Ballon d’Or 2023: inevitability of Lionel Messi win and the bloated shortlist spoils award’s excitement

Lionel Messi seems all but guaranteed to win his eighth Ballon d’Or - but has the award’s format caused it to lose some of its lustre?

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On 30 October, in a glamorous theatre in Paris, Lionel Messi will be awarded the Ballon d’Or, perhaps the most prestigious individual award in football, for the eighth time. Technically, we don’t know this yet, of course – Messi is but one member of a bloated 30-man list (as long again for the women’s award), and in theory, any one of them could take the famous golden globe home with them. But, let’s not beat about the bush - Messi will win.

Which isn’t to argue that the Argentinian doesn’t deserve it. He is one of the greatest players in the game, even as the years advance and he settles into his American retirement home, and pulled his national side to the World Cup trophy by their bootlaces. He is a brilliant footballer, arguably the best the global game has ever witnessed.

Lionel Messi has already won the Ballon d’Or seven times - a record.Lionel Messi has already won the Ballon d’Or seven times - a record.
Lionel Messi has already won the Ballon d’Or seven times - a record.

The problem isn’t that Messi will win (the longest odds you can get from any British bookmaker, incidentally, are 1/5 on) but that we already know it, because the gravitational pull of the narrative is simply irresistible. His World Cup, the one title missing from his trophy cabinet achieved at the going down of his sun, erased the only miniscule asterisk that could be pencilled next to his name in the history books. It was the crowning and final grand achievement of a true great. The voters for the award, journalists from FIFA’s top-ranked member nations and suckers for a perfect ending to a hack, may well vote for Messi unanimously.

Which is fine in itself, and Messi was so brilliant in Qatar that arguing against his status as the greatest male player in the world is essentially futile anyway. But the Ballon d’Or has long since stopped being a sincere vote for the greatest player in the world, and become simply a totting up of trophies. A fair result will be reached when Messi accepts the award, but the methodology has gone awry.

Just look at Jorginho coming third in the voting in 2021. He was a double European Champion with Italy and Chelsea, and an important cog in both teams. But was he one of the very best players in the world? Was he in the top 30 even? Probably not. Kylian Mbappé, by comparison, is unquestionably one of the two or three best players in the world right now – but has never made the top three. Had his hat-trick won France the World Cup final, he would win the Ballon d’Or. Had Paris Saint-Germain earned the Champions League crown that they so desperately crave, he likely would have won already.

The award is no longer given to the best player in the world – but to the player whose collection of trophies and personal narrative tick the most boxes. Luka Modrić won the award in 2018 when Croatia reached the World Cup final but hasn’t been in the top three before or since, despite his consistent excellence for a hugely successful Real Madrid side over a long period. If he was the best player in the world in 2018, he was there or thereabouts a couple of seasons either side, too – but he didn’t have the narrative backing needed nowadays.

If the top three from this season emerged as, say, Messi, Mbappé and perhaps Erling Haaland, that would be fine. That’s a sensible list of the best three players in the world right now, give or take a Vinícius Juníor. But Mbappé is 100/1 against with some bookies, simply because his defeat in Doha robs him of the narrative strength required to sway the voters.

If the award cared less about narrative and trophy countback and more about the simple question of who the best player in the world is, it would be much closer, much more unpredictable, and consequently far more interesting. Messi has been the best player in the world for most of the past two decades, but he is past his peak and there is a very fine argument to be made for any of the aforementioned players – and if the question was asked of and sincerely answered by the voters for the award, it would be quite a bit more intriguing. As it is, the ceremony will amount to a two-hour coronation.

And this is a recent phenomenon. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the top two for every award between 2011 and 2017, a perfectly fair reflection of their duopoly over the footballing world. Modrić, whose slightly sentimental awarding of the Ballon d’Or in 2018 knocked the gravy train off the tracks, is where things started shifting in a different direction, and Jorginho’s podium placing a few years later confirmed the new heading.

There is another problem with the Ballon d’Or now, of course – the sheer enormity of the “shortlist”, now standing at 30 players for both the men’s and women’s award. There are many players on there who simply can’t be argued as the best player in the world, but have been included based on team achievements. Is Julián Álvarez, fine player though he is, even particularly close to being the best player for either Argentina or Manchester City? No – yet here he is, a nominee for the very best player in the world. It can’t help but cheapen the final vote itself.

Alexia Putellas has won the last two Ballons d’Or Fémini but hasn’t made the shortlist this year.Alexia Putellas has won the last two Ballons d’Or Fémini but hasn’t made the shortlist this year.
Alexia Putellas has won the last two Ballons d’Or Fémini but hasn’t made the shortlist this year.

And it’s hard not to feel that the “narrative vote” isn’t very evenly applied, either. If players from Argentina, Manchester City, Inter Milan and so on are to be included solely because of their achievements this past season, why is there only one player from Morocco on the list after they became the first African nation to reach the World Cup semi-finals? If Luka Modrić can win off the back of Croatia’s remarkable run four years earlier, why shouldn’t Sofyan Amrabat, say, get a nod too? It’s hard not to feel like the award remains very Eurocentric even decades after France Football finally made the award a global one back in 1995. After all, when Jorginho made the top three, his team-mate Édouard Mendy had also become a continental champion with Senegal and didn’t get the same haul of votes...

The Ballon d’Or Fémini, the fifth awarding of which will take place on the same evening, is at least a little more interesting, although most judges feel that Aitana Bonmatí is the likely winner after she starred for Spain in Australia and New Zealand and helped Barcelona to a La Liga F and Champions League double. Last year, most of the same pundits felt that Beth Mead would win after powering England to victory in the European Championships – but instead she narrowly lost out to Alexia Putellas. Which, in some ways, is the way it should be – the voters simply felt that they would pick Alexia first for their team, and that was more important than the team awards won. If the men’s award was voted on in the same way, it would be rather more exciting. As it is, congratulations to Lionel Messi – at least nobody could suggest he hasn’t earned this one.

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