Golden Ball no laughing matter

By Omar Al-Ubaydli

This week saw the announcement by France Football of the list of nominees for the much coveted European Footballer of the Year award. But what should be a list of Europe’s 50 best footballers over the last calendar year turns out to be more like a list of the continent’s most popular footballers, plus most of the French national team. One can only hope to avoid last year’s farcical decision to award the prize to Ronaldo, but leads to the question of who should win the Golden Ball? Or to be more precise, who shouldn’t?

Let us begin by dissecting the title: European Footballer of the Year. That does not read best active footballer in Europe. The prize is supposed to go to the player who, over the last calendar year, played the best football, with extra points awarded for winning a trophy or two. Reputations prior to the calendar year in question and latent skill are irrelevant. Take note, those of you who favor Zinedine Zidane every year.

Similarly, the award is not for the best European player who happens to play on the French national team. Putting the likes of Sylvain Wiltord and Ludovic Giuly on the list is verging on the insulting, especially when Ryan Giggs and Clarence Seedorf are absent.

Fortunately, these two pitfalls only seem to affect the list of nominees rather than the actual winner, if past experience is anything to go by. In fact, with the exception of last year, I cannot fault a single choice by the wily journalists at France Football over the last decade. For example, the period 1993-1996 saw Roberto Baggio, Hristo Stoichkov, George Weah and Matthias Sammer win in succession, and anyone who had the pleasure to watch them devastate Europe with their immense talent cannot deny these greats their hard-earned awards. However, Ronaldo’s victory last year set a worrying precedent—if winning the prize is the fitting ending to a romantic football story, then we can brush the real criteria under the carpet.

Why did Ronaldo win? Because he was top scorer in the World Cup, and because the last time he had played a good game of football before the 2002 World Cup was the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup, with a crippling knee injury sandwiched in between. The tale of comeback was simply too tear-inducing for the media to ignore.

Why shouldn’t he have won? Because the Ballon d’Or is not a player of the month award, even if, ironically enough, it is not difficult to find better players within the World Cup. Either side of July, Ronaldo spent too much time eating pies to play football, let alone play good football.

This year, Paolo Maldini is one of the favorites. Yet to give him the award would be a travesty comparable to last year. Maldini did have a good season, but if his name had been on the list of former winners, he probably wouldn’t even be nominated now. While there is little doubt that the Milanese general is one of the finest players to ever grace the game, you only have to look across the back line he occupies to find a more worthy winner in Alessandro Nesta. As Maldini fast approaches retirement, one presumes that someone at France Football felt a tinge of embarrassment at not having recognized the Milan skipper’s contribution. Yet, not in any of Maldini’s glorious years has he ever been Europe’s outstanding player.

Naturally, awarding Ronaldo the title would make giving it to Maldini look like a decision King Solomon could be proud of, but one hopes that neither player will win.

Those lucky enough to watch Arsenal play last season simply cannot begrudge French Talisman Thierry Henry the prize, a player who redefined the concept of the complete footballer with his mesmerizing blend of pace, skill and vision. Whatever the decision, one hopes it restores credibility to this otherwise fine institution. Perhaps Florida should vote on the matter.