Another year gone, and another year in which the “world’s best soccer player” award was given to the wrong player. Historically, the Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball) has been awarded to the player who consistently performed at the highest level throughout the year. Important factors include goals, assists, and importance to their team. The award is voted by journalists across the world and is presented by France Football, a reputable sporting magazine.
Over the past two years, and especially this year, the Ballon d’Or has not been awarded to, statistically speaking, the most productive player in the world. Rather it has been awarded to the player, who, with their teams, has had the greatest success on the club and national level — success being defined by trophies won or almost won.
For the first time in a decade the winner of this award was neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo. It was the Croatian Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric.
Modric is without a doubt one of the best midfielders in the world: his work rate, vision, and distribution allow him to control the flow of games. He had an amazing 2018 calendar year, winning the Champions League, the most competitive club competition, and captaining Croatia to the World Cup final. His role in these two feats should not be overlooked, but by no means was he the ‘best’ player in the world — not even close. Lionel Messi has been the best player on the planet for a decade now. But in recent years his feats have been overlooked for two reasons; he is too consistent, and too much prestige is placed on national and European success.
Messi, much like NBA star Lebron James, is cursed by his consistent brilliance. Over the years, both athletes have continuously put up remarkable numbers, but this regular success has not resulted in award recognition. James should have several more MVPs, while Messi should have more Ballon d’Ors. They have performed so well that their standards of success are much higher than those of every other player.
Thus far in 2018, Messi has scored 30 goals for FC Barcelona in 32 appearances, and four goals for Argentina in five games. Last season, Messi was the top goal scorer in La Liga, scoring 34 goals in 36 appearances. His performances were instrumental in Barcelona’s La Liga title-winning campaign and Copa Del Rey (Spanish for ‘King’s Cup’) success. Additionally, unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, who is primarily known for his goal scoring ability, Messi is tasked with being the creative hub for the teams he plays on. Messi finished the 2017/2018 season with 14 assists and is at the heart of the action for a majority of Barcelona’s goals.
Messi’s impressive statistics speak to the failures of the Ballon d’Or in recent years. Despite Messi’s goal scoring record he also did not win the Ballon d’Or in 2017. Messi scored 45 and finished the year with 18 assists. Ronaldo, the winner that year, scored 44 goals and bagged eight assists for Real Madrid in La Liga. Statistically speaking, Messi was the better footballer. However, for those awarding the Ballon d’Or, the success of the team you play on is recognized more than individual statistics.
Real Madrid won the 2017 Champions League final, and Ronaldo was the team’s top goal scorer. Consequently, he won the award. In 2018, Modric was on a Real Madrid team that again won the Champions League, and a Croatian squad that made it to the World Cup final. All the while, Messi was just doing what he has always done.
Soccer is a sport played with 11 players. No one player, not even Messi or Ronaldo, can win a Champions League final or become a World Cup finalist through their individual efforts. Of course, certain players can play crucial roles by scoring at the right time or coming in with a game saving defensive play. Statistically speaking, Modric was average in 2018. He had three goals and 11 assists in 56 games — the fewest points of any Ballon d’Or-winning outfield player. His play in the middle of the field was, however, the driving force for both Real Madrid and Croatia. His consistent performances made him indispensable for both teams, but he was not always the best player on his team, nevermind being the best in the world.
There is certainly room to debate whether Modric was deserving of the Ballon d’Or, as will happen with any subjective performance-based award. However, all awards given this year should be analyzed with scrutiny, as the same journalists who nominated Modric decided Messi was only the fifth best player in the world. In front of him were two French World Cup winners, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, along with Ronaldo and Modric. These rankings only confirm the absurdity of the award and the weight the awarders place on team success over individual feats.
Mbappe and Griezmann both played amazingly in the World Cup. Over the course of seven games, on undoubtedly the most talented national team in the world, they scored four goals apiece. Other than that, they both had decent club campaigns. But the seven games at the World Cup — about one ninth of the total games played over the course of a year — should not have been enough to earn them spots above a player who scored, assisted, and won more trophies than either of them.
Modric, now 33 years old, is on a struggling, Ronaldo-less Real Madrid team, so this award will likely be his final major triumph. He will go down in the history books as the person who ended Messi and Ronaldo’s world dominance. Although the 2018 Ballon d’Or should have gone to Messi, it at the very least shows that there were more than two great players in the Messi-Ronaldo era.
The next Ballon d’Or winner will need to have an exceptional year compared to what they have done in the past. For newcomers like Griezmann and Mbappe, this means doing very well in the Champions League. For either of these players to surpass Modric and win, their teammates need to step up and perform well in the big games. For Ronaldo to win, his new team, Juventus, need to win the Champions League. And for Messi to get what he deserves, he will likely need to win the Champions League, La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and score at least a hatrick in every game.