The three finalists for the 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or are out — and one of them is a head-scratcher. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo made the final cut, and with good reason. They are two of the best individual players on the planet, if not the best. But the third is German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, an eyebrow-raising choice.
Messi, of Barcelona and Argentina, is a deserving candidate. He led Argentina to its first World Cup final since 1990 and was named the tournament’s best player. In spite of being hampered by an injury that kept him out for six weeks early in the 2014-15 season, he spearheaded Barca once more throughout the year and broke the all-time scoring records for La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. At 27, the record four-time winner of this award is undoubtedly still in his prime and worthy.
Ronaldo, of Real Madrid and Portugal, is too. He led La Liga in scoring for 2013-14, set a new Champions League record for goals in a season — 17 — and in so doing helped end Real’s decade-long European title drought. He won this prize last year and in 2008, and merits a third.
Messi had 52 goals and 21 assists for club and country in 2014; Ronaldo had 55 and 19. In the context of one another, these nominations make sense Ã¢Â€Â“ this prize is voted on by national team coaches and captains and select members of the media, by the way.
But when you add in Neuer, of Bayern Munich and Germany, things get murky. Unlike the other two, who are forwards, Neuer is a goalkeeper. And this gives us a problem of definition for this award — the highest individual honor in soccer.
FIFA’s own website sets the parameters for the prize in two different ways. On the dedicated Ballon d’Or page it says the prize recognizes “the best individual talent for the past year in world football.” Yet in the press release announcing the finalists, it calls it the award for “the best player of 2014.” Wikipedia, meanwhile, and for what that’s worth, reckons the award is given to the player “who is considered to have performed the best in the previous year.”
There is real ambiguity here among the three different criteria. Having the “best individual talent” is not the same as being the “best player.” Nor does either equate to having “performed the best.” These may seem like semantics, but they underscore how vague this award really is. Perhaps that’s because this prize is an amalgamation of the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or — which were merged into one award in 2010. The former was said to be given to the best player, the latter to the best performer.
The trouble is, even when you are the best, you can be outperformed. Injuries and circumstance are the variables there.
Now, here’s where it gets really sticky: Are you considered the “best” or the “best performer” or even the “best talent” for how you did individually or how your team did thanks to your individual efforts? Soccer, perhaps more than any other sport, is a team game that doesn’t allow for easy statistical quantifying. Analytics have come a long way, but it’s still desperately difficult to measure a player’s share in his team’s success.
From a team perspective, Neuer was the big winner among these three this year. Bayern won another domestic double and Germany won the World Cup, where he was named the top goalkeeper. He was crucial to both campaigns. But how do you compare an attacker to a goalkeeper? One is tasked with scoring or creating goals, the other with preventing them. That’s like comparing a sword to a shield. Or a sports car to a policeman’s radar gun. Or the sun to sunscreen. Well, you get the idea.
It’s hard to quantify whether a goalkeeper can have as much of an effect on a team’s fortunes as an outfield player. An argument could be made that a great goalkeeper saves fewer goals, compared to an average one, than a great striker can add, relative to the standard forward’s output. Arguments could probably be made to reason the opposite point as well.
Looking at the history of this award, however, it is, by and large, reserved for forwards and attacking-minded midfielders. That’s both protocol and fact. So it follows that Neuer was included among the finalists in recognition of his teams’ achievements. But Messi’s teams won nothing this year, while Ronaldo won at the club level but saw his country falter at the World Cup, getting bounced in the group stage.
We had this problem last year, too, when Franck Ribery came third, even though his Bayern side had just won the treble. The World Cup only complicated matters further this year.
Who wins this award, then, will depend on how the voters judge the ill-defined criteria for this award. If this is an individual-as-part-of-a-team-performance award, Neuer should win it. If it counts for the greatest contribution to a club’s success, Ronaldo should have it. And if this a prize in recognition of almost single-handedly dragging your country into the final of the biggest tournament in the sport, it should be Messi’s.