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  • Luka Modric was recognized yet again for a year in which he won the Champions League and reached the World Cup final, but the growing emphasis on individual awards in a team sport highlights the paradox of the Ballon d'Or and its tradition.
By Jonathan Wilson
December 03, 2018

None of this matters. That’s always the first thing to remember about individual awards. Some people will get the excited by who wins, a lot more people will complain about it, but the fundamental fact is that Luka Modric’s success is an irrelevance. Most individual awards, whether awarded by a panel of judges or by a vote, are silly but can just about be tolerated in some industries because of the publicity they raise and because they encourage stakeholders to consider what they value. Football, more than perhaps any other ball sport, is a team game: celebrating an individual within that context is not merely illogical but actively contrary to the greater ideals of the game. And publicity? Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would probably have been pretty famous anyway without their array of individual gongs.

But the Ballon d’Or winner was announced today, and so tradition dictates we must talk about it. The worry these days is that for some players the Ballon d’Or has mystifyingly come to mean more than team trophies, which is itself revealing. This perhaps is the danger of the vast disparity of wealth within the game: trophies have become devalued because for some clubs they are out of reach and for others they crop up almost as a matter of course. The best players, less likely to stick with one club and seek to develop it, instead hop around between a handful of elite sides, mercenaries hoping to burnish their own careers. So the Ballon d’Or is useful in revealing that aspect of the game.

MORE: Modric, Hegerberg Win Ballon D'Or Awards; Mbappe Wins Kopa Trophy

But the award itself is problematic. What is the Ballon d’Or for? France Football, the magazine that has arranged the award since 1956, has clarified the rationale on its website:

- Individual and collective performances (winners) during the year

- Player class (talent and fair play)

- Player’s career

It all makes you wonder whether the Football Leaks allegations about Ronaldo, both in terms of his tax affairs and the investigation into a rape allegation still on-going in Las Vegas, means the section criterion should have counted against him, rather than waving him into second.

The third criterion, meanwhile, means that  Messi not only should have won it, rather than finishing fifth, but could still be winning it in a decade given the remarkable consistency he has shown over his career–which, oddly, seems to be why he will not win it.

It’s almost as though he has bored people by being so relentlessly, remorselessly brilliant. Barcelona may not have won the Champions League and Argentina may not have won the World Cup, but Barcelona did win La Liga and the Copa del Rey last season, and Messi has continued to do extraordinary things all year. Even at the World Cup, his exceptional goal against Nigeria offered hope, while just last week he scored a goal of casual virtuosity against PSV that, in another era, would have been replayed endlessly.

MORE: Ballon D'Or Gala DJ Asks Women's Winner Hegerberg to Twerk

And should team trophies matter? France Football’s new criteria explicitly say they do, which only makes the paradox of an individual award in a team sport seem even more perverse. Where the award could have had merit was in acknowledging the contributions of a great who had played for a less fashionable team. Not anymore; the award now seems designed to be a bonus for players who have already won a major competition during the year.

The obvious contrast is with Antoine Griezmann, who came in third. He is obviously a very fine player, but it feels like his top-three finish is because there is a perceived need to include one of France’s World Cup winners. But why him? He struggled a little for form in Russia, as center forwards naturally would given Didier Deschamps tactical approach, and was far less integral to the success of Les Bleus than, say, Kylian Mbappe or Paul Pogba.

Or what of Raphael Varane, who won not merely the World Cup but also the Champions League and was generally excellent throughout? But defenders, of course, cannot win such awards, because it’s much harder to boil 90+ minutes of concentration down to the sort of 20-second clip of genius the modern audience is deemed to demand. He came seventh.

But Modric won, and that is not unreasonable. He had an excellent year. He helped Real Madrid to the Champions League title and was instrumental in driving Croatia to the World Cup final. He has had a superb, slightly underrated career. It’s probably a positive that a cerebral midfielder is being recognized rather than a goalscorer. But then, he’s struggled for form this season and he falls down on that second criterion, in a year in which he has been charged with perjury (although the charge was later mysteriously withdrawn) and has invited the far-right nationalist singer Thompson to join the World Cup celebrations.

It all feels deeply unsatisfactory, but then individual awards in football always do.

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