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Magic in the Detail: The Ballon d’Or

A Tale of Ballon d’Or Evolution, Lionel Messi, Trebles and Some Big Numbers

By: David Wall

Lionel Messi doesn’t score many headers.

In fact, only four of his 129 goals in the UEFA Champions League came by way of his head. The first was the most memorable – a glancing effort by the 170 cms genius from a cross by another 170 cms wizard, Xavi, in the final of the 2009 edition. 2-0 v Manchester United. Messi and Barcelona had won their first Champions League trophy together.

It was also the clincher for Messi’s first Ballon d’Or. The first of eight, a record in the history of the award, capped by his most recent in 2023.

The Ballon d’Or was created by the France Football magazine in the 1950s to crown the best European male footballer. Blackpool’s Stanley Matthews was the first recipient, whilst other luminaries included Alfredo Di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. The rules evolved in 1995, opening up the award to non-European players.

It is the most prestigious individual football trophy in the world and its prestige (and accompanying media coverage) shines brighter than ever.

One of the interesting differences between Messi’s first and last (for now) Ballon d’Or was the way France Football illustrated his performances in both editions, each time using increasingly detailed Opta data and insights.

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In 2009, France Football dedicated an Opta-powered double-page spread to the number 10’s exploits with Barcelona – he had led the Catalans to the treble (Liga, Copa del Rey, UCL), a feat unmatched before or since by any other Spanish team.

Fast forward to 2023, Opta once again helped France Football illustrate Messi’s accomplishments, this time with a double page infographic focusing heavily on the Argentinean’s World Cup triumph.

Reading the 2009 and 2023 stories tells us about how data consumption in the media sphere has evolved, whilst retaining certain key fundamentals.

The evolutions include Opta’s “Expected” metrics (like Expected Goals and Expected Assists), as well as the merging of event and tracking data to illuminate brand new levels of detail, and eye-catching visualisations.

As for the permanence: goals and assists are still a pretty reliable currency and so is marvelling at extraordinary performances through the prism of curated data and insights.

The 2009 to 2023 comparison also shows how “data speak” has ingrained itself into the mainstream football lexicon. Take visualisations and passing networks: the 2009 spread showcased touch and passing direction maps, how the interaction between Messi-Xavi-Dani Alves was key to the team’s dynamic. Novelty then, common parlance now.

In 2009, we were still eight years away from seeing Expected Goals used by the BBC on ‘Match Of The Day’. Seeing it featured prominently within the 2023 Ballon d’Or France Football infographic is testament to how new models have allowed us to tell better stories, moving from the quantitative (number of shots, passes, tackles) to the qualitative (grading the quality of a chance and finishing, difficulty of a pass, etc). At age 35, Messi was still outperforming his xG, combining a mix of goals from the six-yard box and long-range efforts. He was also top for Expected Assists in the Big 5 European leagues, his creativity undiminished.

The other major change between 2009 and now is the creation of the Women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018. The introduction of the trophy is reflective of how far the women’s game has come in the last 10 years, both in terms of visibility and data availability.

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Aitana Bonmatí achieved a treble of her own in 2023 – she won the league title and the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona and the FIFA World Cup with Spain before crowning her year with the Women’s Ballon d’Or. Besides the Catalan parallels, Messi and Bonmatí were united in making those all important differences. In their respective World Cups, they may not have completed the most passes but when it came to the moments that mattered, Messi and Bonmatí were number one in breaking the opposition’s defensive lines.

The richness and granularity of data we capture at Opta is on par across the men’s and women’s game. Unavailable to us 14 years ago, we can now quantify qualitative concepts and bring a layer of nuance that opens up exciting opportunities towards more insightful analysis.

As the Ballon d’Or evolves once again next year with the UEFA partnership, there is one guiding principle that has not changed: data is pertinent when used expertly. Context, editing, timing: all are key factors in explaining why a stat works. It is also a basic principle of journalism. Lionel Dangoumau, chief editor of the L’Equipe group, said: “Since 2007, L’Equipe and France Football have used data provided by Opta to inform their readers. The contribution of statistics has allowed us to enrich our coverage of sport and football in particular.”

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On the Messi Ballon d’Or visuals, he went on to add: “Numbers sometimes speak better than words and today they are fully integrated into our editorial thinking, whether in substance or form, in particular through infographics, which have taken an increasing place on all our platforms.”

Messi’s headline numbers have never been a hard story to tell, but helping France Football find the magic in the detail of his performances means they can continue to memorialise his achievements to delight their readers in brand new, even-more compelling ways.

More About L’Equipe/France Football

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L’Equipe (L’Equipe newspaper, digital and TV + France Football) holds a special place in European football history – Jacques Ferran and Gabriel Hanot, journalists for the French sports newspaper were also the founding fathers of the European Cup in 1955, which blossomed into the behemoth that is now known as the UEFA Champions League.

Opta and the L’Equipe group have worked together for over 16 years across all platforms.

Throughout the partnership, Opta data played a hand in showcasing all eight of Messi’s Ballon d’Or.

Empowering Data-Driven Journalism

At the core of this enduring partnership is Opta’s rich repository of statistics and insights. Opta’s meticulous data collection and analysis have empowered L’Equipe’s journalists, editors, and content creators to weave intricate narratives and produce in-depth analyses that transcend mere match reports. Through Opta’s robust data, L’Equipe has brought to light the nuances of various sports, from football to rugby, tennis, and beyond, providing audiences with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the sports. 

Enhancing Fan Experience

The amalgamation of Opta’s data-driven approach with L’Equipe’s storytelling prowess has redefined the way fans engage with sports. The marriage of statistics and narrative has offered audiences an enriched experience, enabling them to delve deeper into player performances, tactical intricacies, and historical trends that shape the sports landscape. This comprehensive approach has not only enriched the quality of sports reporting but also amplified fan engagement and interaction.