Wednesday 17 January 2018

Ballon d'Or blanks a worrying trend for English game

The only British representative on the 23-man long-list was Gareth Bale
The only British representative on the 23-man long-list was Gareth Bale

Sam Wallace

Stanley Matthews was the first winner of the Ballon d'Or in 1956, edging it from Alfredo Di Stefano, partly on the basis of a fine performance for England at Wembley in May that year against the Brazil team that would go on to win the 1958 World Cup.

Matthews had recently come back into favour with the England selectors and when he was presented with the award he was just two months short of his 42nd birthday.

Di Stefano, more than 10 years younger, might have pointed out that having just won the inaugural European Cup with Real Madrid and seven league championships in three different countries, he had a stronger claim.

Either way, without Matthews's win at the start, there would be just three English footballers in 49 years to have won the Ballon d'Or. As the world's elite gather in Zurich tomorrow, to watch what the bookmakers predict will be less a question of whether Lionel Messi wins, more a question of whether he goes for the polka dot tuxedo or the maroon one, English footballers are not even an afterthought.

The only British representative on the 23-man long-list was Gareth Bale, and there has not been an Englishman placed in either the top three of the Ballon d'Or or the Fifa World Player for 10 years. Frank Lampard took second place in both behind Ronaldinho in 2005, and Steven Gerrard was placed third the same year in the Ballon d'Or.

Of course, the dominance of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo since 2008 has skewed the results of both awards, which merged in 2010 to become the Fifa Ballon d'Or.

There is no doubt that the nature of the award has changed, having started, you suspect, as a jolly. Like many things in football it has come to be taken more seriously than was intended.

Now it is an award that the kings of the modern game treat with a weird earnestness, arriving like world leaders at a political summit to be judged by people whose opinion they would barely give a second glance the rest of the time.

It is the only time Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are obliged to make small talk with one another - two giant egos moving into annual alignment like a total eclipse. The awkwardness can be exquisite.

Yet, for all the hype, the absence of English players from the long-list in recent years says a great deal about the quality of the English game. There is no science for producing phenomenal once-in-a-generation talents, and at the very peak of the elite many tiny factors are at play in the emergence of a Messi or a Ronaldo.

But consistently failing, as a nation, to get a single player among the best 23? That tells you something is wrong. Since Kevin Keegan won the Ballon d'Or in 1978 and 1979, while he was at Hamburg, only six Englishmen - Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Lampard and Gerrard - have been placed in the top three.

Bobby Charlton was the second Englishman to win it, in 1966, and the last was Owen, 15 years ago, when the award, then still voted for by journalists, was treated with much less reverence. Owen received his 2001 Ballon d'Or pre-match, by the side of the pitch at Anfield, in the same fashion as supporters' club awards get dished out to players, and it was only his French manager Gerard Houllier who insisted that more weight be given to the achievement.

Where will English football be in another 10 years' time? Blaming the genetic lottery for not spawning another great? Or accepting that while sophisticated football nations cannot guarantee the production of a Ballon d'Or winner, they can go a long way to increasing the likelihood that it will happen sooner, rather than later.

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