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FIFA Ballon d'Or: Is It Worth It?

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Analysis of the flaws of the Ballon d'Or and Best Player debate. Weighing physiological and environmental factors against each other to determine the absoluteness of player superiority.

Scott Heavey

The Golden Token

FIFA will officially present the Ballon d'Or to Messi, Ribéry or Ronaldo on the 13th of January 2014 at the Zürich Kongresshaus in Zurich, Switzerland. The award is "bestowed according to on-field performance and overall behaviour on and off the pitch." (FIFA, 2013) The individual prize recognizes, through a voting process, the best player in the world with indeterminate considerations for other non-football factors. The upcoming event will be the fourth annual edition of the FIFA Ballon d'Or - itself an amalgamation of the former Fifa World Player of the Year and France Football's Ballon d'Or awards.

The debate surrounding player excellence captures many arguments from purely statistical viewpoints to completely subjective opinions. Questions cloud the accuracy of basing judgement solely on numbers (popular figures being goals/assist tallies favouring attacking positions) that often fail to provide context. This is further complicated as the discipline of football statistical analysis remains in its infancy due to historical and existing impediments - specifically data availability and accessibility constraints. Although more advanced statistical markers of effectiveness and efficiency have been, and are being, developed, aggregate totals are often at the forefront of mainstream discussions. The alternative measurement scale places greater emphasis on personal values and perceptions. Player performances are visually observed to determine the quality of the individual.

Per perpetuated narratives, each of the final candidates for the individual prize represents a unique ideology with special regard for their contributions in 2013.

Ribéry is the ultimate team player - the Tetris piece that maintains Bayern Munich's title challenges, the glue that holds the delicately constructed Bavarian system in place.

Ronaldo is the self-improving physical specimen seemingly breaking athletic frontiers with remarkable consistency. The Real Madrid man is a combustible juggernaut with incredible style.

Messi is the prodigious talent - the football mastermind genetically constructed for the game. The Argentine's every move breathes the very essence of football, with a tellingly high frequency of miraculous touches.

Touch of Gene-ius

There exists a tendency to create a clear separation between quality of performance and capability. Many factors can distort the appearance of competence during gameplay - these variables are numerous and concretely impact the application of ability. This, along with the ambiguous and unspecified criteria for the Ballon d'Or, often leads to the belief that the best performer of the year isn't necessarily the best player.

The proposition: the best player, with the exception of material changes to circumstance, is for all intents and purposes the personification of a contextually dominant set of traits and characteristics. The best player is the best player regardless of the extractive value of actualized trends.  The significance and informational relevance of performance indicators are secondary to fixed physiological markers. These markers include genetically derived factors such as endurance ability, muscle performance, tendon apparatus, ligamentous apparatus, and psychological aptitude. [1]

Prevalent studies concerning the relationship between chromosomal composition and proficiency in sports have identified a positive correlation for the ACTN3 and ACE genotypes. [2] The former gene "is specifically expressed in fast-twitch myofibers responsible for generating force at high velocity." The gene has two variants: the 577R and R577X alleles. The R genotypes (RR, RX) relate to high powered explosive activities while the X homozygous genotype (XX) is linked to ACTN3 deficiency - compensated by the production of oxygen powered ACTN2 proteins that have been shown to promote stamina. [3] Similarly, greater endurance capacity has been observed for the ACE I allele and conversely, stronger sprint performance has been connected to the ACE D allele. [2] Other examples of genes with evidenced or suspected linkages to athletic performance are COL5A1 and TNC (associated with tendon injuries), COLIA1 (associated with ligament injuries), and PPARD (associated with endurance capacity). [1]

"How many genes may be involved in athletic ability is difficult, if not impossible, to determine since [there] is no way to separate out the contributions made by [economic background, motivation, facilities and coaching)] to sport performance."

David K. Wiggins [4]

In the realm of elite sporting expertise, research often focuses on identifying genotypes associated with distinctive features of premier athletes. There has been little investigation into the relatively minute (assumed) phenotypic (biological make-up) differences between world class players and how that relates to performance. This would potentially disqualify the idea that certain individuals are predisposed to excel. Exploring the relation to - or further compounding of these differences by - phenotypic plasticity (however minimal its visible effects may be) could reveal further evidence of stronger environment-related effects to performance.

Once the benchmark for professional level (which may be further segregated into classes or groups of ranks) performance is met, there aren't any unassailable limitations unrelated to unique experience based - and driven - elements.

The Footballer

It is imperative that governing bodies and the football world at large prescribe a standard for footballers. There is little logic and objectivity in ascertaining the best player without having a clear consistent idea of what a player is. Building this consensus will strengthen the credibility and grounds for judging performances and awarding a best player award. This will help in eliminating existing biases that marginalize defensive players failing to adequately recognize them comparatively. The following examines key conditions:

  • Virtues and Ergon: The general premise of Aristotelianism theories provides a suitable framework for homogenizing conceptions of football. Virtues, within the principles of the philosophy, refer to universally accepted character traits (good) that are intrinsic to a person's being. For footballers, this entails their skillset and attributes, comprehensively. Hence, lacking a skill would be equivalent to lacking a virtue and would negatively impact a player's perceived quality. For better perspective, it is understood that a player scoring a goal off an off-target shot which was deflected in does not count as a positive indicator of quality. Secondly, the philosophy proposes that the "...‘good'... [resides] in the function of an entity."[5] For a footballer, their ergon  (function) would need to relate to an inimitable task/activity/role they perform. These could be clearly outlined by the player's position (and its inherent objectives).
  • The Categorical Imperative: The central theme of Kantianism is the idea of a maxim. A rule that can be applied to everyone. In football, this law could be that the player will act in a way that benefits the team at all times. While this isn't as specific as the underlying theory advocates, it could be greater delineated into actionable rules.
  • Consequentialism: This philosophical model presumes that the ends justify the means. As the identity of a footballer cannot be extracted from the team structure, the ends in this scenario would refer to the ultimate result. The responsibility for minimizing instances of gains from deliberate regulation breaches (rule-breaking) is transferred entirely to the governing body and its agents. The consequences are only interpreted on a group level to maintain consistency with the points of 1 above. The consequence will take the following hierarchy of importance respectively, trophies (championship) and wins (victory).

Conclusion

There are far too many dynamics involved in football to truly proclaim a best player. The differences in environments are significant and can alter the abilities of players to perform to their best. Although there is scientific evidence supporting the idea that certain individuals are physiologically predisposed to perform at a higher level, the degree of contribution comparative to environmental factors hasn't been quantified so it isn't possible to definitively conclude that a player will always be the best. Establishing a standard that merges individual play and team accomplishments would enhance fairness in the award voting system.

To summarize: the Ballon d'Or is a highly superficial intensely flawed award system (which Ronaldo completely deserves by all accounts this year).

"It is a ridiculous [obsession]...this is an endorsement of an individual which goes against the essence of our sport."

Arsène Wenger to Téléfoot, AS, 2013


References:

[1] Giuseppe Lippi, Umile Giuseppe Longo, and Nicola Maffulli "Genetics and Sports" Br Med Bull (2010) 93 (1): 27-47

[2] Nan Yang, Daniel G. MacArthur, Jason P. Gulbin, Allan G. Hahn, Alan H. Beggs, Simon Easteal, Kathryn North "ACTN3 Genotype Is Associated with Human Elite Athletic Performance" The American Journal of Human Genetics, Volume 73, Issue 3, September 2003, Pages 627-631

[3] "The Gene for Speed: ACTN3" Accessed from http://kohlmanngen677s13.weebly.com/

[4] David K. Wiggins "Great Speed But Little Stamina: The Historical Debate Over Black Athletic Superiority" Journal of Sport History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1989)

[5] Korsgaard, Christine M. 2008. "Aristotle's function argument. In The Constitution of Agency" 129-150.Oxford: Oxford University Press.