Every January, for one evening only, football takes a departure from itself. Self-awareness is seemingly cast aside as the sport’s great and good gather to celebrate all that is great and good about themselves. The Ballon d’Or is an exercise in vanity, and football certainly plays up to it.
The award ceremony - perennially held in a 19th century concert hall on the shore of Lake Zurich - is about as close to the Oscars as football gets. It has a red carpet, is lit by the flashbulbs of paparazzi and is as much about the fashion as the sport - with all eyes on what Lionel Messi would wear after a series of outlandish outfits worn to the event by the Argentine. This year, however, he opted for a classic black tuxedo to collect his fifth Ballon d’Or, edging out Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
In amongst all this it can be somewhat easy to forget the true purpose of the evening - to name the world’s best football player for the past year, and to recognize all that has been achieved across the sport in that time. Fundamentally, the Ballon d’Or should be an accolade to cherish - but somewhere along the line something went wrong.
Instead, the Ballon d’Or represents everything that is wrong with football. It rewards vanity over humility, egotism over modesty and most damningly, individual success over that of the team. Modern football has become a sport contest by teams in the context of individuals - rather than the other way around - and the award provides the starkest illustration of that.
Players now target Ballon d’Or success over anything else. Take Ronaldo, for instance, whose obsession with the prize has reached unhealthy levels in recent years. “That second Ballon d’Or was one of the most beautiful moments in my life,” he explained in the documentary film released about him last year. “But my ambitions ends up always wanting more, always wanting more.” The allure of individual acclaim so often warps the fundamental essence of football, and nothing does it quite so effectively as the Ballon d’Or.
Essentially, the accolade is flawed. How can the achievements of individuals be measured against others when set against different contexts? For instance, how can Ronaldo’s success in 2015 be measured against that of Messi or Neymar - who both play for a rival team? It’s quite simply an exercise in futility. The Ballon d’Or’s purpose has been lost, if it ever had one in the first place.
And yet the award has become one of the highest prestige in recent years. Along with the Champions League and the World Cup, it is now regarded a defining accolade of the game, perhaps boosted by the personal dual between Messi and Ronaldo over the past seven years.
Widening the scope further, how can players in one league - facing one set of opponents - be fairly judged against players in another league - facing a different set of opponents? It’s this kind of inconsistency that completely undermines the award and shoulder render it nothing more than an irrelevancy.
Apart from anything else, can the Ballon d’Or voting system be taken as a true gauge of achievement - given that votes are handed to fellow players, coaches and journalists? Politics between rival clubs can bend and twist the credibility of any results (Ronaldo voted for Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema as his number one, for example), with the vote more of a popularity contest than any legitimate measure.
Everything about the Ballon d’Or is surreal - from the premise, to the setting, to the celebrities asked to hand out the awards on stage every year. Many within the game recognize just how absurd the whole occasion is, but the comparison of players remains a tome-honored guilty pleasure for football fans - and this is a way to indulge that.
Nonetheless, modern football’s self-serving arrogance and egomania is epitomized by the Ballon d’Or all it stands for. The sport has grown into something that would have been unrecognizable a generation ago, with Zurich’s Kongresshaus a showcase for all that has gone wrong - not right - in the sport. Messi needn't have lifted his prize with so much glee.