Why Individual Player Awards Should Not Exist

The 2020 FIFA The Best Awards were recently held in Zurich. As usual, they came with controversy: Hansi Flick failing to win FIFA’s Manager of the Year award is a travesty, and Manuel Neuer’s absence from the FIFPro Team of the Year, shortly after winning FIFA’s Goalkeeper of the Year award, probably needs a whole other article to be explained.

Yet, that’s not the point of this write-up. In this piece I will focus on the award Lewandowski went home with after beating competition from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: The Best FIFA Men’s Player Award. And my argument is simple: awards like this should not exist.

The Problem

Photo by Harold Cunningham – UEFA

Before I begin, I would like to clear up a misunderstanding as soon as possible. I do believe that Lewandowski had an amazing season and was one of the best forwards on the planet in 2020, scoring a breathtaking 55 goals in just 47 games in one of the most dominant sides in the 21st century. Hence, my argument isn’t that Lewandowski did not deserve his award; it’s that awards like this are rarely truly “Player of the Year” awards.

Let me explain myself with a brief background check. In the 5 years that FIFA’s awards have been active, 4 of their Player of the Year awards went to attackers, with the fifth going to midfield maestro Luka Modric. In addition, Modric is the only midfielder to appear in the top 3 of these awards, with 13 spots going to forwards, and only 1 spot going to a defender: Virgil van Dijk.

Analysis of a more historic award, the Ballon d’Or, yields similar results: in its 64 year history, only 4 defenders and 1 goalkeeper have won the award. Fabio Cannavaro is the only player out of these 5 to win it since the turn of the century.

Now, I can already hear the counter-arguments in my head: “Ronaldo is the GOAT and deserves his Ballon d’Ors”, or “Ronaldinho is so nice to watch so he had to win it”, and even the “Messi had more goal contributions than Champions League-winning defender van Dijk in 2019, so he deserved to win it.” And I’m not disputing them (except the Messi – van Dijk argument).

However, in my opinion, the real reason why defensive players rarely win Ballon d’Ors is because of a simple fact: statistics. Attackers have a very concrete means of gaining value: goals or assists. While there are others ways for an attacker to prove his worth, goals and assists are ultimately the most important. And since there have been a plethora of attackers in recent times who have put out astronomical output rates over the course of a year (insert Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski…), they are the ones who win the coveted award.

Obviously, I don’t need to state the advantages that statistics give attackers over defenders. Defender statistics are meaningless without context; if they can make United’s Harry Maguire look better than Virgil van Dijk, then they should obviously be taken with a grain of salt. Yet, if we can’t quantify defender performances in a simple enough way that people who don’t watch them can appreciate, then how can they compete with the, “‘Insert player name’ scored ‘insert an obscene number’ goals in ‘insert a reasonable number’ games” argument? In fact, I feel that statistics plays such a strong role in the public’s opinion of a player, that I believe the only reason van Dijk even came close to winning the Ballon d’Or in 2019 was because his performances could be quantified by Liverpool’s defensive improvement. Van Dijk’s arrival coincided with a massive drop in Liverpool’s goals conceded, and as a defender, that’s the best form of quantifiable evidence he could ask for. Of course, winning the Champions League doesn’t hurt, but I believe that the only reason van Dijk was capable of a top 3 finish was because he got a chance to quantify his worth to Liverpool’s back line. Sadly, not many defenders get this opportunity.

The Solution

Photo by Valerio di Domenico/Getty Images

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that the playing field for Player of the Year awards isn’t level, but maybe I haven’t convinced you that professional soccer is better off without them. Because, who would really discard the end-of-year anxiety that comes with predicting the eventual winners of the awards? Surely that aspect of football is too entertaining to be taken away.

Well, yes… and no. They are entertaining, no doubt, and I’m sure they will be sorely missed. But the premise on which the award is given isn’t really true, so I can’t truly recommend it. However, I’m pretty sure that I can mention a few satisfactory replacements:

1. Position Awards

This award is already offered by 2 major footballing entities: UEFA and FIFA, and to be honest, I don’t see why the award-giving can’t just stop here. By breaking the awards down into 4 discrete categories, players of all positions will be appreciated for their contributions to the game. It doesn’t even make sense trying to compare a player like Kanté to one like de Bruyne, so why awards like the FIFA Player of the Year trophy exist is beyond me.

2. Team of the Year Awards

This is by far my favorite approach. Even better, FIFA also offers this award. By placing the best players of the year in a team, every position is appreciated and recognized. If Team of the Year players were treated as synonymous with “Player of the Year in that Position”, the playing field would be levelled and there would be no need for comparisons between defenders and attackers that only have one true winner.

What do you think about the Player of the Year awards? Are they a fair reflection of all player positions? Leave your answers in the comment section below, or on our Twitter page here, as well as any ideas you have on articles you want to see.

I’ll see you in my next post.

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