Cracking the Ballon d’Or 2014

So, Cristiano Ronaldo bagged back to back Ballon d’Or amidst a lot of speculation. This was not entirely out of the blue, but still gave rise to a lot of speculation and questions regarding the entire process. Just like last year Debojyoti Chakraborty again dissects the voting pattern to understand the dynamics behind the final choice, here with Goalden Times.


The Debate

Manuel Neuer must be feeling like a tragic hero. Long before the verdict was out, he had vented out his disappointment – or should we say, anger – for not being able to win the accolade. His prediction was as accurate as it can get. Not that Neuer will be any less appreciated for not having been crowned the best player in the last calendar year. Not that, Lionel Messi, another permanent contender for close to a decade, would be gutted for missing out on his fifth trophy. Cristiano Ronaldo might be statistically the best performer over 2014 with his record breaking year where he netted 52 times in 43 games (in the evaluation period between 30th November, 2013 and 21st November, 2014) and thus he rightfully deserves the Ballon d’Or. But were his goals and assists alone responsible for making him the winner?  Have the saves by Neuer and the extra dimension to the goalkeeping he has brought in failed in comparison sheerly based on the performance on the field? Did Messi really  not do enough to  end up so far behind Ronaldo? The answer is an emphatic NO. The validity of the award – given to an individual in a team sport – has always been dubious. But the fact that Ballon d’Or winner is decided by votes alone, makes the legitimacy of this award even more questionable.

The Trend

The winner is decided by coaches, captains and media personnel across the globe. Each can nominate three players who, according to them, have outperformed their counterparts. The first ranked player gets five points, second three and the last player gets one point from each vote. If we analyse the numbers from 2011 and 2012 – actually, there is no need for analysis –Lionel Messi won it hands down against Ronaldo.

As is evident from these tables, captains, coaches and media representatives across the world had unanimously chosen Messi as the best player in 2011 and 2012. Even though there was a slight shift towards the Portuguese star in 2012, that was not enough to cover the mammoth gap between the two.

BDO 2011 Votes
BDO 2011 Votes
bod 2012
BDO 2012 Votes

But the focus shifted to a certain Franck Ribery in 2013 on the back of his treble winning season with Bayern Munich. So, the fight was much closer – as is seen from the graphic here – and Ronaldo won it after a gap of four years, but only just.

bod 2013
BDO 2013 Votes

It is apparent that Ribery was the media favourite, however Ronaldo edged ahead with the aid of other two categories. But that is not all, let us dig a bit deeper.

The Year – 2014

Come 2014 and the fight for the top spot got an altogether new dimension as Manuel Neuer – number one shot stopper of modern era – was thrown into the mix. How can a goalkeeper be effectively and honestly judged against an outfield player? What will be the parameters? Goals scored vs clean sheets? Assists vs saves? And, what about their overall contribution to the match? FIFA was spared as they did not have to come up with an analytical model to fit in these variables and declare a clear cut winner. Instead, it was left to the  people to rank the players and eventually choose the winner.


Captain’s Choice

If we see how the Captains have voted, out of a total of 182, only close to one-third (34.07%) have considered Neuer worthy of even a top three. Ronaldo wins hands down with 99 captains going for him and only about 18% daring  to keep him out of the podium places.


Coach’s Choice

A similar pattern is found in the coaches’ voting also – Ronaldo again wins with heavy majority while Neuer struggles to feature in top three for more than half of the 181 coaches worldwide. Messi, in spite of winning FIFA World Cup 2014 Golden Ball, fails to impress most of the voters. Around 20 odd captains and coaches nominate him as their first choice.  However, Messi manages to dominate the second choice – people still believe that he might have had a bad year by his own standards, but still LM10 is too good to be worse than two other active players. Some recognition, definitely.

But that recognition falls flat in the  media. Only five journalists worldwide hold him in the highest regard as CR7 is hailed by a massive 115 of them. Neuer finally is able to get to the second spot in this category but still remains a fair distance away from the lucrative honor.


Media’s Choice

Ronaldo’s dominance was overwhelming. After a close 2013, this year’s Ballon d’Or verdict was as unanimous as in 2011 or 2012. Even if we filter out the top 20 FIFA ranked teams  on the day results are declared,  (12th January, 2015) in the hope to get a much more football-educated sample, the distributions do not change much. Ronaldo still wins with a landslide.


Ronaldo – Dominating amongst the Elites too

The Game Theory

Neuer had a fabulous year – both for the club as well as for the country. Not a very good thing too if you plan to win an individual honor in a team sport. It might be a Catch 22 situation, but having a very successful year in footballing terms, more often than not will result in more contenders for the same individual glory from your own team! Obviously, there would be a few others in the team who would have  performed equally well. Things were even more complex for Neuer. While Ronaldo’s cosmopolitan Real Madrid friends suffered from having a weak team (Gareth Bale of Wales, Karim Benzema of France) and Messi’s Spanish compatriot bowed out from the World Cup with a shocking display, most of Neuer’s Bayern Munich teammates went on to win the World Cup for Germany. More awesome performance, more competition from own team, more chances of votes getting split within the team. Irony!

Contender Club Number of nominees Country Number of nominees
Ronaldo Real Madrid 5 Portugal 1
Messi Barcelona 4 Argentina 3
Neuer Bayern Munich 7 Germany 6

Compatriot or Rival?

Barcelona and Argentine teammates have robbed Messi off some vital points which might not have changed the outcome as the case is quite similar for Ronaldo with his Real Madrid compatriots. But just have a look at the magnitude of such loss for poor Neuer.

Club / Country Differential from First Choice Differential from Second Choice Differential from Third Choice Total
Real Madrid 49 27 10 86
Barcelona 57 49 16 112
Argentina 18 21 15 54
Bayern Munich 280 128 174 582
Germany Everyone was from Bayern Munich

Loss from Teammates

 Bod 2014

In a perfect world of game theory, any German or Bayern supporter would have voted for Neuer only (assumption here is that anyone voting for any German or Bayern player was also a supporter of the team). Or, if the players were allowed to donate their vote to other nominees, both German and Bayern players would have done so for their goalie as he was the strongest candidate for the award. That would have swung a massive 582 points in favour of the German. Not enough though as the Portuguese star has eventually won with a margin of little over 1000 points. But nevertheless, the fight would have been much closer; it could have reduced the margin to half and Neuer could have become the first player to finish in top two after Gianluigi Buffon achieved the same feat in 2006.

The Continental Mood

If we look closely, some really interesting patterns  evolve out of each continent’s cumulative voting. For example – Europe was unanimous that Messi did not deserve the Ballon d’Or. Quite strange for a guy who captained his country to the finals of the World Cup, nearly won it for them, had an outstanding tournament creating chances more than anyone else and had the Golden Ball to show for his efforts. May be, Messi became a victim of his own high standards. Failure to score truckload of goals – his usual stuff in La Liga – in the mega event, failure to win the league or the cup as well as elimination in the quarter finals from the Champions League did not help his cause either. Still, only three first choice votes – Swedish Captain (yes, that’s ZLATAN) & Latvian and Lithuanian coaches – is as perplexing as it can get. Something to do with Messi’s tarnished  image with the income tax fiasco?


Vote break-up: Europe

Ronaldo continued to dominate Asia as well. This is a sector which is hugely important for the football superstars owing to the godlike status they enjoy among their fans. The multimillion sponsorship deals, billions of eyeballs and a crazy fan following – Asia is probably the most sought after market for the new age superstars and CR7, no doubt, will be thrilled to have dominated this market as well.


Vote break-up: Asia

Africa, the second biggest vote bank behind Europe, showed a slightly different trend. Messi is still preferred here a notch above Neuer. Strangely enough, the adventurous German shot stopper failed to lure the Africans. Ronaldo was unaffected – in fact, he stormed through the dark forests and deserts.


Vote break-up: Africa

Middle American section, the CONCACAF, closely mirrored Africa. If anything, Neuer suffered more heavily here. His heroics as a sweeper keeper failed to impress the captains, coaches and journalists alike. Neuer managed to feature among only 27.47% of the voters.


Vote break-up: CONCACAF

Now comes the Latin American region. Messi’s continent, Messi should rule. But that becomes far from true as we unravel the voting secrets. Expect for Brazilian Neymar and Chilean Claudio Bravo – Messi’s club mates from Barcelona – none of the captains have voted for the little genius. Rivalry is so fierce among the immediate neighbours that excluding Messi – who anyway cannot vote for himself – as many as six out of nine national captains did not consider him to be worthy of a top three spot! Coaches are less severe on him in that aspect – only three of them leave Messi completely out of contention. But four national team coaches opted for CR7 as their first choice, double the number compared to LM10 – but as a silver lining, at least Alejandro Sabella voted for his team captain. If that had not happened, it would have been a massacre for the little magician. Media does not spare him either – five out of 10 of them again do not consider Messi worthy of a podium finish, only the Argentine media wants him to be crowned whereas five Latin American leading journalists vouched for Cristiano Ronaldo. They not only wanted to bring  Messi down, but also did their every bit to ensure that his strongest opponent got  as much head start as possible. Shocking, to say the least!


Vote break-up: CONMEBOL

The last region, Oceania (OFC), is too small to form any pattern or have any major say in the final outcome. Even then, Ronaldo manages to consolidate his position at the top and take a tiny lead.


Vote break-up: OFC

Eminent Players

Let us now have a look at what some of the most famous players had opted for.

Country Name First (5 points) Second (3 points) Third (1 point)
Argentina Messi Lionel Di Maria Angel Iniesta Andres Mascherano Javier
Belgium Komany Vincent Courtois Thibaut Hazard Eden Robben Arjen
Bosnia and Herzegovina Džeko Edin Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Robben Arjen
Brazil Da Silva Santos Junior Neymar Messi Lionel Cristiano Ronaldo Mascherano Javier
Cameroon Mbia Etoundi Stephane Cristiano Ronaldo Robben Arjen Neuer Manuel
Chile Bravo Claudio Messi Lionel Iniesta Andres Neuer Manuel
Colombia Garcia Zarate Radamel Falcao Rodriguez James Cristiano Ronaldo Di Maria Angel
Costa Rica Ruiz Bryan Cristiano Ronaldo Iniesta Andres Robben Arjen
Croatia Srna Darijo Cristiano Ronaldo Schweinsteiger Bastian Robben Arjen
Czech Republic Rosicky Tomas Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Schweinsteiger Bastian
Denmark Agger Daniel Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Neuer Manuel
England Rooney Wayne Cristiano Ronaldo Kroos Toni Bale Gareth
France Lloris Hugo Cristiano Ronaldo Benzema Karim Neuer Manuel
Germany Schweinsteiger Bastian Neuer Manuel Lahm Philipp Mueller Thomas
Ghana Asamoah Gyan Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Kroos Toni
Italy Buffon Gianluigi Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Neuer Manuel
Japan Honda Keisuke Neuer Manuel Bale Gareth Cristiano Ronaldo
Korea Republic Ki Sungyueng Messi Lionel Cristiano Ronaldo Hazard Eden
Mexico Guardado Hernandez José Andrés Lahm Philipp Di Maria Angel Cristiano Ronaldo
Netherlands Van Persie Robin Robben Arjen Ibrahimovic Zlatan Neuer Manuel
Nigeria Enyeama Vincent Cristiano Ronaldo Ibrahimovic Zlatan Toure Yaya
Paraguay Santa Cruz Roque Cristiano Ronaldo Robben Arjen Lahm Philipp
Peru Pizarro Claudio Neuer Manuel Cristiano Ronaldo Di Maria Angel
Poland Lewandowski Robert Cristiano Ronaldo Neuer Manuel Schweinsteiger Bastian
Portugal Ronaldo Cristiano Ramos Sergio Bale Gareth Benzema Karim
Republic of Ireland Keane Robbie Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Bale Gareth
Senegal Diame Mohamed Cristiano Ronaldo Neuer Manuel Messi Lionel
Serbia Ivanovic Branislav Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Hazard Eden
Slovakia Skrtel Martin Cristiano Ronaldo Benzema Karim Hazard Eden
Spain Casillas Iker Cristiano Ronaldo Ramos Sergio Mueller Thomas
Sweden Ibrahimovic Zlatan Messi Lionel Neuer Manuel Cristiano Ronaldo
Turkey Turan Arda Cristiano Ronaldo Robben Arjen Benzema Karim
Uruguay Godín Diego Costa Diego Courtois Thibaut Robben Arjen
USA Dempsey Clint Cristiano Ronaldo Messi Lionel Mueller Thomas
Wales Williams Ashley Bale Gareth Schweinsteiger Bastian Hazard Eden

Ballot Box: Who’s who

Most notable thing, apart from whatever we have discussed so far, is what the goalkeepers have voted for. None of the shot stoppers – Claudio Bravo, Hugo Lloris, Buffon, Vincent Enyeama, Iker Casillas – have gone for Manuel Neuer.  Why is that so? Is it to support their club mate? Or acknowledgement of the fact that a goalie can never win it and so why waste their vote? Or is it sheer jealousy? May be a combination of all these factors, some of these apply for someone and something else is relevant for another. But whatever be the case, Neuer has enough reasons to be annoyed with his own goalkeepers’ community. And with Robert Lewandowski – the Bayern training ground might see spark when the Polish captain comes face to face with German number one. Lewandowski might argue he did it purposefully – had he voted for Neuer as his first choice, Neuer would have lost to Messi by a single point. More agony!!!

The Odd man Out

There were 21 instances where the entire vote set differed  in the final outcome. This exclusive list comprises  Messi and Ronaldo themselves – being captain of their national teams,  could not vote for themselves and hence decided not to vote for any of their direct competitors also. It would have been interesting to see what Neuer  would have done if he had the voting rights. Surprisingly quite a few notable players feature in this list besides CR7 and LM10 – Vincent Kompany (Belgium), Diego Godin (Uruguay) and Ashley Williams (Wales) – all having voted for either their club or countrymen. None of the coaches or media person in this list is  from any eminent footballing nation. Trying to hog the limelight by being different? May be.

The Perfect MATCH

Out of a total of 544 voters, 36 persons could order their preference in the exact order of final winners – Ronaldo first, then Messi, and then Neuer. The distribution was quite even among the different strata of participants – 11 captains, 13 coaches and 12 media persons got it right. 13 of them were from Asia, 10 from Africa, eight from Europe, four from CONCACAF and a solitary one from Oceana.  We saw two sets – Captain and Coach – of correct ranking from as many as five countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Italy and Lebanon). But the little island Bermuda cracked the puzzle completely – all of their three entries had the correct order. Please raise a toast for the tiny nation in their little moment of joy.

The Conclusion

In the end Ronaldo’s support was unquestionable. He received a bountiful 37.66% of the total votes, more than the combined total of his two closest competitors (Messi 15.76% and Neuer 15.72%). Neuer suffers the same fate as Franck Ribéry did last year when he lost out on the honor despite winning everything there was to be won for his team. We must accept, however unreal it might sound, Ballon d’Or lauds individual brilliance in a team sport. And nobody should mourn about it. Manuel Neuer has a FIFA winner medal. Will he swap it for the Ballon d’Or? Wouldn’t Messi want to give up his  three crowns for that World Cup? Cristiano many never win the World Cup as he happens to play for a relatively mediocre team at the national level. So what is wrong if his unbelievable goal scoring prowesses are applauded and he gets to bask in its glory? Neuer can only argue how can anyone realistically compare his contribution – being a goalkeeper – to that of a striker? But sadly, at least for now, we do not have any methodology to do so. May be the future will evaluate his actual worth and Neuer will get  his poetic justice one day. One day. Till then, congrats Cristiano, you deserve it.