They say the Ballon d'Or is democratic but it's not. Not really. A proper democratic vote surely relies on a universal, secret ballot. By contrast, one of the things that makes the Ballon d'Or vote so interesting to pick over is the fact that you can pick over it. The real fun comes after Messi and Xavi have stepped down from the podium and the list of voters and votes is handed out.
Captains and coaches of the world's national teams vote, alongside a selection of journalists from across the planet. They chose their top three and just like the former FIFA award that proceeded it -- now merged with the more traditional France Football Ballon d'Or (chosen solely by journalists) - the vote is public. You know exactly who everyone voted for. What you don't know is why. And the why matters -- or seems to.
Messi picked up 47.88 percent of votes, Ronaldo 21.6 percent and Xavi 9.23 percent. That much was always likely and the final positions seem justified -- unlike in previous years, there can be few real debates about the top three and certainly not about Messi's success. Some in Spain (the same ones, in many cases, who last year wanted Iker Casillas ahead of Xavi), have complained that Xavi did not win the award but if he did not win it in 2010 when he was a recently crowned World Champions, he was never going to win it in 2011. Deep down, they know that this decision is right.
There is little to keep you occupied in the top three, or in the list of the best coaches, won by Pep Guardiola, with Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho behind him. But then you look a little deeper. FIFA produce a long grid covering every vote and it makes for interesting and oddly compulsive reading. There is a kind of childish amusement in going through the votes, something a little surreptitious about it; a fascination in imagining alliances and feuds. A giggling amusement in some of the more unusual choices..
There are not many of them, of course. Naturally enough, Messi, Xavi and Ronaldo occupy the vast, vast majority of the top spots. Guy George, the Saint Lucia captain, presumably thought Messi peerless: he voted for him as no. 1, leaving spaces two and three blank. His coach did the same. Messi, Ronaldo and Xavi are present in almost all of the ballot slips. Almost, but not all. Among the players who voted, only those from Burundi, Estonia, Macedonia, New Zealand and Pakistan didn't give a single vote to any of top three, while only the coaches of Burundi, Bhutan, Palestine and the Solomon Islands did not include them at all.
Going through the list there is a No. 1 vote for Cesc Fabregas (from Andy Davis of the British Virgin Islands), for Samuel Eto'o (from Burkina Faso and Ghana), Dani Alves (from Tonga captain Folio Moeaki), and Karim Benzema (who picked up votes from Burundi and Djibouti.) Meanwhile, Marca noted that some voters did not seem to know what year it was, a brilliant "World Cup (in 2010) being enough to see Diego Forlán finish seventh." They seemed to have forgotten that Forlán won the Copa America in 2011. The point could be made of Wesley Sneijder, though, who finished 12th.
Mind you, it does not take many votes to sneak in. After all, Messi and Ronaldo dominate, leaving few votes for the rest. Only fifteen voters did not include either of Messi or Ronaldo, among them voters from Zimbabwe, Palestine, Equatorial Guinea, Venezuela (whose coach and captain both ignored the pair), Burundi, New Zealand, and Estonia. Of the top 25 ranked countries in the world, only two voters did not include Messi or Ronaldo at all: Ireland's Italian coach Trapattoni. The other was Messi himself. He could not vote for himself and he did not vote for Ronaldo, choosing Xavi, Iniesta and Aguero instead. Tactical voting, perhaps?
"Why?" is the question. The answer of course, should be: because they voter thinks the men they have chosen were the best in 2011. Although there are fewer comically ridiculous decisions as there were two years ago, there are a few that jump out at you and, going through the list, you do wonder if they really did chose the year's outstanding performers or if they chose something altogether different.
Samuel Eto'o, for example, did ignore Guardiola, with whom, to use the coach's own words, there was little "feeling." Maybe he just didn't rate Guardiola's work in a year where he won the league, the European Cup, the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and the World Club Cup. Or maybe there was something else. The opposite is true of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his much-commented votes. Never mind personal pride, he still went for Pep Guardiola, the coach he threatened to punch in front of the media, and Leo Messi, the man whose centrality to everything Barcelona do curtailed Zlatan's Camp Nou career. "Ibrahimovic voted for the philosopher," said El Mundo Deportivo.
Casillas chose Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil above Messi. Did he really think the German was better than Messi or did he decide that he couldn't go for the Barcelona star as his number one? Marca, meanwhile, made quite a big deal of the fact that Vicente del Bosque "forgot" Jose Mourinho, not choosing him in his top three coaches. The hint was clear: they don't get on; Del Bosque is still bitter over his departure from Real Madrid.
Somewhere along the line -- and by going through the votes like this, this columnist is guilty too -- no one seems to want to accept that people may simply have different opinions. Not least, because sometimes it feels like they do not -- it feels like voting is political, or at least based on something other than a judgment of the year just gone by. Pensar mal y acertarás, as they say: Think badly of people and you'll be right.
One of the other voters not to include Messi or Ronaldo in any of the top three places was the Chinese captain, who went for Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. It was tempting to wonder if he had copied his coach, who had exactly the same players in the same order. His coach is José Antonio Camacho, the Spaniard so patriotic that when he famously sweated his way through the 2002 World Cup, one cartoonist always drew the sweat patches on his shirt in the shape of Spain.
Others seemed to have similar ideas, inviting the tentative conclusion that where you vote may make a difference (Which league is on TV? What kind of players are valued there? Is there a natural inclination toward certain clubs?). Neither Norway's coach nor their captain voted for Ronaldo at all; while Messi was not included by the Australian captain Lucas Neil but Bastien Schweinsteiger was -- as was the case with his coach.
If Camacho felt the tug of patriotism, he probably wasn't alone. Mark Van Bommel judges Sneijder better than both Messi and Ronaldo and there were only four votes for the Portuguese winger Nani. One from the Cape Verde islands, one from Romania and the other two from Portugal. Both Paulo Bento, the Portugal coach, and captain Nuno Gomes voted Ronaldo 1, Nani 2. Did they really think so or was there a sense of obligation?
The question is not that absurd: after all, when it was revealed that Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese coach of Iran, had chosen Messi over Ronaldo, the president of the Portuguese Federation Gilberto Madaíl attacked him bitterly. It was as if Queiroz was not allowed to simply believe that Messi had been better. Or, to look at it from the other side, some wondered if Queiroz was exacting revenge for the fact that he and Ronaldo had not always enjoyed the best of relationships.
Professional soccer players are extremely touchy. And other professional soccer players know that. So do coaches. They know that a vote for someone else can be seen as a sleight, especially when the media get their paws on the lists of votes and start analyzing and over-analyzing them (sorry about that). They know that grudges will be seen in judgments and that a simple opinion will rarely be considered a simple opinion; that campaigns can be built on the flimsiest of evidence. Some will undoubtedly be swayed; they will vote not according to how they think but how they are supposed to think. How could it be otherwise when their vote is not just counted but revealed too?
The only solution is a secret ballot. But then while that might be more fair, it would be nowhere near as fun.
Fancy a look? It is remarkably addictive. You can find the full list here: