Replying to Steve Wozniak’s question as to what does he do given that he can’t write code, Steve Jobs is known to have replied, at least in a reel-life version, that while a musician plays an instrument, he plays the orchestra.
It is only when someone does that — play the orchestra, that is — does a football team look like it is performing a symphony in studs. And when that happens consistently in a World Cup, that man usually wins the Golden Ball.
In the preface to Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli describes the deep-lying playmaker as “a player who sends out a positive message with every touch he takes.”
Pirlo’s luck with awards isn’t great, he lost to Zinedine Zidane in 2006, but every player adjudged best in a World Cup typifies what Prandelli said about him.
The Golden Ball is given to the most influential player of a World Cup. From 1982, a shortlist is drawn up by the FIFA Technical Committee and the winner is chosen by votes from journalists accredited for that World Cup.
Scan the list and you will see that barring defender Jose Nasazzi (1930) and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn (2002), every winner has been an advanced playmaker or an inside forward or a centreforward. Maybe, it has everything to do with creating and scoring a goal, the latter being such an elusive thing in football.
GOLDEN BALL PLAYERS
Since 1982, the competition’s best player is awarded the Golden Ball. In the editions before Spain, the award wasn’t branded such, but the FIFA Technical Study Group still used to name the best three players of a World Cup. Here are some of the best
His goals helped Brazil win the Cup but it was some of his wizardry that won hearts. Fittingly, it was his pass that fetched the last goal of the final against Italy. That eight players were involved in that Carlos Alberto strike showed what an array of stars Brazil had lined up in Mexico.
The only match Holland lost between 1970 and 1974 was the World Cup final to West Germany. He had the most dribbles (34), made the most passes in the front third (136) and showed the Cruyff Turn. After teaching Brazil a lesson in football, he won a penalty that put Holland ahead in the final.
Not since Garrincha in 1962 did one man rule a World Cup thus. From the ‘Hand of God’ to a left-foot that only God could have, he made the tournament his own! His slalom felled England and Belgium before he conjured that assist in final after West Germany rallied from 0-2 down.
When he floated in the penalty over Gigi Buffon in the final, you almost saw ‘Zizou’ lighting up Arc de Triomphe again. He helped beat Spain, tamed Brazil and sent Luis Figo’s Portugal home. So, even after that head butt, the Golden Ball was his.
From a solo goal against Bosnia and Herzegovina to the assist that took Argentina into the semi-finals, Messi won four Man-of-the-Match awards and came within inches of scoring in the second half of the final. Football can be very cruel sometimes.
Photos: GETTY IMAGES/AFP
And the Golden Ball winner is usually a complete player, one who is comfortable on both feet, heads well (or, in the case of Diego Maradona shows he is doing that) and is good with dead-ball situations.
This is how Zizinho, adjudged best player in the 1950 World Cup, was described. As a rule they adhere to the saying: “Don’t be afraid of being different…Be afraid of being the same as everyone else.”
The winner of the Golden Ball is usually someone the Italians call ‘fantastista’ or playmaker. He has a deep understanding of the game, knows how to weigh passes —- think of the ball released by Maradona for the final goal of the 1986 World Cup — can think out of the box — there cannot be a better example of this than Maradona’s second goal against England, really — and has superb control.
Such as Zidane chesting a ball, taking it on his thigh and then essaying a pass; all the while with Ronaldo on his shoulder in the 2006 quarter-final between France and Brazil.
Yes, there have been others like Paolo Rossi and Salvatore Schillaci who have played ‘fox-in-the box’ roles but maybe that is because goals are everything in the beautiful game.
Had Rossi not regained his touch against Brazil would the Golden Ball been a down-to-the-wire fight between Socrates, Zico, Falcao or Michel Platini?
So it fits that the odds are shortest on Lionel Messi and Neymar to win the Golden Ball in the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia. Because they can, as Pirlo has said: “take the ball, give it to a teammate, teammate scores. It is called an assist and it is my way of spreading happiness.” And they can also score goals.