Stop taking football awards so seriously: It's a popularity contest
It's awards season. We had the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award last week, FIFA's "The Best" awards are on their way later this month and the Ballon d'Or, the granddaddy of them all, will be coming up in December.
This also means that it's conspiracy season. Cristiano Ronaldo's agent, Jorge Mendes, moaned when his client didn't win the UEFA award. So too did Juventus chief executive Beppe Marotta. (Ronaldo himself didn't moan: He simply didn't show up when he found out he hadn't won.)
Take it all with a grain of salt. If you failed to put either Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in your top three last season -- something 11 of 151 national team captains who voted did -- it can only mean one of the following things:
1. You don't really understand this football thing
2. You didn't pay much attention
3. You wanted to make some sort of statement, whether it was your own personal interpretation of what "the best" means or simply sticking up for your friends and teammates (which is what Manuel Neuer appeared to do when he picked Toni Kroos, Robert Lewandowski and Arturo Vidal in his top three)
4. You want to ensure your rival gets one fewer vote, which is what Messi and Ronaldo did. They weren't allowed to vote for themselves and they made sure they didn't vote for their rivals.
If this doesn't tell you that these awards are neither forensic nor scientific but fraught with biases, ignorance and vested interests, then nothing will. And guess what? That's fine. In its own way, it's democracy. Just like real-life elections.
As with elections, some compare the voting systems, which is again a bit odd when you consider you have three different juries from which to choose.
The UEFA jury is composed of 135 voters: 55 journalists (one for each UEFA member nation) and the 80 coaches whose teams were involved in the Champions League and Europa League the previous season. The Ballon d'Or is chosen by journalists from around the globe. Meanwhile, "The Best" is split four ways: national team captains, national team coaches, journalists from each FIFA member nation and a popular fans' vote. (It's closed now, but if you want to vote all you need to do is register and join the "FIFA Club."
The criteria for each is generally the same -- who was the best player? -- yet we sometimes get different outcomes because the voters are different. Indeed, one good thing about the Messi-Ronaldo hegemony is that for most of the past decade if you voted for one or the other, you couldn't be accused of "getting it wrong" since both have been so consistently out-of-this-world excellent. (It wasn't always like that. In 2001, Michael Owen, Raul and Oliver Kahn finished first, second and third in the Ballon d'Or vote but eighth, third and seventh in the FIFA poll... go figure.)
Different folks value different qualities. I don't think any of my colleagues who chose Luka Modric as UEFA Men's Player of the Year actually believe that he was a better footballer than Ronaldo or Messi in the 2017-18 season. Rather, he was outstanding in what he achieved, especially during the World Cup and especially in key games. Rightly or wrongly, the World Cup -- and late knockout stage Champions League games -- matter more to them. (Ronaldo is a case in point. He scored 15 Champions League goals but failed to score in the semifinal and final. Had some of them come towards the end of the competition, it might have made a difference.)
The other issue -- and take this from someone who knows plenty of guys who vote for these awards -- is that many times a forensic, scientific analysis of the candidates and their credentials generally isn't foremost in their minds. This applies if you're a coach, a footballer or a journalist. The ballot comes and you need to fill it out amid getting on with your day job, which might include worrying about getting back into the starting lineup, avoiding the sack because you're doing badly in qualifying or simply figuring out how you're going to pay both your mortgage and your car loan that month.
Then there are guys who just vote for their mates, like Neuer, or make sure they don't vote for their rivals, which may explain why Ronaldo did not put Messi in his top three and vice versa. The ultimate fact is many of these guys don't particularly care.
Do fans care? Of course. But the fan component can often turn into a big popularity contest. That's before you get into issues like bots and all the foibles that internet voting brings.
How about journalists? You'd hope they care but then you open up a can of worms by making things democratic: the person who watches 100-plus games from the Champions League and top leagues has the same influence on the outcome as someone who might cover the North Korean league and maybe catch a game or two on TV. (That's also why there were plenty of -- let's be nice and say "outside-the-box" -- choices in last season's "The Best" voting.)
Some folks liken it to MVP voting in American sports only it's nothing of the sort. MVP voters all watch the same games and are dealing with a finite set of data. Football award voters are all over the map.
Statistical arguments are equally dumb. I don't say this because I don't believe in stats (I do) but they inevitably boil down to the two numbers that troglodytes can handle: trophies and goals. The former is silly in a team game, not to mention that not all trophies are equally important or difficult to win; the latter is absurd because it skews matters toward strikers.
The solution? Take it for what it is: a popularity contest. Like all popular elections, not all voters are equally well-informed, not all voters enter with an open mind and not all voters care about the outcome.
Deal with it. Heck, we deal with it every day. We all know complete idiots, wasters and inherently biased fools, and yet we don't freak out when they get down to the ballot box on Election Day.
Why should football be any different?