Who is the best player in the world? Don’t ask FIFA.


FIFA announced the final three for Best Women’s Player of the year today, leaving many people scratching their heads in bewilderment. The shortlist: Ada Hegerberg, Dzsenifer Marozsan, and Marta. That’s certainly three of the best players in the world over the past few years. But the best over the last twelve months?

It’s worth noting here just how difficult this task is. Comparing players is always tough, and the difficulty is compounded by the sheer breadth of the competition here. Can anyone reasonably watch the top players in five or ten leagues, follow whatever international competitions might exist in a given year, and then confidently assess the relative quality of all the players? It’s a lot to ask.

Still, when faced with a potentially impossible task like this, there are two ways you can approach it. The first is to work with humility, trying your best to distill the key features and seriously consider everyone’s case. You might not succeed, but at least you’re making the effort. The second is simply default to the big names.

Unfortunately, the system established by FIFA is heavily tilted toward the second approach. The initial longlist of ten names didn’t include any glaring mistakes this time (unlike in some previous years), but the final three are tough to justify.

Marta has a credible argument as the greatest player of all time, and is still playing at a high level. But the period covered by this award (July to July) covers only a few months of top performances from her (the end of the 2017 NWSL season). She remains a great player, but hardly one of the top three in the world. Meanwhile, Marozsan and Hegerberg are undoubtedly among the finest players of this generation. And in a year without any major international tournaments, it’s understandable that the most successful club team (Olympique Lyonnais) would dominate the results. But were these two really the best Lyon players this year? I know plenty of people who follow the team closely that would point to Amandine Henry, for example.

Still, the issue isn’t really that these three specifically were selected. They’re all still very good, and you could at least plausibly build an argument for them being among the finalists. The problem isn’t who was included, then, it’s who didn’t make the cut. Specifically: Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder.

This isn’t the first time for Kerr, who was many analysts pick for the best player last year, but received very little support in the vote. And if anything, her form has actually improved in this cycle. She was a force of nature to close out the 2017 NWSL campaign, form which has continued into 2018. Moreover, she’s dominated for Australia as they have cemented their position as one of the world’s best teams. Compare that to Hegerberg and Marozsan, who are key players on teams that have significantly underachieved over this period.

Meanwhile, Pernille Harder has cemented her place as one of the world’s top players. After an incandescent Euro 2017, she has continued at the top level for both club and country, something that was recently acknowledged as she won the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year award just a few days ago.

Now, these are different electorates, and people are of course permitted differences of opinion. But it is a little puzzling to see Harder take the first trophy, only to then fall behind several of those she had just surpassed when it came time for FIFA balloting.

FIFA does deserve credit for organizing a process that produced a viable longlist. But the way that list gets cut down to three names is clearly broken, at least if the objective is to determine who was in fact ‘the best.’ The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the objective, or at least not the only objective. The electorate for this stage, after all, is comprised of coaches and captains around the world, who receive the task as part of a broad-based effort to register everyone’s opinion, not because of any particular knowledge or expertise.

This is an issue even on the men’s side, where most countries have relatively stable infrastructures, and where the world’s best players are all instantly available to anyone with an internet connection. Even under those conditions, the awards tend to be handed out based more on name recognition than any fine-grained assessment of performance in the designated period. Messi and Ronaldo are great, of course, but the pair of them trading the title for a decade is at least somewhat dubious.

But on the women’s side, it’s far worse. Outside of the top twenty or thirty national teams in the world, the infrastructure is bare at best. The captains and coaches are rarely full-time professionals able to devote all their time to the game. So it’s more than understandable that they would look for easy heuristics to narrow the range of choices. That’s not a full excuse, since it would be hard to consult many sources and not realize that Kerr and Harder were widely regarded as the top candidates, but it’s worth noting.

But this is the problem with FIFA. As an organization, it pays lip service to the idea of equality—granting a vote to everyone—while doing very little to actually grow the game. If FIFA was genuinely committed to expanding access to women’s soccer around the globe, it would be a lot easier to swallow this voting system. But since they aren’t, it comes off as hollow. And every year, we get a new round of complaints about misinformed or uninterested voters.

I don’t see an obvious solution. Narrowing the voting pool might produce objectively better results, but can’t resolve the underlying issues. Would it be worth it to ensure that the top players get their just rewards? Maybe. But in the meantime, the best we can do is call it like we see it. And for me, Sam Kerr has been the best in the world for the better part of two years. That’s true regardless of whether the FIFA voters happen to agree.

Image courtesy of Cori Goates
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