Ballon d’Or: treasured more in South America than Europe?

By Andrew Misra

“Gooooooooooaaaaaallllll”. Not just the introduction to Alan Partridge’s 1994 World Cup Countdown, but a shortened version of a noise regularly heard on South American television, radio and inside bars. Colombian commentator Javier Fernandez Franco, tunefully nicknamed the “Goal Singer”, unleashed a 37-second outcry of this after Carlos Bacca scored in the 2016 Copa America third-place playoff. Bacca’s effort wasn’t extraordinary either, rather it was scruffily turned in, bouncing over the line.

Goals are clearly an integral part of football and usually, the most exciting feature of a match. Purists will disagree, preferring maybe to revel in the discipline of a holding midfielder as they stifle an opposing playmaker’s craft, or purr at the rigidity of a defensive line. But as any cliché wielding British football commentator worth their salt will tell you, goals change games. To paraphrase a baby-faced crocked goal poacher turned horse breeder, when teams don’t score, they hardly ever win.

Goalscoring is a universal language among players and supporters alike. But it is one that South Americans have seemed particularly conversant in over the years.

Throughout footballing history, prolific goal-scorers have been regarded as the leading players of their generations. There is a rich tradition of great South American goal-getters. Since the turn of the century, we’ve become accustomed to the likes of Ronaldo (O Fenômeno), Lionel Messi, Radamel Falcao, Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suárez, Neymar and Edinson Cavani regularly rippling nets. A long-standing idea exists that South Americans crave exciting, attacking play, but are fragile defensively. In contrast, Europeans are believed to approve of solid, organised foundations.

Much of these ideas are extrapolated from a perception of Brazilian football consisting of players doing the samba across the pitch, from back to front, with little to no organisation. This is a bizarre conclusion to reach, particularly when you consider that it was Brazil who invented the back four to provide greater defensive cover.

These presumed ‘South American’ stereotypes can be misleading.

Challenging the Stereotype

Spanish heavyweights Atlético Madrid have a recent history of deadly South American strikers – Sergio Agüero, Diego Forlán, Falcao and Brazil-born Diego Costa. However, they have been one of Europe’s stingiest teams in recent seasons, reaching the Champions League Final in 2014 and 2016 only to be thwarted by cross-city rivals Real Madrid on both occasions.

They also managed to intrude on the domestic duopoly of Los Blancos and Barcelona, winning La Liga in 2014 and finishing in the top three in every season since. Managed by fiery Argentine Diego Simeone, and with an impenetrable backline marshalled by the colossal Uruguayan Diego Godin, Atleti continue to brandish a distinctive South American identity.

Godin partnered the Brazilian Miranda in the heart of the defence that gave Los Colchoneros their first league title in 18 years, conceding just 26 goals along the way. Miranda moved on to Inter Milan soon after, but José Giménez, also of Uruguay, has often partnered Godin since. Santiago Arias, a Colombian right-back, was also drafted in this summer.

What we see with Atlético is a highly defensively organised side drilled by a disciplined Argentinian manager, with two assistant managers in Germán Burgos, a former goalkeeper, and Nelson Vivas, a former defender. Both of these aides to the boss El Cholo are also Argentinian. They have entrusted South Americans with protecting the crown jewel that is their goal, forming the bedrock of their back line.

Furthermore, the talisman of the 2013-14 season, Costa, has returned to lead the line for them. Undoubtedly a prolific goalscorer at his best, but his robust approach is not in keeping with the idealised Brazilian style of attacking flair.

Ballon d’Or

This idea of individualistic South American attacking players is particularly relevant as the Ballon d’Or rolls around once more on 3rd December. Neymar himself rolled out of Barcelona last summer and left one of the most productive forward lines on record in the process, the Messi-Suárez-Neymar axis. The ‘MSN’ posted a combined goals output of over 100 in each of the three seasons they were together between 2014 and 2017. The position of Neymar’s name in that alliance, it seems, was significant to the Brazilian in the end.

In joining Paris Saint-Germain for €222 million, he was seen to be escaping Messi’s shadow to pursue his ultimate dream of winning the Ballon d’Or. So determined was Neymar to get his hands on this individual prize that he was willing to leave Camp Nou to compete in an inferior league after three consecutive La Liga titles with Barça.

The Ballon d’Or, French for “Golden Ball” is presented by France Football. After being temporarily merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award between 2010 and 2015, which FIFA paid £13 million for, the awards are separate again from 2016 onwards.

Before Neymar, another Brazilian who emerged from Santos, Robinho, made remarks striking a similar chord back in 2009, stating his desire to become “the world’s best player” and that a starring role at burgeoning but not yet fully oiled Manchester City would allow him to do just that.  Clearly, that didn’t quite work out. The 34-year-old forward washed up at Turkish club Sivasspor in January.

While Neymar has a much more realistic chance of getting his hands on the Ballon d’Or, having finished third last year, he is already having to deal with the precocious Kylian Mbappé encroaching on his platform. There is a very real possibility that the young Frenchman may scoop the accolade before his teammate.

The tones of these two Brazilians who were both touted to be the next Pelé are in stark contrast to that of Luka Modrić. The former Spurs man has already claimed the Best FIFA Men’s Player award for 2018. The Croat said that while this has been the best year of his career, he isn’t overly concerned about the award. “My year was great and that’s it”, said the 33-year-old.

But is this typical of the differing South American and European attitudes towards the Ballon d’Or, or are we again guilty of yearning to generalise?

Rivaldo, the 1999 Ballon d’Or winner, spoke out over this summer advising Neymar to seek a move to Real Madrid in order to win the accolade. We are not accustomed to such comments in Europe. Ex-professionals typically speak out to encourage players to move on in order to secure more playing time to improve their international prospects, or to win major team honours.

This gives credence to the notion that the Ballon d’Or is highly thought of in Brazil.  From the inception of the award in 1956 up until 1995, the award was restricted to players from Europe. This was expanded to include any players from European clubs in 1995, and then further expanded in 2007 to become a global prize.

Five Brazilians subsequently won it between 1997 and 2007. Ronaldo in ’97 and ’02, Rivaldo in ’99, Ronaldinho in ’05 and Kaká in ’07. Neymar must feel that his career will be seen as falling short of potential if he does not follow suit.

But South America is more than just Brazil. What about the other countries? Other than Messi, no non-Brazilian South American players have featured in the top three of the Ballon d’Or since 1995, when they became eligible. Even considering the FIFA World Player of the Year award as well, you have to go back to 1999 when Gabriel Batistuta came third while at Fiorentina.

There is no evidence of other South American countries speaking so fancifully about, or achieving such success in, the Ballon d’Or. It does seem that it is Brazil, rather than the whole continent, that has a particular fondness for it. But what lies beneath?

The Brazilian Way

One suggestion is that because they weren’t previously eligible to win the award, that made it a more attractive proposition for Brazilians. But this ignores the fact that the same rule applied to the rest of South America.

A more plausible explanation, perhaps, lies in the sheer number of Brazilians scattered across the European leagues.

The CIES Football Observatory conducted a study into expatriate footballers in May 2017. Expatriate players were defined as those registered with clubs outside of their national association. It found that Brazil had by far the most of these players in the world, with 1,202 playing outside of their home country. The next highest was France with 781, followed by Argentina with a substantial 753.

The compelling statistic, however, is that which looks at the percentage of those expatriate players who play outside of their continental confederation.

As may be expected, 86% of the French figure remain within Europe, mostly heading to the Premier League. Yet 65% of those Brazilians head across the Atlantic to join teams from Europe.

Only 37% of Argentina’s expatriates follow the likes of Agüero to Europe.

Uruguay and Colombia are further down the list with 288 and 284 expatriates respectively, with their European percentages at similarly low levels as Argentina, with both at 26%.

So, there are 781 Brazilians playing in Europe but just 278 Argentinians, with around 150 Uruguayans and Colombians combined.

What we can start to visualise now is this huge drain of Brazilian footballing talent flowing across to Europe. For a nation which prides itself so strongly on its footballing supremacy, there must be some tinges of resentfulness towards European football. Yet Brazilians will be proud of the impact their players have had from Ronaldo lighting up the Camp Nou with his electric dribbling, or Ronaldinho earning a standing ovation from the Bernabéu faithful as he dismantled their Galácticos.

For these greats to bring back their La Liga medal hauls, or Champions Leagues to their homeland is impressive. But what really signifies that impact that they had is an individual award. An award that isolates them from any European interference. That’s why the Ballon d’Or is so treasured in Brazil, more than anywhere else.

The Ballon d’Or is the best chance Brazilians have to show their makers that they too can take their seat amongst the pantheon of greats – an award that no teammate can claim the benefit for.

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