John Major/Canadian Soccer Association
In 2012, after the greatest season in her own and her country’s history, Christine Sinclair was nominated for FIFA’s women’s player of the year award. She probably deserved it: the leading scorer and most valuable player at the Olympics captained a perennial underachiever to its best-ever international finish, winning world-wide admiration for skill and guts. Instead she finished fifth, behind the winner Abby Wambach (a one-dimensional goalscorer with fewer goals), Marta (who was, honestly, terrible
), Alex Morgan (also good, also outscored), and Homare Sawa (another forward on another good team without much to scream about individually).
Wambach wasn’t a bad winner but what hurt was how Sinclair lost. Among peers her value was more-or-less appreciated, but in FIFA a country with no real women’s soccer program gets just as many votes as Germany. It was the their uninformed votes that relegated Sinclair to fifth place while elevating the average Sawa and the famous-but-worse-than-Melissa-Tancredi Marta. It was proof that the FIFA women’s player of the year award was devoid of merit.
2016 was the franchise’s unoriginal sequel. Once again, Canada’s women beat France and won an Olympic bronze medal. Once again, captain Christine Sinclair played an important role for a team that beat expectations. Once again, Sinclair was nominated for international player of the year, now called “THE BEST” by semi-literate cretins, and once again her opponents included an American player with a probably-inferior season but a huge international reputation (Carli Lloyd), a notable Japanese player who didn’t do anything this year (Saki Kumagai, whose team failed to even qualify for the Olympics), and a fabulously-overrated Brazilian striker coming off a unremarkable season, presumably on the list because people have heard of her (Marta, again, harder to kill than Jason Voorhees).
The plot twist was that Sinclair didn’t deserve the award either. She had a good year for club and country, putting her in Camille Abily/Amandine Henry/Lotta Schelin nice-but-not-enough territory. She was not one of the three best players in world women’s soccer, nor one of the three best out of the ten nominees. The only hope was that Sinclair would scoop up reputation votes as a fabulous player approaching the end of her career who everybody should know has never gotten her due. It wasn’t enough and she finished eighth, ahead of Abily, behind Schelin, and pretty much tied with Henry.
Canada couldn’t complain, but the results were still stunning. Marta, once again, wound up in the final three for no obvious reason. Her 2016 was not nearly as appalling as her 2012, as she bagged a couple goals against Canada and one against France in friendly play, plus two against the Swedes at the Olympics. She was also effective with Scandinavian superpower FC Rosengard, though there’s something not-quite-World-Player-of-the-Year-flavoured about the phrase “joint-leading scorer with Ella Masar*.” The Germans had three nominees in tremendous all-round midfielder Sara Däbritz, retiring sentimental favourite and long-time talent Melanie Behringer, and young forward Dzenifer Marozsan, threatening to split the vote. France’s Henry and Abily were also present.
Maybe that’s why Carli Lloyd won. Carli Lloyd, who was the bona fide 2015 world player of the year after scoring about a billion goals in the World Cup and tearing Japan to bloody ribbons in the final. Carli Lloyd, still in her prime and now, technically, an award-winning author. Carli Lloyd, who in a jam-packed 2016 managed one and a half goals against real teams, knocking a rebound into an empty net against France and scoring a pretty good header against New Zealand (that’s the half). Carli Lloyd, who captained her American national team at the Olympics to, er, a fifth-place finish, the worst in their history. Carli Lloyd, who ran off from the Houston Dash to chill and go on a book tour, while her coach literally did not know where she was. Carli Lloyd, who was outscored by Behringer at the Olympics despite Behringer being a traditional midfielder and Lloyd a very attack-oriented number 10. Behringer took penalties and played more games but she out-open-play-through-the-quarter-finals-scored Lloyd three to two.
Then there was the coach of the year award. Canada’s John Herdman was nominated, as in 2012. As in 2012 there was a very good argument that he deserved to be among the contenders, and as in 2012 he came up short, finishing fourth in a bewildering field. Of the ten coaches nominated three (Brazil’s Vadão, France’s Philippe Bergeroo, and South Africa’s Dutch boss Vera Pauw) had been sacked in disgrace before the finalists were announced. Another (the United States’s Jill Ellis) is unpopular with fans for the whole “leading the team to its worst major tournament finish” thing. The winner was Germany’s Silvia Neid, who absolutely deserved it and ran away with the voting. Sweden’s Pia Sundhage was third, and also a good pick. But Ellis, the catastrophic underachiever, was second, despite the fact that her team blew its brains out in Rio and—very sorry but I’m going to have to run wild with the formatting here—Sundhage outcoached her into the ground the only time they met.
At least Neid’s victory was justice at the end of a long and legendary career. But Lloyd was less deserving than the top Germans and the idea of Marta or Ellis in their respective top threes is laughable. To make matters worse, FIFA has introduced a fan voting component to their traditional format. The votes of the captains of each national team, the coach of each national team, selected media members from each national federation, and the overall fan ballot each account for one quarter of the result.
The fans did some damage. Their votes bumped Ellis ahead of Sundhage and lifted Marta ahead of both Behringer and Maroszan, who among captains, coaches, and media were still behind Lloyd but ahead of the Brazilian. As it was Marta beat the Germans handsomely, making one wonder what sorts of idiots vote for these things.
Yet the mathematically-gifted of you will have realized that if fans get 25% of the say, that means the “experts” get 75%. No amount of Marta-worship from ballot-stuffing Brazilians, no number of Tumblr campaigns for Carli 2017, would have mattered if the professionals had voted intelligently. And when you break down the voting you see that, just like in 2012, countries that don’t even really play women’s soccer dragged the whole award into the mud.
Below is a table showing each nominee, her final position in the actual player of the year award, the proportion of the vote she received from all the participating captains, coaches, and media (both raw and weighted one-third each), and the proportion of the vote she received from countries ranked in the top however-many of the most recent (December) FIFA women’s soccer rankings. Also shown are the votes for all countries with a FIFA ranking, which means any country that has played a single official match in the past eighteen months, and the votes for all countries without a FIFA ranking, which haven’t. There are a few countries that are not even “not ranked” by FIFA, but regardless sent in votes; they are lumped in with the “inactive.” And advance apologies to my mobile users†.
This table raises questions. Questions like “when Marta dies is she going to get 10% of the vote, or 15%?” and “how did countries that don’t play woso develop such a girl-crush on Saki Kumagai?”
Though the top 10 isn’t a lot of countries, it amounts to 29 voters picking three winners for a total of 81 points in ballot strength (North Korea somehow neglected to appoint a media representative). 29 people is not an overwhelming sample but major awards in sports and entertainment have been decided by fewer. For Christine Sinclair to finish third among that elite 29, including her coach and her media rep, is a tribute from the very competitors Sinclair has been trying to lift Canada up to.
Carli Lloyd starts gaining ground early, driven by a strong coach’s vote in the top 20 and top 30. Of course Jill Ellis voted for Lloyd but the coaches of England (5), the Netherlands (12) China (13), Italy (16), Switzerland (17), South Korea (18), Iceland (20), Austria (24), Belgium (25), and Mexico (t-26) also put Lloyd first. Many of those countries played the Americans in US-based friendlies this year, and Lloyd scored on not a few, so thinking they were sunk by the player of the year must be a great consolation. Italy’s Antonio Cabrini completed his confusing ballot with Marta and Lotta Schelin, then for good measure listed Jill Ellis and Philippe Bergeroo first and third on his coach’s list, suggesting there may be a reason Italian woso has on the downturn lately. Pia Sundhage had Lloyd nowhere.
Maybe they just liked her book. Anyway, what counts is that, in the real woso world, Lloyd is in no danger of catching either Marozsan or Behringer and Marta is an also-ran. The top 30-ranked countries include everyone of even minor consequence in at the senior international level, save some token Africans. Had only the top 30 voted we would have finished with Marozsan and Behringer exactly tied with Lloyd a good step behind, and that would have been an excellent result. If you don’t hold her Houston Magical Mystery Tour against her it’s easy to defend Lloyd as the third-best player on this list.
However, that’s not how it works. Among both minnows ranked below 40th in the world and the teams that aren’t active at all, Lloyd had a decisive lead. Of the 3,321 points allocated in the player of the year ballot the top thirty countries disposed of 774. Inactive countries—national teams which literally do not exist—cast 819 points worth of votes. If you want this award you’re better off being a household name with a book deal.
You can follow Lloyd’s share of the vote rising as the calibre of the voters declines, and very satisfying it is. But Carli Lloyd is nothing next to Marta. Even as far as the top 40, as minnows fill the water, Marta was incapable of cracking 9%. But add in the true nobodies and Marta is on the podium: between them and the fan vote the Brazilian Ella Masar was anointed the second-best player in world women’s soccer for 2016.
If you have the endurance, this chart shows how players’ votes changes as we descend the rankings. Select a player to highlight her, and hover over a point to see which ranking that is. Each point is a player’s ballot position among voters within a set of ten ranking places (which usually doesn’t mean ten countries), with the last point being the not-ranked and not-even-not-ranked voters.
The coach of the year ballot, thank God, was simpler from both ends. At the top, except for us homer Canadians supporting John Herdman, Silvia Neid was a fairly obvious choice both on the basis of Germany’s gold medal and as an acknowledgement of one of the best coaching careers in women’s soccer history. You might chisel her out of first place, on the grounds that she did get beat by Melissa Tancredi in a game she didn’t really want to win and that Herdman or Pia Sundhage had done more with less, but leaving Neid out of your top three altogether would have been negligence. Sundhage was the obvious contender for best of the rest, with Herdman hanging around but probably impossible for a Canadian to neutrally rate.
On the other side of the vote were, well, the guys who’d been fired already. It’s a good bet you can’t be the best coach in the world if your employer decided they’d prefer anyone else. Except for French captain Wendie Renard, who loyally put Philippe Bergeroo third on her ballot, voting for France’s fall guy was a sign of mental illness. And he might still have been better than Pauw, obviously listed only as African representation, or Vadão, whose Brazilians beat nobody in particular and needed a win from the penalty spot just to reach a home bronze medal game in which Canada, a team he had met in two pre-tournament friendlies, destroyed him.
And the fired guys weren’t even the only randoms! Gérard Prêcheur, head coach of the Olympique Lyonnais women, winner of the last season’s Champions League and Division 1 Féminine as well as a favourite in both this year, would have been a excellent nominee if you could find anybody who prioritized European club play in an Olympic year, which you can’t. A notch below were Swiss boss Martina Voss-Teckleburg and Bayern Münich’s Thomas Wörle, both of whom are probably good coaches and neither of whom had much of a 2016. Switzerland dominated a European Championships qualifying group that had nobody in it and wasn’t at the Olympics. Wörle won the last Bundesliga but ain’t gonna win this one and went out of the 2015–16 Champions League to Twente, which is even worse than it sounds. It is, apparently, hard to find ten decent women’s soccer coaches in the world; Paul Riley must be throwing Heineken bottles at his television.
So, with such an obvious top four of Neid-Sundhage-Herdman-Prêcheur, how did Ellis get the silver medal? Oh boy here comes that big table again.
Neid is never not winning, so the victor was the right one. But witness, friends, the Rise and Fall of Jill Ellis. From less than two percent of the vote among the top ten (one of whom was Ellis herself), she gets a boost as she rolls downhill from support that included the reliably-mental Italians and Swiss but was in no danger of bothering the top picks. Ellis is well above the three coaches who have actually been sacked, which is fair enough, as well as oddballs Voss-Teckleburg and Wörle. Then get down to the nowhere countries and all hell breaks loose. Among the minnows only does Ellis whip the superior Prêcheur and Herdman, pass Sundhage, and storm into the medals but, in the inactive countries, she very nearly catches Silvia Neid, which by itself proves they should have their votes taken away.
Yet, again, the American is not the only recipient of minnows’ largesse. At the bottom of the rankings Vadão outpolls not only the rest of the fired brigade but Herdman and Prêcheur! In the very last tiers Bergeroo passes Herdman as well; our Geordie John apparently doesn’t have great name recognition in Argentina. Prêcheur’s work at OL makes him a bit of an insider’s candidate, and he does very well all things considered among the elite, but his little rally doesn’t last long when the obscure countries get in. Wörle, Pauw, and Voss-Tecklenburg, lacking either big names or achievement, are basement dwellers all the way, though the minnows prefer the sacked Pauw to the useful Voss-Tecklenburg in only the least of their capricious whims.
Want to see it? Too bad; I just have another one of those crappy charts.
On the men’s side, where four billion people know what Claudio Ranieri did for Leicester City, these problems don’t arise to the same extent. Complete information is available to even the most sheltered voter. Women’s soccer is much more of a niche event, and huge chunks of voting power are handed to nobodies because they captain a team that, even if it bothered to get together for a game, wouldn’t win a decent Canadian metro league. You have to look for women’s soccer, you can’t just absorb it as with the men.
There’s no question that some captains, coaches, and media from the irrelevant nations took their duty seriously and came up with ballots at least as well-informed as a random Vancouver blogger’s, and from the US to Uzbekistan the media vote was “fair” at worst. But a statistically-obvious number voted for the people they’d heard of. It wasn’t a Canadian who got screwed this time; Herdman wasn’t going to win no matter how you divided it up and Sinclair wouldn’t have deserved to. But the essential truth has not changed in four years: the FIFA women’s awards are voted on in ignorance and therefore meaningless.
(notes and comments…)