Karim Benzema has been nominated for the Ballon d'Or after a disastrous 2017/18 season at Real Madrid, in what is a blatant reminder of everything wrong with the award: it's a massive popularity contest.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar have the highest Facebook followings among football players, according to Statisca. These three stars were on the podium for the Ballon d'Or last year.
Messi and Ronaldo have won ten Ballon d'Or prizes between them. It is a shame that even if it was voted by the fans, the Ballon d'Or would still be as predictable as it already is. That begs the question: what is the point of it all?
It’s an award for the best footballers on the planet. Obviously the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar have earned their nominations. Messi won La Liga again and had another 40 and over goalscoring season. Ronaldo won the Champions League for a third time in a row. Neymar helped PSG to a domestic treble after a world record move. Only this calibre of player stands a chance of winning.
This all sounds quite self-explanatory and fair. You play well on the biggest stage, you get the biggest reward. Only it’s much more convoluted than what it seems. In the small circle of people who are voting for who wins, people are aware of the superstars. Even though there are representatives from 209 countries, with expert knowledge, only a select few seem to know how to vote.
The system is so easy for players, coaches and journalists alike. You get the all-important message to select three players from a shortlist of the best football players on the planet and they pick their players.
They are immediately attracted to the big names and their associated greatness. We now find ourselves back at social media. Benzema with his 24.8 million Instagram followers is easily more fashionable than Lukaku, who has four million followers.
Lukaku may have done better on the park than Benzema, but the Frenchman can do more off it. Belgium international Lukaku may have scored 27 goals last term compared to Benzema's 12, but it is Benzema who has been nominated for the prestigious prize regardless.
Why? He is easily recognisable to journalists and top footballing brains, who buy into his brand more than Lukaku's. The voters vote for those who are everywhere, those who have the biggest following, who play for the biggest team, who have the most marketability to sell shirts.
When a young, impressionable kid sees Benzema highlight reels on YouTube, or watch him on his rarer good days, it inspires them. It makes them want to lace up the boots. The game needs superstars like Benzema.
But football has to be more than social media followers. It’ll always be about teamwork, leadership, defending and putting everything on the line for the badge. These traditions are slowly dying as players treat themselves like brands rather than human beings.
Players used to win the Ballon d'Or based on ability. It still is partly ability; Messi and Ronaldo haven’t won the prize for nine years in a row playing terribly. However, they also have a massive audience online which propels them into the minds of voters, leading them to victory, again and again.
Congratulations to Benzema regardless on his nomination for this year’s Ballon d’Or and for the 2019 Ballon d'Or. He will have deserved the nomination, no matter how he does on the park.