Enyeama (Lille) and Carlos Bacca (Seville).
The reason I point this out is that while we can all giggle at David Luiz making the World XI, the fact of the matter is that most of that list looks a lot like the other three lists even though they were all compiled by very different sets of people.
And much more important is that such lists are totally skewed towards the richest clubs in the world. They either have the best players, sign the best players (witness Claudio Bravo and James Rodriguez started the year playing for none of those 11 clubs and now they've joined them) or acquire them as soon as they show they're good enough.
Oh, and don't be fooled by the outlier in all this, the one club who (we're told) show that anybody can be successful if they work hard enough: Atletico Madrid. Atleti have one guy on the list (defender Diego Godin), and were he not 28 years old, he might have moved too.
It's true that Atletico were only 20th in the Deloitte rankings, but the fact of the matter is that they had an incredible, breakout year thanks to a superhuman effort by the players and their manager, Diego Simeone. They also have a fair mix of loans, debt and third-party financing, and it's no coincidence that they lost three starters (Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis) in the summer, all of whom were in the FIFPro 55.
You may not care about this. You may be happy that the top players all gravitate towards superclubs. Or you may just be numb because you think it's a normal state of affairs and it has always been that way. Well, that's not the case.
European football has always had bigger clubs and smaller ones, yes. But the gap in spending power and clout was never as big as it is now, particularly within individual leagues. And it's only getting bigger. Revenues grow across the board (and, with them, costs) but they grow faster and more sharply for the bigger teams. Who, in turn, get richer and can buy better players. They win more as a result and become stronger brands (while also getting more prize money). And, because they're stronger brands, they generate more revenue.
And so the cycle goes on. The rich get richer. The aspiring continue to aspire. The rest are happy to enjoy their superstar for a a year or two, knowing that if he's any good he'll soon be gone.
Financial fair play, as has been written many times, has only accelerated and solidified this process. And that's why, incidentally, most of the the big clubs were all generally in favor of it.
But are you, the fan, OK with it?
Maybe you are. Maybe it's inevitable. Maybe you can't stop the march of history. Maybe one day some rich and powerful guys will wake up and realize that, given the imbalance in resources (an imbalance which, by the way, more often than not is a result of history and geography, rather than hiring super-clever executives), the biggest clubs are better off simply playing each other in a European SuperLeague with no promotion or relegation.
That's where we're heading, folks. It may be what people want, and it does appear to be what the market wants (and the market usually gets its way), though you wonder to what degree the market is distorted right now; not just by FFP, but by a variety of factors.
Like I said, you're probably already numb to everything you've just read. But if you're not, you may just share my view: it's something stakeholders ought to be debating.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.