MONACO — Maybe it should not have been a surprise that Luka Modric was voted UEFA Men’s Player of the Year by a jury of 55 journalists from across Europe.
As the saying goes, awards aren’t things you win; they’re things that are given to you. Ostensibly, they’re given to you for what you’ve achieved, sometimes for your popularity and visibility. In a weird way, each of the three major awards has its own place and each is in some way connected.
The Ballon d’Or dates back to 1956 and is handed out by France Football magazine. The FIFA World Player of the Year was introduced in 1991 by Sepp Blatter, who wanted something bigger and better since, at the time, only European players could win the Ballon d’Or. In 1995, France Football made their prize eligible to all who played in Europe regardless of origin, which basically made it a replica of the FIFA gong since the best players played in Europe.
That’s part of the reason why, in 2010, the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player Award were merged. That’s also how the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year (originally called UEFA Best Player in Europe Award: don’t ask) bauble came to life. Then-UEFA President Michel Platini had won the old Ballon d’Or three times as a player and longed for the simplicity — a journalist from every European nation gets a vote — of the old award, especially relative to the FIFA version, which combined votes from players and coaches too. (Plus, he really didn’t like Blatter.)
In 2015, following the FIFA scandals, France Football decoupled their award from FIFA who, undeterred, returned a year later renaming their award “The Best.” And that, in a nutshell is how we ended up with three different Player of the Year awards.
At first glance, it might seem as if it’s all irrelevant since somebody named Lionel or Cristiano wins them every year. But that’s not exactly true. Relative to the other two awards, who have gone for Ronaldo or Messi every single year for the past decade — for context, Kylian Mbappe was eight years old the last time someone other than those won either bauble — the UEFA gong has displayed a more independent streak.
Andres Iniesta won it in 2011-12, with Franck Ribery collecting it a year later. And now, of course, it’s Modric’s turn. The folks who vote evidently like rewarding outstanding players who overachieve at key moments rather than strictly following the award criteria, which says it should go to “the best player.” And that’s not a bad thing.
No sane person is going to argue that Modric is a better player than Ronaldo or Messi. Nor, you would hope, would they have made that claim about Ribery or Iniesta at the time. But if you want to reward over-achievement, not just individually but in terms of contribution to a team, then Modric fits like a glove. He was a key part of a Real Madrid machine that trundled to their third straight Champions League crown, just like Ronaldo. And then he took Croatia, rank outsiders to most, all the way to the World Cup final, along the way displaying a rare blend of selflessness and leadership, work ethic and artistry.
Sure, if you want to go there, you can point out that if he didn’t play for Real Madrid he would not have won the Champions League, whereas Ronaldo would probably still score a bucketful of goals at any other top club. And that he didn’t do it on his own with Croatia. In fact, he missed a spot kick in the dying minutes of extra-time against Denmark that would have sent them through to the quarterfinals. Instead, they agonized their way through penalties and were saved by Danijel Subasic’s heroics.
But so what? It’s a team game. Sometimes the superstar carries the team. Sometimes the role player does. And sometimes, guys like Modric exist in both states at one time. A superstar for his country, a (relative) role player (albeit with superstar skills) for his club. There’s wisdom in recognizing that. It’s OK for one of the three juries in the major awards to (occasionally) go beyond the circular knee-jerk Leo-Cristiano mobius loop and recognize this.
In short, Modric is a worthy winner and that’s all that matters, not whether he really was “the best.”