Why Cristiano Ronaldo Won The Ballon d’Or

Update: Ronaldo won. Obvs.

Cristiano Ronaldo will win the Ballon d’Or. Probably.

The Ballon d’Or (translation: golden ball, which is exactly what the trophy looks like) goes to the soccer player who done played soccerball the best in a calendar year. It is the merger of two awards: France Football’s Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s World Player of the Year. (France Football is a soccer magazine based in – you probably should have guessed this – France.)

The gala for the 2013 version will be held today – on Jan. 13, 2014.

So let’s have a little chat about why Ronaldo – not Lionel Messi or anyone else – will get it.

What’s the award for?

First, as with all awards, the defining criteria are unclear. Is it for the most talented player? The one who furthest exceeded expectations? The guy who was most integral on the team that won the most? Votes seem to go for all of the above.

For instance, when Fabio Cannavaro won in 2006, it was more an honor for Italy’s collective defensive cohesion that won an unexpected World Cup trophy.

Usually, votes are biased toward goalscorers. In most ways, defense is collaborative; offense favors individual ability. Only one goalkeeper has won – Lev Yashin in 1963.

This calendar year, Ronaldo scored the most. But he didn’t win a whole lot. Barcelona beat out his Real Madrid to the Spanish title. And Bayern Munich won the Champions League, which includes the all best teams in Europe.

In fact, Bayern won the treble – the pinnacle of club soccer. The Bavarians won the German league, German cup and Champions League. They didn’t lose a single league game in all of 2013. Their run and form is at the sort of level that, when current fans tell their grandkids, the future generation won’t believe it until they double-check with Wikipedia.

The best player on Bayern? Franck Ribery, who actually led in the odds at the initial closing date for voting. (More on that in a bit.) But again, because there are no explicit criteria, the voters get to decide what to highlight.

So who votes then?

Excellent question.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter recently gave a speech at Oxford University. In it, he revealed that he prefers Messi to Ronaldo. The Ronaldo camp didn’t take it well. Except, instead of bristling at the ridiculous imitation Blatter did of Ronaldo as a “commander on the field”, Ronaldo suggested that “Much is explained now.” His camp leaked rumors that Ronaldo would skip the Best Player in Europe Award, which he did, and the Ballon d’Or gala. The subtext: Ronaldo likely believes Blatter’s preference is the explanation for why Lionel Messi won the last four Ballon d’Ors.

This is a bit of a stretch. Blatter himself doesn’t vote. Each nation in FIFA gets, essentially, three votes: the national team captain, the national team coach, and one member of the soccer media. (Paul Kennedy, Editor in Chief of Soccer America, votes for the U.S. media.) France Football picks the journalists, usually experienced reporters with a deep history covering soccer.

After the award, all votes are made public to avoid shenanigans. (Of course, there are still controversies, as in 2010 when a bunch of votes for Xavi Hernandez went to Xabi Alonso.) But it’s not like Sepp just picks his guy and gives him a shiny trophy.

When do they vote?

Ah, another telling question. The original deadline for votes was Nov. 15, 2013. At the time, Ribery had the best odds with bettors.

Then, after the deadline passed, FIFA extended it two weeks, to Nov. 29. Additionally, anyone who had previously voted could change his or her vote.

FIFA cited a lack of participation in the votes for the extension.

But, it just so happens that between Nov. 15 and Nov. 29, Ronaldo submitted perhaps the single greatest performance of this generation, when he dragged his Portugal team into the World Cup at the expense of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was doing his best to drag Sweden there. Ronaldo scored a hat trick in the second leg of a playoff to make sure he’ll show up in Brazil this summer.

The bettors don’t favor Ribery anymore.

Alright, but who’s really the best?

Haha, you get right to the point, don’t you?

Widespread opinion holds that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two best players in the world, and have been for half a decade. In general, Messi edges the conversation because, one, his numbers are a bit better, and, two, he wins more trophies. Cristiano is a once-in-a-generation player who happens to have the bad luck to overlap with a once-in-a-century player. (Messi is probably a World Cup trophy away from universal acclaim as the best player of all time.)

But injuries hobbled Messi’s year, while Ronaldo continued his steadfast improvement. Team trophies aside, it’s fairly clear Ronaldo had the better year. Just compare snapshots of their 2013s. Ronaldo’s is his goal celebration against Sweden, neck muscles bristling, captain’s armband slipping down into his hand, pointing down as if to say, “Me. I have this.” Messi’s? Probably him limping through a 7-0 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, clearly hobbled by injury but forced into limited minutes anyway.

So who’s the best? I don’t know, man. Which Coen brother is the better writer? Take one away, and the other wouldn’t perform near as well.

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