Are Goals Overrated? In Defense of Defenders

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Blogger of many different sports. My main interests are in football and formula 1, but I tend to write about anything topical in the world of sport. I also write about fantasy football on a regular basis.

Sergio Ramos has recently said he has the potential to win the Ballon d’Or his year- but is this mission impossible for defenders??

Ballon d’Or/ Fifa World Player of the year in the last 20 years (If only one name, both awards won by the same player-the two awards merged from 2010-2015)

1997 Ronaldo

1998 Zinedine Zidane

1999 Rivaldo

2000 Luis Figo/ Zidane

2001 Michael Owen/Figo

2002 Ronaldo

2003 Pavel Nedved/Zidane

2004 Andriy Shevchenko/Ronaldinho

2005 Ronaldinho

2006 Fabio Cannavaro

2007 Kaka

2008 Cristiano Ronaldo

2009 Lionel Messi

2010 Lionel Messi

2011 Lionel Messi

2012 Lionel Messi

2013 Cristiano Ronaldo

2014 Cristiano Ronaldo

2015 Lionel Messi

2016 Cristiano Ronaldo

Fabio Cannavaro is the only defender to win the Ballon d’Or or world player of the year in the 21st century

When you look at the above list, two things immediately stand out. Most obviously is the utter dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi since 2008. Secondly, if you go through each year, you’ll quickly notice that Fabio Cannavaro (2006) is the only defensive minded player on the list.  The lack of defenders is emphasised when you study the top 3 in the Balloon d’Or from 2000-not including the goalkeepers (Oliver Kahn, Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer), the only defender is Roberto Carlos, who came runner up in 2002.

So why is the case? Why are defenders almost non-existent in these awards? And what made Cannavaro and Roberto Carlos so special to be recognised?

To put it simply, it’s all about the aesthetic.  To be a good defender, you need to be strong, consistent, good in the tackle- these things are all appreciated by fans, but they don’t excite a crowd in the same way compared to a mazy run or a goal. It’s these moments that are the ones played on highlight reels-you can’t watch a defender or holding midfield player complete every pass and make a good tackle on a concise summary of a football game. These are “non-events”-whereas putting the ball in to the back of the net is a definitive event, one that stops the game. Defensive work perhaps looks good on an opta stats page, but it doesn’t play a part in the popular stats table- the goals and the assists.

The main perk of a strong defensive performance also relies on the team rather than a solitary player. If one player keeps a clean sheet, so does the whole team. For every goal, there’s a focus on the individual- there’s always one person that has to score the goal, even if the whole team is involved in the build-up. For example, Argentina scored a sensational team goal in the World Cup of 2006, involving 26 passes and fantastic pass-and-move, but the ball was put in the net by Esteban Cambiasso, and that’s who the goal belongs to-not the whole team. Therefore, the goalscorer will always receive more recognition- Ronaldo or Messi have won the European golden shoe (most goals over the season in all European top tier leagues) each year since 2009 except for Suarez in 2015-16, and the World Player of the year/Ballon d’Or to go with it.

But what about the two anomalies? Well, Roberto Carlos maybe has a clearer reason than Cannavaro – he is one of the most attacking defenders in the history of the game. His free kick for Brazil against France in 2002- the year he came runner up in the Ballon d’Or- remains one of the greatest free kicks of all time, if not the very best. Of course, he could defend, but the free kick is immediately what comes to mind when you think of Roberto Carlos, alongside his unbelievable goal against Tenerife in 1998. Carlos could make a ball swerve like no other player- his unique nature was what made him stand out, and was almost enough to win him the Ballon d’Or. Carlos scored 7 goals in the 2001-02 season- nothing extraordinary-but it was the nature of his single international goal that year that was so memorable.  He also provided the assist to Zidane’s goal in the 2002 champions league final-the most iconic goal in the history of the competition.  Finally, Carlos was an influential part of Brazil’s 2002 world cup winning side, one who’s triumph was romanticised as Brazil has only just sneaked through qualification-however, Carlos’ attacking nature was clearly fundamental in coming second for the Ballon d’Or, otherwise it surely would have been Cafu almost winning the ward, having led the Brazil side to glory.

roberto carlos.png
Yes, Roberto Carlos did shoot from here, and yes, he did score…

Those that watched the 2006 world cup final may well remember the photo of Cannavaro lifting the trophy for Italy, 4 years after Roberto Carlos tasted world cup glory. This was Cannavaro’s shining moment that season- his Serie A triumph with Juventus was tarnished by the “Calciopoli” scandal, stripping Juventus of the title. Cannavaro only scored 4 goals, so it wasn’t any attacking exploits that were a major reason for his personal triumph in the Ballon d’Or. On further exploration, however, maybe a large part of the reason Cannavaro won was due to a lack of strong alternatives in 2006. This isn’t to undermine his achievements, but it makes sense as to why a defender actually won the award. Ronaldinho was never the same after winning the Ballon d’Or in 2005, Zidane’s final season hopes were scuppered by his headbutt in the world cup final, and Thiery Henry failed win any trophies despite a stellar season for Arsenal that earned him a move to Barcelona. Cannavaro stood out as a domestic league (until it was stripped from Juventus) and world cup winner.

So, do defenders get the recognition they deserve? Clearly not- but as an entertainment industry, it will always be the Ronaldo and Messi type players-goalscorers who excite an audience- who will scoop the major accolades.

As a final point, both Roberto Carlos and Cannavaro have received jail sentences over the last few years…if you want a Ballon d’Or, maybe stick to being a striker…

Charlie Widdicombe

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Charlie Widdicombe

Blogger of many different sports. My main interests are in football and formula 1, but I tend to write about anything topical in the world of sport. I also write about fantasy football on a regular basis.

Are Goals Overrated? In D…

by Charlie Widdicombe time to read: 4 min