Remember when Rose Lavelle was in the NWSL 2019 best XI (and even her mum wasn’t having it?) or when the IFFHS continued to think putting out lists [for the women’s game as they do the men’s] without the help of anyone covering women’s football was a good idea? Or maybe, literally any other damn award or top ten women’s football list? It’s awards season and I’m raging again, and yeah, it’s hard to get these things right but it’s also easy not to get them so wrong…
Too much football
Look, in any given calendar year I know there is a lot of women’s football going on and as the sport continues to grow, more leagues will pop up, getting bigger and better, and soon enough the hope of being able to watch them all will completely fade.
Even if you devote yourself 100% to consuming women’s football, at some point you have to sleep. As someone who travels around Europe watching matches, I’ve consistently struggled with the W-League as I’m usually on a coach coming back from wherever when the matches are on, or I’ve sacrificed watching west-coast NWSL games so I can get two hours of sleep before leaving for a match. Matches happen simultaneously and if you’re at one in person, it’s near impossible to try and follow several others at the same time, especially if you’re attempting to keep eyes on five leagues with simultaneous kick-offs. What I’m saying is, being well informed in woso is hard and exhausting.
You have to pick your leagues. Availability of streams or just reputable information is paramount in this decision. When Toppserien only became available for those in Norway, I put it to the bottom of my list of matches I could watch live, just like I’ve never managed to sink my teeth into the Chinese Women’s Super League. NWSL used to be a breeze to watch on the website, but the new television deals – unquestionably a positive step forward for women’s football overall - have left those without an ESPN and/or BTSport subscription empty-handed. So, matches and even leagues fall by the wayside, and many revert to watching highlights and attempting to glean what they can from results and statistics – something largely hit and miss in women’s leagues across the world – tipping the scales further in favour of attackers with quantifiable goals.
Top 50, top 100... let’s go nuts, why not top 500
In 2016 I helped put together a Top 50 for the year with a small group of other writers. By 2017 I’d taken over the job and expanded it to a Top 100. The task started with an Excel document in January, something to do between matches and interviews at a pre-season La Manga training camp. Over the year the spreadsheet grew and grew, then it became a process of trimming the considerable fat and looking for some degree of ranking system. Players were triplicated: where they ranked for their club, for their national team and by position. Player X might have been the best for her club over the 12 months but she wasn’t anywhere near the best in her position, even just in her league, let alone the world over.
The headaches began in earnest. When I looked back at the previous year’s list, I found numerous issues with it and realised so very many players just weren’t include. A top 50 allowed for a few surprise names but largely it was still lip-service. The solution was to double it, giving more players – who would too oft be left off – their dues. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a purist and I was always about trying to correctly assess players and rank them by on the pitch performances accordingly, but I’ve always been a person keen to give credit where it’s due.
Being the orchestrator of these Top 100s gave me an added appreciation for how hard it is to put them together. It’s a thankless job and Jesus, stay away from the comments. It brings up so many questions about quantification, about why you’re ranking the best centreback in the world over or under the best goalkeeper or the best winger.
And who is the best centreback in the world? The kneejerk response now cultivated by reputation may be Wendie Renard (who this calendar year has been a long way below Lyon and France teammate, Griedge Mbock) or Becky Sauerbrunn (although Abby Dahlkemper should rank higher) or Steph Houghton (again, the plaudit in England for 2019 should go to Leah Williamson). Yet they are the names you see every year, they are the names that become very easy to remember, the names that the captain from the Cook Islands or Nicaragua’s head coach might vote for. For three years out of every four, there is a major women’s football tournament that skews the already wonky top ten and individual award lists, but as we saw with Carli Lloyd’s FIFA Best win in 2016, reputation will always weight heavy.
As I’ve said before, it’s hard enough for those who cover women’s football to actually watch football from around the world, let alone those who play it (especially on a part-time basis). So, it’s of little surprise that when the coach and captain votes for the FIFA Best awards come out, they’re so questionable. Again, there is no simple solution that would placate the masses.
Speaking to various journalists in the last month, it’s clear that many still struggle to actually watch football from around the world. One has only seen Ada Hegerberg once this year – at the Champions League final – but she would rank high up their list. Another, based outside Germany, had seen neither Pernille Harder or Ewa Pajor as neither were at the World Cup and consequently, they weren’t sure where the Wolfsburg duo would rank in the world.
I have been told that the lack of tournaments in 2018 was what allowed Ada Hegerberg to finally be recognised on the world stage but my response to that is a terse, but she wasn’t the best player in the world in 2018. Through her incredible goalscoring and unwavering bravery in taking on the NFF, the poster girl for Norwegian football became something much more, but some awards are supposed to be about football merit, aren’t they? Not that Hegerberg was particularly bad last year, but whilst still being world class, she wasn’t the best in the world.
Megan Rapinoe had an important World Cup, but for anyone who watched her performances – not just her goals – she was below her own lofty standards. She was struggling with an injury and it showed, she lacked her characteristic effervescence on the pitch. Again, she wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but she arguably wasn’t the best player at the tournament. Her goals mostly came from 12 yards – and whilst there is no disputing that she displayed an incredible temperament to step up and bury every penalty under extreme pressure, it’s not enough to call her the best player in the world. I often wonder what would have happened if the video of her, filmed at the start of the year, that surfaced and went viral just before the World Cup, had never come out.
There is something to be said for looking at the shortlist for the FIFA Best award and thinking, “If it has to be one of these, at least Pinoe will say something important with the airtime.” Whatever happened to a football award being for footballing excellence?
I’m aware this looks like a rant against Pinoe, but damn, I know she’s world class alright? I know she’s got bucketloads of individual talent and it is going to suck for the US women’s national team and NWSL when she retires, but this one year? The best American player? The best in NWSL? How about we start with Julie Ertz? A player who had an exceptional World Cup playing a vital role for the US before returning to the Red Stars to be one of the most important on the pitch for the Shield and Championship runners-up? Or Dahlkemper who has had a sensational year, or… you get it.
What I’m trying to say is putting together any kind of top 10, top 50 or top 100 list trying to pick out who has been the best player of the year – or at least, who most can agree on – whilst trying to strike the right balance with weight to put on major tournaments against league performance? It’s tough and it requires a huge amount of time and effort and a group of people who can dedicate themselves to the cause.
However, after years of similar awards for male players having left most with the same rising bile and frustrations of popularity and reputation playing a part – even with the ridiculous available access to the men’s game – we might just have to concede that there is little hope for the women’s game either. The Ballon d’Or will forever be a coin toss between Messi and Ronaldo, even long after both are retired, just as similar problems will pervade into top 10s, 50s and 100s. If we can’t agree that *Sam Miedema has been the best striker of the year, how will we ever agree that the fourth best striker should, or could, rank below the best goalkeeper?
*touches hand to earpiece* what’s that? Marta has just won the FIFA Best for 2027...