Football has long aspired to bathe in glitz, glamour and gold. Awards like the Ballon d’Or are turning a team-sport into a pathetic individual race.
Something strange has happened over the last year to 18 months. A parallel drawn in jest, a simile used for drama has gone so far, it’s now difficult to dissociate it from the subject. It’s not very often that a trope like this transcends a form of speech or literature and seeps into mass consciousness.
Football is a glorious sport, blessed with some of the world’s greatest athletes stretching every sinew of muscle to land the killer blow on their opponent. It’s only natural that some of them draw comparisons with wildlife predators. They’re a set of beings closest to mankind who live purely off their physical characteristics. Like the multi-millionaire, peroxide-haired superstar prototype, some of the more ferocious animals carry an aura of invincibility too.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic in front of a camera is 21st century’s answer to Sir Viv Richards’ walk to the batting crease and Chicago Bulls’ introduction for the NBA Finals at the Delta Center in Utah. The half-footballer, half-PR stuntman has taken the alpha-male trope so far, it is impossible to not think of him whenever you hear the word ‘lion’ anymore. His brand of football only fans the flames.
So much of being the king of the jungle comes from domination and intimidation. A 2009 study by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that tigers have 16% larger brains than lions on average. As it turned out, such trivia has never bothered the majestic maned creatures. They’re too busy leading the pack to stand on such ceremony.
Richards and Jordan were equally intimidating in rain and shine, in a dead-rubber match or a final against arch-rivals. In much the same way, Zlatan’s swagger has never wavered with the amount of silverware he amasses over a season. Lions don’t bother themselves with the material possessions like gold, humans do. Zlatan has a stamp-collection of league titles, but a closer look into his career will display a lack of the biggest kills. He has never won a Ballon d’Or, a Champions League, and has missed two consecutive World Cups at the prime of his career. Try telling him the lion stature is misplaced.
In the qualification playoff for the latter of the two, Ibrahimovic had his thunder stolen by an Olympian, a freak of nature, and the most stunning gazelle to have ever played football, at the very peak of his physical and mental ability. That night in Stockholm, with his own and his country’s reputation on the line, Cristiano Ronaldo glistened gold every time foot touched grass. For him, the match meant everything it didn’t to his Swedish opponent.
Apart from the qualification, there was the small matter of the award for the best footballer on the planet, which had been postponed to accommodate the playoffs. His hat-trick ensured he got to bask in the shine of his second Ballon d’Or.
The Sampras to his Agassi, Lauda to his Hunt, Lionel Messi, was already in possession of four of these shiny golden balls. The chase was back on. Over the next four years, Cristiano has won three more, finally pulling up next to his biggest rival.
“Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii” – Cristiano, after winning his third Ballon d’Or in December 2014.
Watching Cristiano Ronaldo play football has almost been a revelation. All through those childhood football camps, you’re taught how the sum of parts is larger than any individual. Suddenly, you’re now exposed to one of the world’s greatest ever athletes in a naked pursuit of personal glory. As three Champions League titles and a European Championship in the last four years will tell you, the sheer kinetic energy of the chase is so powerful on most occasions, it propels his team to gold.
“I don’t see anyone better than me. No player does things that I cannot do myself, but I see things others can’t do. There’s no more complete player than me. I’m the best player in history — in the good and the bad moments” – Cristiano, after winning his fifth Ballon d’Or in December 2017.
It doesn’t seem like the latest Ballon d’or would’ve inflated Cristiano’s judgement of himself all that much, but you can sense he’s turned this into a game like Pokemon Go. It’s his raison d’etre, to become the undisputed greatest of all time, and he’s convinced himself that the only way he can do that is by collecting more of these balls.
That is where football, and its ecosystem, needs to question itself on two counts. One, what qualifies as ‘The Best’? Over the years, FIFA have been found at an utter loss to decide on a definitive parameter with which to judge performances. Both Messi and Ronaldo have been beneficiaries and victims of this ever-changing barometer for success.
Two, what is an individual award like the Ballon d’Or’s importance towards pushing a footballer on the path of the greatest ever to have played the sport? Both Messi and Ronaldo now have more of those trophies than anyone else in history, but how confidently can you claim that they’ve overtaken Pele and Maradona, Cruyff and Di Stefano in every way possible? Claude Makélélé, a man who redefined his position on the pitch, could never grab front-row seats at the annual gala in Geneva headquarters.
The game has always celebrated individual brilliance. In the twelfth century, the Japanese were playing kemari, their own version of football based around individual skill at balancing the ball and keeping it off the ground. A day’s game of kemari would end with the most senior player kicking the ball as high as possible and then catching it with his kimono.
When you satiate the hunger for personal accomplishment with the macabre glorification of self in a team sport, the elite footballers don’t see it as a collective battle anymore. Their team is not so much an army, but a set of subordinates who’re supposed to set it up for the General to apply the coup de grâce.
When Neymar, the incumbent prince of footballing royalty, sensed that the King of Catalunya wasn’t bequeathing his throne just yet, he promptly switched sides. Along with much heavier coffers, he saw an opportunity to finally sit on the golden throne, ready to lead his troops and bask in the crisp, French sunshine. You almost felt bad for Neymar when Edinson Cavani took that penalty away.
For too long, football has aspired to become sport’s Hollywood, even serenading it with its own version of the Oscars. Tuxedos, bow-ties and golden statuettes in tow, it climbs a steep slope towards performance art. Every year, Hollywood celebrates its most gifted artists, hence football must follow suit. What started off as a mere byproduct of a great year of success and consistency has now become a milestone to chase, a yardstick with which to measure the impact of individuals in a collective endeavour.
And where does this leave those who live and die by their men, the Scottie Pippens and Philipp Lahms? The presumption is that they’ll keep thriving in working for the cause. They’re the grafters far away from all the glitz and glamour of the Ballon d’or, overlooked by cronies in plush offices. But men of sport would never betray them. Long after they retire from playing, their community will open up paths for them to come back. These are the players who make the craft richer, for they give back a lot more than they take.
When Real Madrid sold Claude Makélélé in 2003, Zinedine Zidane had said, “What’s the point of adding a new layer of gold paint when you’re losing the engine?” It’s almost poetic that even as Cristiano Ronaldo treats the Ballon d’Or like his personal property, it is Casemiro that his manager, Zidane, calls ‘perfect’.