There’s more to it than the Messaldo duopoly

2017 is almost at an end and the Ballon d’Or has been given out, somewhat predictably, to Cristiano Ronaldo. While the big BO may be a good way of settling – or rather, it seems, diplomatically not settling – the ‘best player in the world’ argument between he and Messi, the format naturally overlooks an awful lot of superb players.

Firstly – though this is partly a symptom of the Messaldo duopoly, where only one place on the podium has been available for the past decade – it is very forward-focussed.

In the decade BC (Before Cristiano, who won his first in 2008), there were ten different winners, six of them forwards. The three midfielders – Zidane, Nedved, and Figo – were all attacking minded. The only defender to win in that period was Fabio Cannavaro, fresh off the back of captaining Italy to World Cup triumph.

Looking at the FifPro (the world players’ union) World XI of the year is far more interesting, for a start because it widens the pools of winners from three to entire line-up. It’s also relatively well reflective of how popular opinion would classify players.

Cristiano and Messi have been featured for eleven years in a row; Andres Iniesta is the current third place winner (the award starting in 2005) with nine; Dani Alves has dominated the left-back position with seven mentions.

The way that the passage of time unfolds is fascinating too. The goalkeeper position first went to Dida before passing immediately to Gianluigi Buffon.

Iker Casillas won his place in the line-up five years in a row during Spain’s period of international dominance from 2008 to 2012, before the baton was passed to Manuel Neuer. Buffon, highlighting his superb longevity, and perhaps as a consolation prize for never winning the Champions League, was back in the XI this year.

The fact that the XI has been set up in a 4-3-3 each year has led to some interesting selections which future footballing scholars may take note of.

In 2007 and 2008, four centre-backs were selected across the back-line (Nesta, Cannavaro, Ferdinand, Ramos, and Terry and Puyol twice each) and in 2010 and 2011, three were picked.

Perhaps, this represents the relative strength in that position compared to a relative scarcity of truly world class full-backs. Dani Alves has got a spot on seven occasions and more recently Marcelo has made the other flank his own with four mentions.

Apart from that, Patrice Evra, Maicon, and Philip Lahm gained appearances in the XI, and Maicon’s came in 2010, a year heavily influenced by Inter Milan’s success (Lucio and Wesley Sneijder also made their first and final appearances in the team).

(In 2014, there were also three centre-backs picked, but with two of these being Thiago Silva and David Luiz, it seems likely that these picks were World Cup influenced in a way which doesn’t quite fit the thesis).

The years 2010-2014 were the years of a period of rotation of non-Messaldo forwards taking their place in the front three between the two superstars.

In 2008 and 2009, Fernando Torres took this spot, deservingly so during his peak years for Liverpool and Spain. After that came David Villa, Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Arjen Robben in and out of the revolving door.

Luis Suarez took the spot in 2015, but 2014 and 2016 saw Neymar sandwiched between Cristiano and Messi, in what one imagines will be looked back on as a handing over ceremony from two best-players-in-the-world to the next.

Not only has the dominance of Cristiano and Messi squeezed out forwards from retaining their position in the XI for more than a year at a time, but for 2013 and 2014 it also saw attacking midfielders – who might otherwise be considered forwards – pushed back into the midfield three.

Franck Ribery (2013) and Angel Di Maria (2014) could hardly be considered as regular midfielders, yet this was the only way that they could make their way into the side and pick up a cap.

Below is the full list of players to have featured in the FifPro World XI since its inception in 2005, their position (important to consider when judging whether their number of call-ups is fair), and how many times they’ve been included.

It will be fascinating to see who will emerge over the next year. 2018 might, for the first time in nine seasons, be the year that Iniesta drops out of the midfield rotation; will Mbappe kick on and force a tricky decision of which of Messi, Cristiano, and Neymar to drop – or will one of the Messaldo duopoly fall out deservedly? Only time will tell.Football Data Analysis FIFPro 2017

By @EveryTeam_Mark

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