Who IS the best? Part 1/2.

TL;DR: Naming one single player as the best in the world in a team sport makes as much empirical sense as establishing that oranges are better than apples. In women’s football, luck and exposure are as important as skill when it comes to improving an individual’s chances of success in these awards.

Last week, Sam Kerr was named the best player in the world in the joint list that The Guardian and The Offside Rule Podcast have been compiling for the last four years, originally an idea by journalist Rich Laverty. This is a recognition (not an award) that has as its past winners a real who is who of European football: Pernille Harder (2018), Lieke Martens (2017) and Ada Hegerberg (2016) are households names, much like Kerr herself. This list was revealed five days after the Ballon d’Or was awarded, and there was an expectation that it would contain different names for those listed for the France Football award. If we have a look at the Top 20, side by side, the differences are considerable.

The obvious differences go beyond the top spot: Alex Morgan was picked 12th by The Guardian judges, when she got on the podium at the Ballon d’Or. Lucy Bronze stays at number 2. And the rest of the top ten is sort of similar, with Harder, Henry and Le Sommer pushing Morgan, White and Marozsan to the early teens.

The disclaimer

Laverty and The Guardian explained rather comprehensively how they got to configure this list. At least, from the get go, there was more information and transparency than with the Ballon d’Or award, which helps understand the logic behind the list. Many would probably not read into much detail about this, but 93 judges from 44 countries, all involved in women’s football in some capacity (from national coaches like the new USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, to players like Jess Fishlock, and journalists and broadcasters) helped configure the list. They were provided with a list of 450 players, and they were asked to rank them 1-40. Their top choice was given 40 points, and so forth until their 40th selection, who got given 1 point. 116 people agreed to participate, but only 93 returned it.

Kerr in one of her last games in the NWSL @samkerr1

17 points separated the winner, Sam Kerr, from #2 Lucy Bronze, and Megan Rapinoe found herself 4 points behind the English leftback. Laverty also added that “with a gap of almost 250 points to Hegerberg in fourth, the 22 points which separate the top three shows how close they were in people’s minds. Behind Hegerberg everyone was closely matched, with Amandine Henry (fifth) and Vivianne Miedema (sixth) separated by six points before another big jump to Lavelle in seventh.” By Laverty’s own admission, one or two more judges might have made a massive difference to the final outcome of the top three, and the top ten behind them. The take home point is that whilst there seems to be a general agreement about who are the best players in the world in 2019, it is nearly impossible to rank them in any empirically significant way. And here is where our questions begin.

Awarding the unawardable

First and foremost, football is a team sport. This might sound like an obvious statement, but during awards season, the matter-of-fact-ness that football is not an individual sport seems to get lost among the shiny trophies and the debates about who is the best. The obsession to crown one individual in an endeavour that requires a collective effort to succeed is baffling to me. People might agree that Leo Messi is the best player in the world, and the thing is, capable and skilled as he is, the man is not an island. No teammates, no game. Putting the focus on these awards and giving them more relevance than they need goes against what the game is about. And in a week of slow news, when most teams are looking forward to the Christmas break, and especially in Australia, where the Matildas won’t be seen again in action until February, it almost seems like this recognition (not award) carries the same value as an actual trophy. And let’s not forget that, in that department, Kerr’s cabinet has been slim for a little while.

So, what is the point? Why do we put so much effort in analysing people’s seasons, stats, Instagram stories, trying to ascertain which one of those skilled women deserves to be named the best? The fact is, it matters mainly to the media, because they need something to write about, and the fans, because they sometimes need something to brag about. It certainly is a meager consolation for Reign FC, whose season was subpar and who got brushed aside by NC Courage in the semifinals of the NWSL championship, that Rapinoe was awarded the Ballon d’Or. Ask any FC Barcelona supporter, and they will tell you they’d rather not have collapsed at Anfield last year and won the UCL rather than witness Leo Messi score his 6th award.

Lucy Bronze came second for her third ‘award’ in a row. @lucybronze

Realistically, there is no way of proving that Sam Kerr, for example, is better than Lucy Bronze. There is also no point in comparing her to Sari Van Veenendaal, or Amandine Henry. Or even to Vivianne Miedema, despite the fact that they’re both strikers. Put Kerr on goals and Bronze at centre forward and Miedema as a holding midfielder, and you’ll see that this exercise of working out who is the best is comparing oranges to pears to watermelons. It is a matter of taste, mainly, to start with. Without the rest of the fruit bowl that their teammates bring, they would not be able to play their role. And you need all your players performing in order to get even the smallest of recognitions. Something that would be of interest to the stat geeks like me is that this year marks the first time Messi has won a Ballon d’Or since Xavi Hernandez, one of his long time associates, left FC Barcelona. It’s been 4 years. Maybe without that piece of the equation, Messi could not perform at his highest potential.

The role of luck

Let’s imagine for a second that all the strikers in the top 10 are in fact equally skilled and gifted. That they are just as good as each other in the same way, which is of course impossible. But let’s pretend that they are. Kerr, Rapinoe, Hegerberg, Miedema, Harder, Le Sommer. Let’s also pretend that they played a similar amount of games, and we were trying to figure out who was the best of them. They are all strikers after all. A massive factor in telling them apart in this scenario does not even depend on them: luck. Luck of being born in a certain country. Luck of playing in a league with certain amount of following. Luck of playing in a team with certain teammates.

Sam Kerr plays the role of the lone striker, or most advanced forward, in the teams she plays for. Teams that she is part of tend to play to her strengths: speed, anticipation, and jumping prowess. A lot of the play is structured towards her finishing, given that she has traditionally played in squads where she was the most talented played by some distance. This means that she has benefited by scoring goals, but has not perhaps had the supporting cast required to take their team to the next level. She is the captain of the national team, and additional responsibilites (and the spotlight) have been placed on her. She has also played for quite some time in leagues where the TV coverage and fan following is next to none.

Ada Hegerberg is the UWCL all time top scorer at age 24. @AdaStolsmo

Ada Hegerberg plays the finishing striker role: reading the play, strength, toe-poking, find-the-net-no-matter-what. She has played for several years in a team where she is not the sole star, and the talent behind her in the field has greatly contributed to maximising her output. The ball will come to her, without her having to go looking for it. Given the ability of her teammates, the play does not need to go through her for goals to be scored. Being part of this organisation has meant silverware of the highest level at club level for Hegerberg. She had the bravery to quit her national team over an equal pay dispute, and we will never know where Norway could have gone with her on the side. Her decision to focus on her club career means she has had less chances to play in international matches with wider impact.

Vivianne Miedema plays a creative-midfielder-turned-striker role with deadly precision, both in finding the net and her teammates. She leads the line for her club, but is surrounded with quality midfielders and wingers that share responsibility, and provide her with the ball – but it is not unusual for her to fetch the ball. Her situation is similar in the national team, where, if possible, the quality of her associates is even higher than at club level. She is the finisher, but everyone around her can and will score. Regardless of this, she is the top scorer for the Netherlands in history at age 23. She took a UWCL hiatus whilst Arsenal battled to qualify again, but has participated in big stage games with the national team.

Pernille Harder is a striker normally playing behind or in support of the centre forward, where she can exploit her qualities: play-reading, positioning, and finishing. She plays in a team with a highly skilled, evenly matched support cast who are used to winning the domestic competitions. She finds herself at the end of many plays in a team that can produce a ridiculous amount of goal chances. She is the captain of a national team where she is less supported, making her contribution the more important. Competing at international level is harder for a smaller country, and whilst Denmark made it to the final of WEURO 2017, the failed to qualify for the WWC. With Wolfsburg having been unsuccessful in winning the UWCL over the last few years, the reach of her exposure has been limited to German audiences in 2019.

Pernille Harder had a less prolific year than in 2018 – yet finished as top scorer in the UWCL. @pharder10

Megan Rapinoe works more as a winger than an actual striker. Her game is based on providing assists and taking over set piece situations, be corners, free kicks, and of course penalties, which helps her statistics. She has been around for longer than the rest and consequently can now mainly focus on her national team career. She plays alongside very talented and incredibly fit teammates, who would be the key player of any other national team in the world. She has benefited from a sporting structure that favoured the ‘creation’ of women’s football talents in her home country. She is therefore more likely to participate in big stage games and win international trophies with those teammates. The quality of those teammates means that any of them can decide the game, and therefore make it more difficult to opposing teams to target Rapinoe specifically.

Eugenie Le Sommer has also been around for some time. She plays her club football for the most decorated team in Europe in recent years, and she is the second fiddle to the 2018 Ballon d’Or. This means there is less pressure to score, but a similar expectation to win. She therefore also features in big stage games at club level. For the national team, she has been one of the main strikers for a while, although the pressure of younger generations might push Le Sommer to an off-the-bench role in the upcoming years.

Therefore, are they in equal situations when being considered for this type of awards? Certainly not. The role of luck cannot be dismissed in this scenario: and we haven’t even considered other players who are not strikers and are in the top 10, like Bronze or Renard, or even those even further down the ladder, like goalkeeper Van Veenendaal. How good those players are (or will become in the future) has a lot to do with the environment they find themselves in. And how good they are perceived to be depends a lot on what league they play in and what national team they happen to be selectable for. Which leads me to my next point, TV exposure.

[Part 2 coming soon]