Ballon d’Or, a state secret that must be kept to the end
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The New York Times translated a selection of its best articles for a French-speaking readership. Find them here.
This is the time of the year when Pascal Ferré receives calls that follow one another and are alike. We call him from all over the world. Someday he’s a team leader or club president. Often, he is an agent, charmer and inquisitor. He is even sometimes one of the most famous players on the planet, himself.
Whatever the interlocutors on the phone, they adopt more or less the same strategy with Ferré, a bearded and sympathetic man who is editor-in-chief of France Football, the prestigious football weekly. They start off by talking about everything and nothing and inquire about his health. Then they shift into high gear.
He asks her how preparations are going for the magazine’s annual gala, which announces the male and female winners of football’s most coveted individual award: the Ballon d’Or. Good very good. Voting is over? Everything went well ? Yes Yes. Ferré knows what will follow: people are all calling for the same reason. They dream of discovering the only chosen one that it is impossible for him to reveal.
Two details declare to what extent Ferré and his small team jealously defend the identity of the winners. First, Ferré is one of only two people, including in the monthly, to know who won. Then the second person, his right-hand man, is only told if something happens to him. “Imagine having an accident,” he says. “He still needs there to be a Ballon d’Or.”
Ferré is impossible to coax, he never lets a single name escape. “I’ve been in charge of the event for six years,” he says. “I’ve never made a mistake yet. All those thinly veiled attempts at flattery to elicit a response from him, running into the same silence. “I don’t like to lie,” he says. He knows who won. “I explain to them that I cannot give them names because the winners do not know, and that it would be unfair if they were not the first to know.
He waits as late as possible to put the lucky ones in the know. He planned to call the new winners this week, a few days before the gala at the Théâtre du Châtelet on November 29. And again, it is only for practical reasons: he is obliged to warn them, he explains, to be sure that they know how the ceremony will unfold.
This is where Pascal Ferré’s secret escapes him. Until the last moment, he is held to the strictest confidentiality, a regime of such severity that he himself recognizes that it can, from a certain point of view, border on “paranoia”.
The gala is being prepared throughout the year. But it is at the end of September that the real work begins. Ten members of the editorial staff of France Football are responsible for drawing up two lists: the 30 players and the 20 players who, according to them, must appear in the final selection. Once these names, all these small people submit in the premises of the magazine for what Ferré calls “a discussion” – a euphemism.
It goes without saying that many of these names have a clear majority. “For men, 20 or 22 players are obvious to everyone,” he says. “There are discussions about the last eight or 10. Meetings often last a long time, two or three hours, but everyone should be proud of the final selection. It’s not the boss’s list. And we try not to forget anyone. A few years ago, we realized that all of us had watched 1000 games, or more, in the year. Being on the list is no small feat.
Once a consensus has been reached, France Football sends the shortlist to a jury of over 170 journalists from around the world (and advertisers) beginning of October.
And it is from there that the veil of secrecy falls. The jurors – one per country – submit the five names they have chosen, in order of preference, to what Ferré calls a “private mail server”. Asked to clarify what he means by that, he hesitates: the system is so confidential that he refuses to disclose how it works, except to say that only he and his right arm have access to it. The other employees of France Football are kept in the dark.
“We are very careful,” he emphasizes. “The identity of the Ballon d’Or winner is a real secret. I think there is no equivalent in the world of sport. When suggested to him that the most obvious parallel the Oscars, he is dubious.
The responsibility that weighs on the shoulders of Ferré and his magazine is very heavy, but it is not out of arrogance on their part. The Ballon d’Or is serious business: they know exactly what the award means for the players. The day Pascal Ferré called Luka Modric, to tell him that he was the 2018 winner, the Croatian player “burst into tears like a kid”.
“For them it is Christmas”, – he. “In a team sport, this is the only opportunity that you have esteem as an individual.”
The prestige of this award only grows year after year. The primacy of the Golden Ball is a curious phenomenon. In 2010, the award merged with the official equivalent of FIFA, Best Footballer of the Year, to become the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
When this partnership ended in 2015 and FIFA replaced it with “The Best FIFA Football Awards” – an imaginative title if ever there was one – we would have expected the Ballon d’Or to lose a bit. of its luster.
On the contrary, the attractiveness of the Ballon d’Or has continued to grow. Kylian Mbappé himself recognized that it was “the ambition of any player who wants to be the best”. His teammate Paul Pogba clearly admitted a few years ago that it is a reward that “he lives”.
Even Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich striker who openly mocked France Football’s choices – “I don’t see why such and such a player finished in 50th position, another in 25th and another in 5th,” he said in 2017 – changed his mind.
A year ago, Lewandowski was the favorite to win the award before it was canceled – not without a hitch – due to COVID. Asked if he felt he deserved it, he replied, “What I have accomplished serves as an answer.” For me it would be very important to get it.
What justifies such respect is open to interpretation. Perhaps it is indicative of the sport’s growing tendency to showcase stars, rather than collective success, or to perceive players as brands.
Perhaps it is also the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to win the greatest number, a rivalry so intense that the Ballon d’Or is now a measure of their glory. “Ronaldo has only one ambition: to retire with more Ballons d’Or than Messi,” says Pascal Ferré. “I know because he told me.”
But for Ferré, the attractiveness of the price has a very simple explanation. Its aura is linked to its history. The Ballon d’Or dates from 1956. George Best won one. Franz Beckenbauer and Alfredo Di Stéfano got two each. Johan Cruyff won three. For Ferré, to have the Ballon d’Or is to enter the pantheon of sport.
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s just a trophy. But when we have it, we have our place in history. If you look at Messi and Ronaldo’s stats, you’ll see that they score a lot of goals in September and October, when it comes time to vote. It is no accident.
This is what is at stake as the fall progresses and the votes begin to drop. This is why so many players, agents and leaders are dying to know whether they themselves, or one of their players, has won. This is why the name of the chosen one is treated as a state secret until the last moment by the magazine Pascal Ferré et son. After all, you have to know how to be desired.
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