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Ballon d’Or – the unhealthy obsession

Ballon d’Or – the unhealthy obsession


On Monday night, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski will go head-to-head to be crowned the world’s best player. But should we really be lauding any player with individual awards?


Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker. 

One story, every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today, the Ballon d’Or and football’s obsession with individual awards.


We have got a poll running this evening, thank you very much for voting on it as well. The poll is ‘Who should win this year’s Ballon d’Or?’ As you can see there’s a rather overwhelming leader at the moment… Lionel Messi, you might have heard of him, he’s got 50% of the vote.

BT Sport

On Monday, the result of the 2021 Ballon d’Or will be revealed.

Regarded as the most prestigious award in football for an individual player, it’s become an institution since it was first awarded in 1956.

Founded by the magazine France Football, the award is voted on by football journalists, and the coaches and captains of national teams, and handed to who they think is the best player over the course of the last year.

This year, it looks like a straight shootout between Lionel Messi…

Once again, Lionel Messi takes it on himself this time and how about that! That was just a thunderbolt. My goodness me, have you ever seen a football hit that hard?

BT Sport

…and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski…

Sane with the shot, it’s going to fall for Robert Lewandowski – and formally he does it. The record they said would never be broken is now his, and his alone. 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season. Robert Lewandowski…

Bundesliga TV

Messi is bidding for his seventh Ballon d’Or.

Lewandowski has never won the award, and many feel he’s been horribly unlucky.  The Polish striker was the hot favourite for the award last year before the awards were cancelled due to Covid.

The award matters – so much so that some players are thought to have ‘Ballon d’Or’ clauses in their contracts, triggering bonuses should they win.  

But what if football’s obsession with individual awards is nonsense?  What then?  

In their book The Numbers Game, the statisticians Chris Anderson and David Sally posed theories about how to improve sports teams. 

They divided sports into two – you either have ‘weak link’ sports, or ‘strong link’ sports.

A strong link sport is one where the team with the best player usually wins. A sport like basketball, for example, is a strong link sport – one player, be it Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo can improve their teams fortunes regardless of how mediocre the players around them are.

On the other hand, a weak link sport is where the team without the worst player usually wins.

The argument – according to David Sally and Chris Anderson – goes like this:  the margins when it comes to the outcome of a game are so tight. One goal can win it and one mistake can lose it.

Take the following scenario. 

Let me introduce you to Tortoise FC – we have 11 players on our team.  

One is a superstar. But the weakest is only 45% as good as the superstar. 

What is the result?  

Well, according to Sally and Anderson, however well the star and the team play, the mistake the weak player makes will negate all the good work the rest of the team does.


You’ll hear more of this.  

This is not good, not good at all. He’s being virtually jeered off by his own fans. 

Sky Sports Football

And less of this.  

“It’s a brilliant run from Messi, can he go all the way?”

Sky Sports Football

They also advocate improving the worst player on your team, rather than trying to upgrade on your superstars in transfer windows. 

As they write in their book: “It is easy to think of soccer as a game of superstars. They provide the glamour, the genius, the moments of inspiration. They sell the shirts and fill the seats. 

“But they do not decide who wins games and who wins championships. That honour falls to the incompetents at the heart of the defense or the miscommunicating clowns in midfield. 

“Soccer is a weak-link game. This has profound implications for how we see soccer, how clubs should be built and teams constructed, how sides should be run and substitutions made.”

And here’s the thing – not only should it change the way we think about the game, it should change the way we look at awards like the Ballon d’Or. 

Players like Messi, and Lewandowski, phenomenal though they may be, are reliant on the players around them.

As the journalist and football tactics historian Jonathan Wilson wrote six years ago, “A player should always be looking to do what is best for the team, but an individual award offers incentives for shooting when a pass may be a better option, doing something fancy that will get on highlights reels rather than doing something simpler and more effective. Individual awards encourage selfishness and they encourage showiness; they encourage bad football.”

Awards might be flawed but they won’t be ditched.  Not least because four years ago, FIFA – world football’s governing body – saw the success of the Ballon d’Or and decided to stage its own awards.

So whether it’s Messi for the seventh time or Lewandowski for the first… whoever lifts the Ballon d’Or on Monday night should give thanks to his  teammates.  Without them, he’d have won nothing.

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Studio Klong.