Bundesliga Column: The Ballon d’Or and the Case for Franck Ribéry

Ribery REUTERS Darren Staples Photo by REUTERS/Darren Staples

In somewhat scandalous fashion, Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribéry won UEFA’s 2012-13 “Footballer of the Year” award. I say scandalous because the Frenchman won the award over both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He won by a large margin, too.  During the live vote by European football journalists, Ribéry received 36 votes, Messi 14, and Ronaldo 3. Given that Ribéry’s goal output from all competitions during 2012-13 was far lower (11 goals in 43 appearances) than Messi (60 goals in 50 appearances) and Ronaldo (55 goals in 55 appearances), the Bayern star’s win was a small controversy.

The plot thickens. Ribéry was recently shortlisted for the 2013 Ballon d’Or award. Yes, this is a separate award, if you’re wondering. And if the Twitter vine is any indication, Ribéry might be winning another award.

What’s interesting is that Ribéry – not a goal-scoring machine like a Messi or a Ronaldo – grabbed the most votes for the UEFA award. Of course, Franck is not the first player of his “type” to win this award, as Barça’s Andreas Iniesta won it the season before (2011-12). However, given the massive goal outputs of Messi and Ronaldo, football punditry stirs itself like so many wasps with its quasi-moral outrage that the goal-scorers are pooh-poohed upon – again, for the second season in a row.

So what’s the case for Ribéry?

I’ll try to explain why Ribéry’s play (and the context around it) might persuade 36 voters to pick him. A caveat: I’m not trying to defend these voters in this article. For one thing, I would have probably voted for Messi myself – the Bundesliga partisan that I am – for another thing, I have no idea why these voters picked Ribéry (I don’t have access to their minds, notes, whatever), and frankly, I  ignore any conspiratorial silliness for quasi-moral matters like an award vote. Rather, I’ll offer an account for why Ribéry is so valuable for Bayern, and what his winning of the award could represent.

FIFA’s “Footballer of the Year” award avoids the silly semantics stuff that crops up in the ubiquitous “MVP” awards in American sports, in which sport punditry debate about denotations and connotations of the word valuable. That is, you can’t have these diction debates with the award – it’s too generalized, which you could argue is an indicator of the flexibility yet superficiality of the award. The semantic umbrella of this term is expansive enough to include whatever compelling case/narrative emerges during each season. It’s easy to get lost here. I mean, what does footballer of the year even mean? Well, goal-scoring moments are usually the most vivid events during matches, and a guy like Messi scores loads of them, so it’s no wonder divinity is conferred upon such a player. Goal-scoring involves something like both the vividness effect and availability heuristic (i.e. we remember goals more than other stuff, which makes it more likely our memory will access goals and goal-scorers when award ballots are filled out). At the very least, Iniesta and Ribéry represent a counter to these effects.

In a nutshell, the case for Ribéry could be this: with his chance creating, dribbling, and passing skills, Ribéry is the best player on the world’s best team. Let me unpack this case a bit.

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    1. Thanks for a good read. I think you are missing 2 key things about Ribery, one is specifically about last season, that he tracked back and defended a lot. This extra dimension of his game developed by Heynckes made him even more indispensible at Bayern, and that’s something Messi and Ronaldo could never do. His hardwork and teamwork as well as that all roundedness is what gives him the extra edge. The second thing is the well known fact that Ribery is a foul magnet, he attracted a ridiculous number of fouls. He’s fouled against all the time, even in dangerous positions.

    2. Ed, good points. I have a general sense about Ribery making these movements, but just not the right kind of data to represent it – so I wanted to avoid a vague generalization here. The foul magnet point is compelling. It’s true, he ranks up there in Europe in this regard. Although besides this phenomenon merely being a byproduct of his dangerous runs, I’m not sure how else it’s meaningful. Any other ideas?



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