Lionel Messi's absence from shortlist for FIFA’s ‘Best’ player award exposes flaws in its voting procedures

Barcelona, obviously, stood by Lionel Messi. Slighted, felt the club. In a veiled tweet where the veil was supposed to hide nothing, the club declared – “No doubt for Barça Fans. He is the best. Period.”

And nobody could argue with that. But it resonated with many on the outside too. After a season in which Barcelona nearly finished the league campaign unbeaten and also won the Copa del Rey to boot, Messi’s exceptional displays counted for little when the time came to choose FIFA’s ‘Best’ player. For the first time since 2006, he will not be in contention for the prize as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, and Mohamed Salah have edged him out of the shortlist.

It is by no means the only surprise. For the first time since FIFA instituted its award in 1991 — it has undergone various iterations since — the shortlist does not have a player from the World Cup winner in the year of the tournament. The absence of Pep Guardiola from the coach shortlist rankles too, as his Manchester City side broke multiple records on its way to 100 points in the Premier League. Not to mention, Ederson and Keylor Navas lost out to Kasper Schmeichel in the running for best goalkeeper.

 Lionel Messis absence from shortlist for FIFA’s ‘Best’ player award exposes flaws in its voting procedures

File image of Barcelona forward Lionel Messi. Reuters

But it is the name of Messi which is missed the most. His exclusion feels like injustice because Salah scored a goal less, albeit in two fewer appearances, and won nothing as compared to the Argentine’s domestic double with Barcelona. Moreover, it remains a difficult case to make that Salah’s influence on his team was any greater than Messi’s on Barcelona. The popularity of the Premier League seems to have catapulted the Egyptian’s success on a higher plane, as brilliant as he was last season.

Ronaldo’s place on the shortlist is less contentious since he scored as many goals as Salah in all competitions, but did so in only 44 appearances – 10 fewer than Messi. The Juventus forward also had a better World Cup than both Messi and Salah, in addition to winning the Champions League. Luka Modric made an even stronger case after Croatia’s World Cup heroics, not to forget the continental triumph with Real Madrid.

So, for Messi to make the shortlist, Salah would be the one to miss out. It seems plainly ridiculous to suggest that the five-time winner from Argentina does not deserve his place among the top three players of the world. And this argument is not made on his reputation alone. Messi’s form last season did not see a dip from its stratospheric residence. If anyone needs any reminder of how good he is, the highlights of his display against Deportivo Alaves in the league opener a few weeks ago should suffice.

But the narrative of a Messi weighed down by his teammates has assumed a persuasive quality. The loss against Roma in the Champions League last season and Argentina’s struggle at the World Cup brought intense scrutiny upon the talismanic footballer. However, we should recall that Ronaldo won the award in 2013 even though Real Madrid went trophy-less the season before and Messi scored more goals than him in that campaign.

This is why you would expect the experts — the national team coaches, their captains, fans, and journalists — to address the criticism of Messi with greater circumspection. The votes are weighted equally among the four constituents so it remains unlikely that one group could influence the selection heavily. Hence it must be assumed, until we learn something new from the results on 24 September, that the decision to exclude Messi had widespread backing.

The voting procedure itself is contentious. FIFA already knows who has won the vote, since the deadline to submit one’s choices was on 10 August. This means that the votes given to those who missed the shortlist cannot be diverted towards the ones who did. It would be only fair if FIFA would allow another round of voting, so that those on the shortlist would have a better shot at winning the prize.

But in the current scenario, the governing body’s primary concern would be to keep the identity of the winner under wraps lest Cristiano Ronaldo choose to snub the awards ceremony like he did last week when Modric pipped him to the UEFA men’s player of the year award. It was another strange choice since Ronaldo could reasonably argue that the UEFA prize does not take World Cup displays into account, and he performed better for Real Madrid. However Modric seemed to benefit from the ‘Leonardo di Caprio at the Oscars’ sentiment, earning the prize because of the immense goodwill he earned over the summer and not necessarily because of his performances in club football – the panel consisted of all the 80 coaches in the Champions League and Europa League group stage, in addition to 55 European journalists.

The Croat, though, is a strong contender to become the first player since Kaka in 2007 to break the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly. It will also be worth seeing what happens when the France Football Ballon d’Or prize is announced later this year. Messi could conceivably finish in the top three there as only journalists vote and they have, by and large, been vocal in their criticism of the FIFA Best award shortlist.

If that situation comes to pass, it will be the FIFA prize which will suffer a loss of face. Arguably, not since Wesley Sneijder missed out on the shortlist in 2010 has one seen such an error in judgement from the football world. Of course, individual prizes say very little about the sport and that is why one often gives them short shrift. But there is even more reason to doubt their credibility when one of the greatest players of his generation, at his peak, misses out on the shortlist.

However, the nadir has not arrived. Yet. There still lies the possibility for FIFA to earn further ridicule. If Luka Modric does not emerge as the winner in London on 24 September, one would be wise in their view to ignore the Best awards altogether. After all, it is not just the self-important title of the awards which is worth mocking.

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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2018 13:53:31 IST