A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Ballon d’Or Nominations: A Sign of Rationality in the Most Arational of Sports

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AUGUST 19, 2009 - Football : Lionel Messi of B...

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On Monday, the FIFA Ballon d’Or award will be awarded to the player deemed to be the best in the world in 2010.  What’s most interesting about this is that all 3 nominees (Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta)  play on FC Barcelona.  If you’re a generally knowledge sports fan, but don’t know much about global soccer, this probably strikes you as strange because it seems pretty unlikely that the 3 best players in the world play on any one team together.  That’s true, but even more peculiar is that FC Barcelona did not win the 2010 Champions League, which is the pinnacle of European club soccer.  The three best players in the world on the same team, and they didn’t even win championship?  Seems pretty indefensible doesn’t it?

Actually that’s part of why I’m so impressed.

The Arational Game of Soccer

Whenever a situation is a bit too complex for a neat and tidy explanation, human beings have a tendency to embrace a simple explanation anyway.  In sports I see this most strongly with the assumption of inevitability of sporting event results.  For example, when a team wins a championship for the first time this tends to radically alter the narrative of the those involved with the team with every question action made along the way now seen in a positive light.  Teams that never win the championship are thought to have been utterly unworthy of champion status and inherently flawed in some way that makes their failure the equivalent of moral weakness bound for karmic retribution.  All based on sample sizes that logically scream that there was probably a whole lot of luck involved.

I call soccer arational for a few reasons.  First to be clear, I say arational instead of irrational because I’m speaking to how difficult it is to be able to make certain, objective, rational statements about the sport, not because those in the sport are irrational (Oh, Zinedine Zidane, I’m looking at you with joy and sorrow.).

In soccer, the most prestigious team success you can have is at the World Cup.  A tournament that runs one every 4 years with players not on their primary teams, and has the winner determined between the final 16 teams by a single elimination tournament despite the fact that the sport has such sparse scoring that the winner of a particular game has a ton of luck and the tournament makes heavy use of penalty kicks.  That was one hell of a run-on sentence, let me break it down like this:

1) How crazy is it to judge a player primarily based on what he does with a secondary team?

2) How crazy is it to use single elimination in such a low scoring sport?

3) How crazy is it to use penalty kicks to determine the advancement in a tournament?

That’s before we even get into the fact that because the World Cup is nation-based, players from weak nations are at a decided disadvantage.

With all that said, I LOVE the World Cup.  I wouldn’t change a thing.  There are good reasons for why it is the way it is.  It’s just that it’s really hard to properly analyze players’ achievements when you put so much stock in such a goofy event.

And with that said, I understand why people do it:  Because the World Cup was the first soccer event that brought all of the world’s best players together to compete against each other.  A beauty and a frustration of soccer is that because it is so popular the world over, it has many great domestic leagues.  No one league is able to acquire all the great talent, and each of those leagues have such prominence they remain the primary form of competition for the best soccer players.   Thus so we only see the best go against the best in secondary, low sample-sized competition.

Now consider the indiscrete nature of the game.  In baseball, or football, or basketball, it is much easier to break the game into meaningful distinct chunks filled with relatively easy to gauge actions that can be hoarded away by statisticians.  Not soccer.  Oh sure there are possessions, but conversion rate of scoring per possession is so low that it’s simply not that productive to evaluate a particular possession based on whether they scored or not.  For all the vaunted strategy of American football, and it is incredibly complex, it can’t match the subtlety or patience that exists in soccer strategy.  I defy anyone to go over to Zonal Marking, and come back unimpressed at how much thought goes into this game.

Of course, the lack of obvious statistics in soccer doesn’t excuse everything.  I remain astounded that in a sport where goals and assists are the two clear statistics available, actual recording of assists for posterity is so unreliable.  Clearly, the American obsession over quantification deviates from how others look at their sports, and I as an American think we’re in the right on this one.

The Best Players of  2010

Alright, enough back story.  We’ve 3 players from the same team going up for the “best player in the world” award, and they didn’t even win the big tournament they played together, how does this make sense?

Well first off, there’s the matter that that team (Barcelona), is the team most agree is the best in the world, and in fact some are actually talking about them as possibly the best ever.   They won the Champions League in 2009, they’ve dominated their other play in 2010, they just lost to the eventual champion Inter Milan in this year’s Champions League in a duo of matches that left everyone feeling that Inter Milan played well but got very lucky.   The recognition of these 3 players is at least partly a recognition of this feeling, and I salute that.  While it is important to play your best on the biggest of stages, it is simply irrational to assert that there is no luck involved in the Champions League which is tournament based like the World Cup.  It would be foolish to ignore what FC Barcelona did all throughout the year.

Next, we consider the players involved.  Messi is considered by most not only the star of Barcelona, but the best player in the world.  He won the Ballon d’Or last year, and other than the World Cup, was better this year.  What happened in the World Cup?  Well, no one actually says he played badly, but he was put in a role on the team that made it hard for him to score, he had some bad luck, and the Argentines  got beat badly once they hit another world class team.  In terms of accomplishments accomplished, there is something big left undone for Messi, which is why he may not win the Ballon d’Or.

Xavi and Iniesta are Spanish, and led their country to its first World Cup championship.  Beyond that, the Spanish team was composed primarily of players from Barcelona, played using the same style that Barcelona uses, and put on a performance that left no one doubting they were the best team in the world.  If this style is so capable of dominating at both the club and national levels, with or without Messi, it makes a lot of sense to consider one of the key Spaniards from Barcelona as the player of the year.

Other candidates:

Cristiano Ronaldo, star of Barcelona’s rival Real Madrid, generally considered the second best player in the world behind Messi, but whose World Cup performance was actually considered poor.

Diego Forlan, the star of the World Cup.  Forlan took everyone’s breath away leading tiny Uruguay to a rare semi-final.  He was indeed stellar, showing a long-distance shot-making ability above all the others.  However, the rest of his year hasn’t been nearly as strong.  Also, something rarely mentioned is that Uruguay didn’t make the semi-finals by upsetting power houses.  They received an incredibly fortunate draw, and even then would not have made the semis without some strategic cheating.

Wesley Sneijder, a key player on champion Inter Milan and star of the World Cup finalist Netherlands.  Sneijder very nearly won every tournament possible in 2010, and had the Netherlands defeated Spain in the World Cup (which came close to happening) Sneijder would have had an excellent chance to win the World Cup’s Golden Ball award for best player.  However, no one talked about Sneijder as a player of the year candidate before the World Cup, and even as he got such attention with his goals for the advancing Dutch squad, the consensus was that he had quite a bit of luck on their side.

My compliment of the Ballon d’Or voters rationality isn’t based on an opinion that the voters made the right choice in selecting the Barcelona trio.  In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine that very many voters actually had those 3 in their top 3 because of how odd that seems.  Instead, for me the pleasant surprise is that enough voters didn’t include Forlan and Sneijder that they didn’t make the cut.  The voters know more than I do, I wouldn’t necessarily say they were wrong had they included those two World Cup heroes.  However, in the back of my mind, I’d wonder if the voters swung their way out of a misguided sense of objectivity.

The FIFA Player of the Year award (a precursor to the current FIFA Ballon d’Or) has in the past given what I think you’d have to say is an unreasonably large weight to World Cup results.  Again, I’m all for giving credit to players thriving on the largest stage, but when you see the same award given again and again to players whose countries made the World Cup’s final 2 -you get nervous.  And when you see someone like Fabio Cannavaro get the award in 2006, who  had never been seen as a candidate before the 2006 World Cup, and didn’t really enter into discussion as a “man of the cup” until the previously anointed star of the tournament (Zidane) went crazy – you get suspicious.

With this trio of candidates, at least I know that they are not on the short list simply because they fit a convenient, superficially-logical narrative.  I look forward to seeing who wins out, and all three of the nominees have enough credibility that I will be satisfied whichever of them wins.

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  1. […] out is that the players and coaches think similarly, but the media thinks quite different.  In my analysis of the Ballon d’Or nominees, I praised the list with the word “rationality” as […]


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