Just a few weeks ago, Lionel Messi, captain of the Argentina national team and Inter Miami CF, was declared the best player in the world for a record eighth time by French magazine France Football. Their award, Ballon d’Or, is widely accepted as the defining metric of ranking soccer players.
After helping a lackluster PSG team to the French league title with 32 goals and assists in 2022, Messi transferred to Major League Soccer team Inter Miami, helping them to their first ever trophy. At the 2022 World Cup midseason, Messi scored seven goals in the tournament, including a brace in the final against France, filling the final hole in his resume. This achievement is considered to be the most important factor in his Ballon d’or victory.
While Messi had a remarkable year, this was also one of the most controversial Ballon d’Or decisions in recent years. Many considered Manchester City’s Erling Haaland to be a more deserving candidate, as he scored 52 goals across all competitions, winning the treble — in which a team wins the domestic league and cup titles, as well the the Champions League — with City and claiming the Premier League and Champions League golden boots. This was arguably the greatest debut campaign of anyone in sport history, not merely because of these feats, but also considering Haaland’s circumstances.
Many questioned the 23-year-old’s ability to adapt not only to the new environment of the Premier League, but to legendary coach Pep Guardiola’s system, which famously requires incredible discipline. All this made Haaland’s instant success even more impressive. His national team, Norway (which is not historically a strong soccer country), did not qualify for the World Cup, which perhaps was the only obstacle in between him and the Ballon d’Or.
This calls into question the World Cup’s place in the Ballon d’Or criteria. Three of Argentina’s World Cup wins came against Mexico, Poland and Australia, teams they would’ve been expected to beat even if Messi had retired and half of their starting 11 was injured. This effectively means that Messi’s performance in a mere three games merits him the title of best in the world, despite scoring fewer league goals than Callum Wilson and Ivan Toney, two players who wouldn’t be considered for the Ballon d’Or if all 30 nominees withdrew from the race. Essentially, Haaland is being punished for his nation’s inability to produce a better team.
Messi’s G.O.A.T. status makes this nomination easier to digest, but international tournament bias is still a prevailing issue in Ballon d’Or rankings. Aside from Messi’s first-place finish, fellow Argentine Julian Alvarez’s season as a bench warmer for Man City was deemed a greater achievement than the 30-goal seasons put up by Mohamed Salah, Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane and Karim Benzema. Kane and Benzema also finished below Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez, who kept just 11 clean sheets all season for Aston Villa.
World Cup bias is nothing new. In 1998, Davor Suker finished second as a benchwarmer for Real Madrid. In 2002, Ronaldo Nazario won the Ballon d’Or after a season with seven league goals and no Champions League goals. In 2004, Theodoros Zagorakis was named the fifth-best player in the world, boasting a record that included finishing fourth in the Greek league before being relegated in Italy with Bologna. Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon finished first and second respectively in 2006, despite both being relegated in Serie A, the Italian league, due to a cheating scandal. Zinedine Zidane finished fifth after retiring midway through the year, while Miroslav Klose’s four Bundesliga goals in 2014 still qualified him for the award.
The unfair emphasis placed on international competitions means that every year, brilliant players are losing their chance of nomination to the likes of Jorginho and Asamoah Gyan, neither of whom have ever been a top 50 player.
While international tournaments are prestigious, they represent one month of the calendar year, and performances in them should not automatically qualify a player for the Ballon d’Or. Further, these competitions all have their own ‘best player’ award in the form of the golden ball, so realistically there’s a better argument for international tournaments to not be considered at all, rather than being held to higher importance than club level.
With Messi and Ronaldo both nearing retirement, competition for the Ballon d’Or is only going to become more competitive. Unless its internal biases are adjusted, there are bound to be more controversies and the soccer world may lose faith in the Ballon d’Or as a fair and objective metric entirely.