Abby, I’m really happy for you, and imma let you finish, but the Ballon d’Or is the stupidest award of all time.
The FIFA Ballon d’Or was presented yesterday in a ceremony that I’m told was not at all a complete waste of time and oxygen. So, as promised, here is my analysis of the women’s voting.
|Women’s Ballon d’Or Points Standings|
The results were released yesterday by FIFA, and if there were any surprises for us Canadians it was that Christine Sinclair actually came fifth, behind not just the three finalists but Homare Sawa of Japan. According to my spreadsheet, Sawa finished with more “points” than the third-place finisher Morgan (yes I know that first place gets five points, second place gets three, and third place gets one; it says that on the top of the PDF, please don’t write in). The reason is the vote is weighted so that national team captains, coaches, and the media each get one third of the vote. But far fewer media members voted (only 40, and the voter for Namibia didn’t make second or third-place votes). Morgan got a significantly stronger media vote than Sawa; weighting the media vote so it counts equally puts Morgan and Sawa in a virtual tie depending on how you calculate it. In addition, FIFA uses percentages rather than raw numbers, lending another layer of obfuscation. Richard Scott, Canadian Soccer Association press officer, tweeted that Morgan led Sawa by 0.02%.
The values listed in the spreadsheet to the right, and from this point on, are raw point totals without weighting. Weighting each media vote so heavily strikes me as statistical chicanery, but at least there’s no question Morgan is more deserving than Sawa.
Besides, the thrust of this article isn’t about weighting, but about ranking. Take Marta, runner-up for the Ballon d’Or. The Brazilian forward had an awful season and made the shortlist entirely on reputation. Marta scored only twice, both against incredibly weak Cameroon, in a disappointing Olympic tournament for Brazil where they failed to advance past the quarter-final. She was equally disappointing in friendlies; while an indisputably great player, Marta was not one of the ten best in the world over 2012. Both player and team heavily underachieved.
Marta had all the reputation in the world and may be the most accomplished women’s player active today. But her performances in 2012 were sub-Melissa Tancredi. A similar problem struck with the Japanese legend Homare Sawa. Sawa, 34 years old, was the star of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. But she too had a weak Olympics and a poor individual year, although she relies less on goalscoring than Marta and her team was successful. Still, it would be impossible to make a case for her in the world top three.
If you put Marta on your ballot you were wrong: there’s no grey area. Sawa was also a very questionable choice, relying on handwaving about “intangibles” and giving Sawa the credit for an excellent Japanese team which Aya Miyama was the best player on. And yet Marta finished second and Sawa finished fourth. How did that happen?
Below are graphs of the average votes from the women’s players and coaches, sorted by FIFA rankings. Each point on these graphs is the average of all the votes cast by ten countries, sorted by FIFA ranking. So the first point is the average of votes cast countries ranked 1-10, the second point the average of countries ranked 2-11, the third point the average of those ranked 3-12, and so on until the end, when the point includes all the countries ranked last (131) and not ranked at all. A total of 29 countries cast ballots with a rank of 131 or no rank, which is really something. This allows us to spot trends in teams of a certain ranking casting votes.
In short: the further right you go, the lower-ranked the teams casting votes are. These graphs only include the top five players (Wambach, Marta, Morgan, Sawa, and Sinclair) because otherwise they would be unreadable. Please note that not every country cast ballots, therefore the ranking of teams in this graph will not perfectly match their FIFA ranking.
We’re leaving aside the media vote for the moment. First, its smaller sample makes it less useful. Second, countries either submitted both their captain and their coach votes or neither, so these graphs scale identically and we can compare them to each other with a clean conscience. Third, the whole uncertain-weighting travesty attached to the media vote means that anything we say about them would automatically be problematic.
Look at Marta’s orange line on both of these graphs. At first she’s at the bottom; she vied with Rapinoe and Fukumoto as the lowest-ranked nominee among top soccer countries. But the lower-ranked the teams become, the stronger Marta’s support. She has a spike in support among the captains at FIFA ranking 32, where Nigeria, Romania, and Belarus give her 11 points in quick succession, and from FIFA ranking 82 (Egypt) onward her support gradually increases until she is, astonishingly, in the lead among the super-minnows ranked in the hundreds. As for Sawa, she receives nickels and triples here and there throughout the ballot, but first in the high fifties and later in the seventies she gets a surge in support rivaled only by Marta.
The coaches follow the same pattern. Wambach, Sinclair, and Morgan for higher-ranked teams, Marta and Sawa for later-ranked ones. (To give the coaches their due, they keep Wambach among the leaders all the way down).
What’s interesting from a Canadian perspective is that Christine Sinclair had the reverse pattern of Marta and Sawa: her support came from higher-ranking countries. Starting around FIFA ranking #72 for both coaches and captains, Sinclair falls into the basement and only manages to keep her head above Rapinoe and sometimes Lloyd, while trading places with Fukumoto, Abily, and Miyami depending on the breaks. But in the books of both coaches and captains above FIFA ranking #32, Christine Sinclair was ahead of anybody in the world other than Abby Wambach.
|Ballon d’Or Standings by FIFA Ranking|
Let’s explore the same idea in a different way. On the right are the standings for the Ballon d’Or if they were only voted by players and coaches from the top x-ranked countries surveyed (not the top x countries in the FIFA ranking). Again, we’re leaving the media out of it for now.
If only the top ten could vote, the Ballon d’Or would actually have been very reasonable: Wambach winning, Sinclair and Morgan tied for second and Miyami bringing up a strong fourth. A bit CONCACAF-centric, maybe, but other than that nobody could deny that it was a decent result. Top twenty and we’re still good: Wambach running away with it, Sinclair and Morgan close in second and third respectively. The top thirty, same story. Even the top forty would lead to a sensible result, although by that point we’re starting to see the spectre of the minnows. Women’s international soccer is a shallow pool. Our “top 40″ includes fourth-class UEFA countries like Hungary and Belarus, the best of the Africans (which is saying very little), and countries like Costa Rica in the third tier of CONCACAF. Marta got a combined 21 points from Romania, Belarus, and Uzbekistan, which are ranked 35 – 41 in the latest FIFA rankings.
As far down as the top 50, the Ballon d’Or would have been awarded intelligently. Abby Wambach wins in a landslide, Christine Sinclair is second, and Alex Morgan is third. By this point, even the most generous observer will concede that we are out of relevant women’s soccer countries. No voting country ranked below this point (Jordan is the fiftieth-ranked country to submit a ballot and 58th-ranked by FIFA) qualified for the latest Olympics or World Cup, and only the African countries had an outside chance of doing so. As we dip into the fifties and sixties we are getting into super-minnows; countries so shoddy that, if they played Canada 100 times on a neutral site, you would genuinely expect Canada to win 100 games. These are countries that, again excepting Africa and Oceania, need miracles just to qualify for continental tournaments.
By the time we extend the sample to the top 75, all hell has broken loose. Sawa is ahead of Morgan and Sinclair. Marta’s pulled past Miyama and is gaining hard on Morgan. The award no longer bears any particular resemblance to what happened in women’s soccer in 2012. Finally, in the top 100, Sinclair is long gone from contention, Morgan is relegated to fourth behind Sawa and Marta, goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto of all people is staging a rally, and it’s all a big joke.
The Ballon d’Or is being decided, in large parts, by the sub-minnows of women’s soccer. Countries which are active once every two or four years, where women’s soccer has virtually no significance, determine what is supposed to be the highest honour in women’s soccer. People from the outskirts of women’s soccer who’ve never played against or seen any of the candidates, except maybe in one qualifier they lost 11-0, in countries where women’s soccer has no cultural standing, are accorded equal weight to the Miyamas, the Sinclairs, and the Lloyds of the world. Coaches who work with the seriousness of your average Sunday leaguer, have real jobs, and run programs that would lose to any PCSL women’s team waste votes on lousy seasons because they’ve heard of them. This is a systemic flaw, inherent in giving the irrelevant two-thirds an equal voice to the one-third that matters in this game.
That’s why I don’t take the women’s Ballon d’Or seriously, and neither should you.
 — FIFA. “FIFA Women’s World Player 2012.” FIFA.com, January 7, 2013. Accessed January 8, 2013. http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/ballond’or/playeroftheyear(women)/01/98/08/17/fboawardwomenplayer2012-bycountry.pdf.
 — Scott, Richard. “#canWNT @sincy 5th in vote for 2012 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year. It was 3rd Morgan 10.87%, 4th Sawa 10.85% & 5th Sinclair 10.33%” Via Twitter, January 7, 2013. Accessed January 8, 2013. https://twitter.com/richardscott187/status/288364633591517184.