Who is the best footballer playing the game today?
It is a simple question and there is a simple answer.
In fact, it is so simple there is a very good chance that your mom would give the same answer to that question as you.
It is, of course, Lionel Messi.
So let’s try this again……
Who was the best footballer in the year 2012?
If asked, again, at this point your mom’s response may be along of the lines of ‘oh I don’t know…Messi I suppose.’
So what about you? Are you going to use seven simple words to answer the question as well?
Perhaps: ‘Oh come on that’s easy it’s Messi’.
Or, like me, are you intrigued to dig deeper? Here is the case for the against:
Let’s get this out of the way first. I’ve never been a big fan of individual awards in team sports. The beauty of (most) sports is that it leaves no debate. There is a clear result left on the field, track, pitch, court or wherever your eyes are fortunate to watch over competition. Winners are identified by competing against one another and the rest of the awards are simply made up to highlight those special individuals who really excelled. But who’s kidding who here, these awards do not mean more to players of any sport than championships or medals that can be won in the heat of battle. The awards are also used by the sports as a way of keeping their sport relevant during a downtime in their calendar, usually in the weeks following their seasons when no actual events are being played to occupy fans and fill space in a number of media circles. However, whether it be a Ballon d’Or winner or an MVP winner what is clear is that the media care, which forces the people to care and suddenly there becomes an historic significance to the award, a way of telling those in the future who was the best, and because of this, it is important that those voting do take it seriously and attempt to find the right winner.
Best Player vs Most Valuable Player
This is an argument sports fans in North America are all too familiar with. It doesn’t matter if its baseball, hockey, NFL football or basketball, debates and polls fuel newspapers, radio and television stations over this topic ad nauseum. In the last month of last year’s MLB regular season, it appeared more media members were interested in deciding between rookie phenom Mike Trout or big-hitting Miguel Cabrera for MVP than talking about the games that continued to be played while they argued. And now as the NFL season goes into the playoffs more examples are out there on this debate, including this one from the fine writer Troy Renck in the Denver Post, titled ‘Peyton Manning the MVP, Adrian Peterson’s the NFL’s best player.’
The debates are always generated by the wording of the award and specifically the word ‘valuable’. For example, back in 2003 the American League in baseball awarded Alex Rodriguez, then of the Texas Rangers, the award despite his team being one of the worst that season. ‘A-Rod’ was likely the game’s best player at the time yet spent the entire season playing for a Rangers team that never had a record over .500 after opening day. Those against the award countered, correctly, that Rodriguez couldn’t have been that valuable to his side as with, or without him, the Rangers would have still finished last in their division. The voters put that aside and, perhaps, read on Wikipedia about the term before writing down the shortstop’s name. Here is how Wikipedia still refers to the term today:
In sports, a Most Valuable Player (MVP) award is an honor typically bestowed upon the best-performing player or players on a specific team, in an entire league, or for a particular contest or series of contests. Initially used in professional sports, the term is now also commonly used in amateur sports, as well as in other completely unrelated fields of endeavor such as business and music.
The term is typically only used in Canada, the United States, the Philippines and South Korea, although Australia uses the term for the National Basketball League.
If the award is ‘typically bestowed upon the best performing player’ then why not, as Troy Renck has written and many people have said, simply have a ‘best player’ award?
Because the winner should be the same anyway.
The case for value
Adrian Peterson may or may not win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, but if he doesn’t win it should be because he wasn’t the league’s best player not just because a voter thinks another player was more valuable to his own team. In the case of Manning vs Peterson, both players were at an elite level all season, leading their subsequent teams to the playoffs and reaching win totals that neither side could have dreamed of without them playing. Both players played equally the same amount of important games leaving it down to those with a vote to decide. The likely tie-breaker? Who is more valuable to their team. In this case, it may be Manning, a quarterback who was involved in more plays than Peterson, a running back. However, if those voting think, like Renck, that Manning is the MVP but Peterson was the best player, then who are they to determine that the league’s best player was less valuable to his team than someone who wasn’t as good as him on another team? If Peterson, playing on a competitive team that made the playoffs, was the league’s best player, this leads him to also being the league’s most valuable player which is why those three letters ‘MVP’ are equally as insightful as they are maddening.
Rodriguez may have been the game’s most talented baseball player in 2003, but how could he be the league’s best player if he never played a meaningful game for his team after June? There simply wasn’t enough evidence of merit to back this up. The truth is there was little competition that year from players who made the playoffs, but that still doesn’t mean the writers were correct. They were widely criticized and no player since has won the award without making the end of season playoffs.
A wonderful factor in the naming of these individual award winners comes back to what their sport is all about in the first place – team success.
Messi vs Ronaldo
Football is not an individual sport, but in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, we are witnessing two of the game’s finest individual players to ever play the game, playing in the same league at the same time, smashing records together. Andrea Pirlo and Andres Iniesta each had magnificent 2012’s, but without doubt the best two players were Messi and Ronaldo.
Messi is a player that words do not do justice to. His 50 league goals and 73 in total for the 2011-12 season are far more impressive than the number 91 that beat Gerd Muller’s record (that no one knew about until this year) yet 50 and 73 could easily be beaten again by May. Nevertheless, this is a time for looking back not forward.
Ronaldo scored 46 league goals and 60 in total during the 11-12 club season, numbers that deserve to be outside of a shadow called Messi. In the final seven league games, Ronaldo scored nine goals including one of the biggest of his career to help Real Madrid to the title.
It is April 21st, the game is in the 73rd minute and the Nou Camp is rocking. Alexis Sanchez has just scored the equalizer against Real Madrid and the home fans know another goal could help them catch the leaders for the title. Ronaldo finds himself in an area of the pitch he loves the most, centrally, just past the halfway line, 10 metres off standing defenders. Angel Di Maria makes a run on the right and already Ronaldo’s brain is thinking three moves ahead like a grand master chess player. He sprints towards the space between the back-peddling Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol. Di Maria gives the ball to Mesut Ozil on the touchline and instantly Ronaldo’s arm points to the space he plans to run into. He needn’t have bothered. Ozil, a supremely gifted player with great vision knows what to do. The German stops the ball with his studs and plays a perfectly weighted pass for the sprinting Ronaldo to run on to. By now, he has the beating of the defenders, who trail behind him, but now he must defeat Barcelona’s goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, in a one-on-one situation, a scenario where all great finishers in this game are measured. The Spanish goalkeeper comes out and cuts down all angles but Ronaldo, the master chess player, has thought ahead and before he even gets to the ball, glances up to see the goalkeeper’s positioning. He now knows he has to make one touch of the ball to the right to make Valdes move again and as the Spaniard skips to his left, Ronaldo already smashes the ball past him into the net at the near post. Madrid win at the Nou Camp 2-1 and secure the league and end Barcelona’s three year reign as La Liga Champions. Fittingly, it’s Ronaldo who wins it for them.
Two months to the day from that goal, Ronaldo is now in Warsaw, Poland. Four days after that goal in Barcelona, he’d scored twice inside the first 14 minutes against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi final 2nd leg but would later miss a penalty in a shootout that knocked his team out. The night before Messi had missed a penalty against Chelsea and also been knocked out. Now with Messi finally resting, fresh off a sensational hat-trick against Brazil in the USA, Ronaldo’s sulking on the pitch. He’s hit the post twice in the quarter finals of the European Championships and has that look on his face of disbelief. His two goals against the Dutch had helped his side get to this stage but now he’s frustrated with the Czech rearguard. His team-mate, the brilliant Joao Moutinho, then makes a run towards the byline on the right, the first of its kind in the game despite it being the 79th minute. Ronaldo is out on his own on the far left at the tip of the penalty area as the Czech back four narrow in the box. The moment Moutinho dribbles, Ronaldo starts to run towards the goal. Nothing special there. Yet. Moutinho then bends his foot around the ball, ready to cross it into the box. Ronaldo, still unmarked, then holds his run to see whether it will be sent in front of the defenders or behind. The ball is placed perfectly towards the gap between the two defenders in the box, at which point Ronaldo immediately attacks the space, meeting the ball with a bullet of a header that goes into the ground and up past Petr Cech in the net. 1-0 Portugal and into the semi’s, a game where Ronaldo again would shine only to see his tournament come to an end via a penalty shootout.
These moments were pivotal ones in the career of Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi had special moments in 2012 as well, but he didn’t help his side win the league and he didn’t perform at the top of his game for his country in a major tournament.
Ultimately, football’s chapters start and end by season’s. The Ballon d’Or has so many flaws and its biggest may be the fact it is awarded based on player’s performances in a calendar year not in a season. If – as it should have been – this award was handed out in July 2012, and not January 2013, Ronaldo would have won due to his performances in the big games, aka the ones that had more ‘value’ to them. In the four and a half months of football played since, Messi has without doubt been a better player than his rival over 17 league matches, 6 Champions League games and a few domestic cup encounters. That – 91 goals or not – should not be enough for him to win the award. Individual statistical numbers like 50 73 and 91 are staggering but so are 46 60 and 63 and this game is far more complex and magnificent to simply become a slave to numbers. The sport that relies on them the most – baseball – learned a long time ago how to look beyond them, after all one of its greatest numbers of all time, .406, came from Ted Williams’ batting average in the season of 1941. That year, Joe Di Maggio of the New York Yankees, won the MVP. He didn’t have an iconic number in 1941 like .406 but he played in bigger games and took his team to a new level.
Messi had a wonderful 2012 that will never be forgotten, but it is Ronaldo’s year that made a bigger difference to the landscape of the game. That is why all the Ballon d’Or voters needed to say more than seven simple words to themselves when casting their vote.