From a year-long endeavour to collate and organise the best players across the world to frustrations with the same nonsense shortlists from end of season/year awards, I will continue to beat the same tired drum as I ask for more.
Most years start in the same way for me, with a blank Microsoft Excel document. Each major league gets a column, some of the lesser ones combined alongside before a handful for national teams. Over the course of the next 11+ months, the cells will be filled with players that have impressed and come the end of the year the names get sorted. Players get arranged by league and position, contextually getting ranked in the filing.
It’s a long, boring job and causes headaches across the board. Player X might have excelled in a weak team at a major tournament but disappeared at her club, so her form across the 12 months is in taken into account. Just as Player Y, a defender who shone every time she took to the pitch will have to be ranked against Player C, an equally impressive attacker.
How do you fully compare two players whose roles are so intrinsically different? And how do you weight one league against another; a world class player in a semi-professional environment is still a world class player.
Like I said, it’s a headache and by December, trying to remember the minutiae of each of January’s matches no longer sparks joy.
Over the years, I’ve been involved in compiling lists of the best players of the year, a task and a half for the simple fact that I don’t have eyes on each and every league in the world. In men’s football, amateur players who are good enough will be scouted and make their way into the professional world. Yet, across the women’s game, amateur and semi-professionality is still the norm’ leading to some of the best players being left off of the reckoning, undetectable by the mainstream radar.
Even as a person who holds their hands up and admits their knowledge of domestic football within CONMEBOL and CAF countries is subpar (and let’s not mention OFC), the simple fact is, I am but one person. I have only my opinions and systems for evaluating players and tend to lean on my gut more than statistics which probably goes some way to explaining why I feel the need to ingest as much football as I do.
Over the years I’ve bitched and moaned about the shortlists that have been drawn up for the best players of the year, be it from FIFA, UEFA, France Football or Karen who lives down the road. Even for the awards that endeavour to use current and former players, it becomes all too easy to see who has and who has not watched much domestic football that year, or what leagues they have consumed.
As for awards that use one panel of judges for both? Well, let’s just say it’s not a good look if someone tweets out asking for advice on who to vote for.
Every year I tell myself not to let such awards get under my skin, not to get frustrated by the same names being trotted out regardless of current form. I remind myself the majority of such awards are little more than popularity contests and have little to do with ability or a nuanced understanding of what’s happened across the world of women’s football that year. Yet I find myself getting drawn in, each and every year, out of simple frustration for the players who deserve to be recognised for their contributions.
The 2020 and 2021 problems
In a year that had seen football fractured and disrupted, halted and abandoned by a pandemic, I was asking myself one frustrating question: how many starts is enough?
How could a person evaluate Julie Ertz’ contributions in 2020 when her contributions for the calendar year were six NWSL Challenge Cup starts (a competition that comes with its own caveat) and seven for the USWNT? Even those seven are split between three [friendly] She Believes Cup matches, and four [competitive] Olympic qualifiers that included matches against Haiti and Costa Rica. Ertz is one of the best players in the world, that’s a statement that belongs in fact rather than opinion, but how can you appraise her 2020 against someone like Pernille Harder, who had 26 starts for club and country?
The return to a degree of normalcy this calendar year, or at least football that has been less disrupted by COVID-19, has again thrown up all the same issues we’ve seen in the past, especially in tournament years. We once again get to muddle over the question of how to quantify three good weeks of football over the summer when a player had barely done much of note for the seasons on either side of their summer silverware. Or worst still, of finding a nice way of saying that a player hadn’t even played that well at a tournament but had scored or assisted an important goal or two and that shouldn’t be enough to catapult them into the world’s top 20 after an otherwise pedestrian year. The Olympic skew on shortlists this year, is painfully palpable.
There is no simple answer for ranking and rating the entire women’s football world, no list will be perfect. By and large, it will be fans who make noise about the issues they have, as they do for any weekly, monthly and seasonal awards, everyone ready to storm the stage and tell you that actually, Player X had one of the best videos of all time.
Even as I take part in such lists, as a neutral rather than a fan, I remind the world that they are deeply imperfect and, as it stands, the best thing is to just get those who follow and report on individual leagues to put out teams of the season in an attempt to divert the praise where it is due.
The women’s football world is already so small, awards for popularity and past notoriety do little to shine the light on those who deserve it.