One theme or question which is usually in the minds of many sports’ fans, and has dominated many a discussion, is the identity of the individual who reigns supreme and can be regarded as number one in any particular sport. On many occasions hours are spent staking the claims of different individuals to greatness, leading to a display of diverse opinions as there is always an infinite number of angles to analyse, a myriad of factors to consider, with the inevitable conclusion being that everyone cannot agree that a particular individual is truly the best. Another important contributing factor is the natural bias we all have towards the athletes/teams we support. This argument is a bit easier when it comes to individual sports, as there is direct competition between rivals. However, what happens in the event that the sport is a team sport, say football for instance?

Enter the annual awards for player of the year. FIFA, the world football governing body recently ended its association with France Football in giving awards to the best player in the world, an arrangement which started in 2010. As such there will be two different awards given to the player(s) who has distinguished himself during this calendar year. Two different lists have been released for these awards, with slight differences in composition thus highlighting the dilemma faced in effectively choosing a worthy recipient for this sort of awards.

A major issue in selecting a particular player as the most distinguished of all his peers is the variety of player positions, roles, and tactical systems in football. How easy can it be to make an objective assessment let’s say between a striker and a defender? Is a game saving block equivalent to a match winning goal? People are more entertained by attacking displays as opposed to defensive discipline, hence attacking players generally have an advantage over defensive ones. Also, attacking errors are less likely to be punished than defensive ones. A forward could miss several chances and still score the decisive goal, automatically gaining hero status with all forgiven while a goalkeeper could have made several important saves and then commit a last minute blunder, instantly drawing the ire of fans all over with all the earlier heroics forgotten. It is therefore no surprise that since 1956 when the Ballon D’or was inaugurated, the award has been won by a forward on 37 occasions, midfielder on 19 occasions, a defender on 3 occasions and only once by a goalkeeper. All other individual awards are likely to follow the same pattern.

Also, what criteria could be employed in selecting the best player? Is the team’s performance more significant than the individual’s performance? Should it be based on player statistics or individual talent? If it is strictly about player statistics like goals or assists, then there is no point in having a separate award for highest goal scorer, and I doubt if players like Zinedine Zidane and Andres Iniesta should be so highly regarded in the game, as their statistics were often unspectacular. If it is based on individual talent, then it is safe to say that all awards should be handed out to Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo till they both retire, as clearly no other players come close on talent alone.

Even if all bias in terms of player roles and positions are removed, the voting systems for many awards are far from perfect. Last year, the FIFA Ballon D’or award was based on a positional voting system from a pool of 23 players earlier selected. Voting involved coaches and captains of all the national teams affiliated with FIFA, as well as international journalists. Each individual was allotted three votes worth five points, three points and one point respectively with the top 3 players then moving to a final voting phase. Certain questions arise, such as this: who is in the best position to decide? Is it current professionals, ex-professionals, journalists and pundits, or the fans? The most illogical choice would seem to be the fans, as they are the most prone to bias, and generally the least knowledgeable about the game and the players. A logical argument would be that the players should be in the best position to decide. However, many would be surprised to find out how many players actually follow the game away from the pitch, or watch matches or other teams, and as such would be in a position to truly identify a worthy recipient of any award. In my opinion, journalists seem to be the best bet, although the best option would be to involve more than a single group, as was done in this case.

Also, voting used to be by secret ballot and there have been issues about transparency in the past, although this has been partly resolved by the publishing of voting results, with some interesting revelations. Certain voters employed tactical voting, a situation whereby an individual did not receive a vote simply because he was a strong contender for the award, which would affect the chances of a possible teammate or friend of the voter. Certain players are also known to have confessed that this sometimes comes into play during the PFA awards. All these illustrate the challenges encountered in an award system for individuals in a team sport.

In reality, no award system to reward a single individual would ever suffice in a team sport with complex dynamics as football. However, these awards add an interesting dynamic to the game for both players and fans alike. It provides extra motivation for the players, and extra cause for celebration or debate for the fans. Whatever your opinion about the relevance of these awards or possible areas of improvement, it is part and parcel of the beautiful game, and we should enjoy it.

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