The addition of the Ballon d’Or Feminin in 2018 was a high point for women’s soccer. It could have come a lot earlier with the men’s version running since the 1960’s, when it was created by magazine France Football, but it was finally a recognition that the top women’s players in the world deserved to be celebrated alongside their male colleagues.
The perceived equal footing also gave the women a massive boost in visibility. To have these players stand beside Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and other top names in the men’s game introduces them to a new cohort of people, along with the kind of career and commercial opportunities that have never been abundant.
Monday’s winner, Barcelona Femeni and Spain midfielder Alexia Putellas, was crowned after a dominant season that saw the Spanish club win the domestic league/cup double and then their first-ever Champions League prize. It was also the first Ballon d’Or honor for a Spain international (male or female) since 1960, yet since the award’s introduction, the prize has been marred in controversies, several of which were the fault of its organizers.
First, they had to apologise to Ada Hegerberg — the first-ever winner of the Ballon d’Or Feminin — when she was asked by DJ Martin Solveig to twerk on stage after receiving her trophy. Then there’s the fact that the women’s long-list is just 20 players while the men’s is 30. If they were truly seen as equal awards, this number would be the same. There were also rumblings of it being a popularity vote when Megan Rapinoe won it in 2019 but, considering the voting system in place, this one is hard to prove.
The initial list is compiled by the France Football team before it is turned over to a panel of journalists, who are asked to vote based on three categories: collective performances (winners) during the year, player class (talent and fair play) and overall judgment of the player’s career. While Rapinoe won the Women’s World Cup and Golden Boot in 2019, there was a criticism that her Ballon d’Or win was not based on stats, with three of her national team goals coming from penalties and questions over her club record. In 2019, she played just six times for her club, amassing 422 minutes out of over a possible 2,000. She also wasn’t involved in any goals.
Perhaps the most egregious fault from the award’s organizers, however, comes with this year’s scheduling of the awards right in the middle of a Women’s World Cup qualifying window, which means many of the 20 women nominated were unable to attend.
Of the 20 players nominated, only six attended the ceremony with Barcelona confirming on Friday that their five nominees would be present as a thanks for their Treble-winning season. Canada‘s Ashley Lawrence, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, also attended. The Spanish club posted a statement on Friday saying that they were going to ensure their players could attend as a thanks for their Treble-winning season. Lieke Martens is one of those Barca players and should be playing in a friendly against Japan, which kicks off at the same time as Monday’s ceremony.
While it is a friendly and not a qualifier, which likely swayed their decisions, it’s unfair that they had to choose between playing with their national side and attending the ceremony, especially in a year that sees teams like the Netherlands preparing for the Euros in England next summer, as well as the next set of 2023 World Cup qualifiers in April. ESPN reached out to several players for comment, but received no responses ahead of Monday’s ceremony.
The rest of the nominees are largely unavailable. Paris Saint-Germain’s Christiane Endler will be in Brazil as she captains Chile, while Canada’s Olympic gold medal winners, Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming, are in Mexico. Australia’s Sam Kerr, a Golden Boot winner across several continents, is back home playing against the United States. These are just a few examples, with all the Europe-based nominees also due to be playing games across the continent on Tuesday.
The Ballon d’Or ceremony may be one of the glitziest events in the football calendar, but it’s not ideal pre-match preparation for what are important qualifiers ahead of the 2023 World Cup. By holding the ceremony during one of the most crucial weeks in women’s football, the organisers are once again showing a disregard for the women’s game. This is supposed to be the top prize in the game yet many of those nominated aren’t given the opportunity to attend. What does that say about the regard in which the award is held?
Then there was the handing over of the award itself. PSG’s Kylian Mbappe was chosen to give the prize to the winner, and it could have been a clever move from organisers to take one of the world’s biggest sports superstars and have him cast some of the spotlight over the women’s game. They could have asked him about his club-mates, who won the women’s league for the first time last season, or even have a discussion about the women’s European Championship next summer, in which France will be competing. Instead the time leading up to the women’s award was spent asking Mbappe about his own nomination for the men’s prize and his possible involvement in the Paris 2024 Olympics. At a moment when all eyes should have been on the top women’s players in the world, they were once again in the shadows.
By launching the Ballon d’Or Feminin 62 years after the men’s award, you would expect the organisers would have many years of scheduling experience behind them. There are few excuses for being set in old ways or tradition when this trophy has been awarded just three times.
It is also unfortunate for the ceremony itself. Names like Hegerberg and Kerr are globally recognised and followed by millions. A new, younger generation would be tuning in to see which of their favourite players won the award. It’s a missed opportunity from all sides.
The importance of this award being created in 2018 cannot be understated, and while it has highlighted the great players in the women’s game, it has also highlighted the barriers that still exist.