A case for abolishing polls for rankings

IF Luis Figo is really the best player in the world, as the FIFA poll among the game's international managers proclaims, how come he is so far down the scale in the France Football European Footballer of the Year awards? By the same token, if Michael Owen is currently, according to that same poll, the finest player in Europe, why does he not rank higher in the rankings of the FIFA national managers?

Since the results of the two polls were announced almost concurrently; the huge disparity between them became all the more obvious. Raising such questions as, do managers know more or less than journalists? Sometimes, as a journalist, listening to managers, especially in the Press Conferences after a match, or looking at some of their odd selections, I am given to wondering?

For many years, I cast the English vote in the France Football poll myself, so I do have some insight into how the thing works; and I've never been entirely happy. Not least because it has long seemed to me that judgements tend to be made on the basis of major competitions. Excel in a World Cup final tournament, in the finals of the European Championship, or the final of a European Cup and you are in with a very good chance indeed. Yet closer scrutiny might favour a player who has done none of those things.

It may on the other hand be that a single match is decisive which according to statements made after the European award seems certainly to have been the case with Michael Owen. He was in devastating vein in Munich, when his fine anticipation and glorious pace routed a fragile and eventually demoralised German defence, giving him a hat-trick and England a wholly unexpected 5-1 victory.

A dazzling display indeed, which was surely more instrumental in his award than his goals against Arsenal in Cardiff in the FA Cup final, or against Alaves in the final of the UEFA Cup.

I'd take nothing away from the dazzling little Owen, the first Englishman to take the European title since the very different Kevin Keegan took it twice so long ago. Owen is not only a hugely talented player quite capable even as a teenager of excelling in the World Cup finals of 1998 but indeed a valuable role model off the field at a time when so many British footballers have been disgracing themselves with their appalling behaviour. Yet let me put a question: is Owen a better player than Andrei Shevchenko?

Comparisons as we know are odious, yet who that saw it can forget the astounding solo goal which the Ukrainian striker scored at San Siro for Milan just before the voting in both polls was announced? He went past man after man, before finally scoring with a Marco van Basten type shot from far out on the right at a difficult angle. I believe that Shevchenko is quite one of the best players in the world, yet the number of votes he acquired in both polls was negligible. The problem presumably being that Milan had won nothing and above all that Ukraine had been humiliated in the World Cup qualifiers, finishing behind both Poland and Belarus.

And Figo? The truth is that he did not have an especially remarkable year for Real Madrid or Portugal in 2001; almost certainly not as impressive as in 2000, when he was a major figure in the Euro 2000 finals. His transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid was fabulously expensive, but he has yet to strike consistently excellent form for his Spanish club. Figo for the FIFA managers was worth 250 points. Behind him came Manchester United and England's David Beckham with a whopping 238 points. Then a great plunge down the pointage with Spain's Raul limping in third on 96 points. Owen came eighth with just 61 points.

But in Europe, Owen came tops with 176 points, 36 ahead of Raul. Figo could do no better than sixth with only 56 points. How can such figures conceivably be reconciled?

Beckham in the European poll was fourth with 102 votes, honourable enough. Yet I still find it hard to understand why a player basically so limited, however effective, can be so adulated. Yet again one must emphasise, as indeed his Manchester United predecessor George Best has somewhat acidly done, that he has no real pace, finds it hard to beat a man, so that he seldom can get to the goal line in the traditional style of the winger, and relie on a superb right foot, equally useful for crossing the ball accurately from long distance, banging in ferocious free kicks, or cracking in shots from open play. All of which make him a most valuable player, as England have seen in recent games when that right foot one way or another has saved them, but hardly a mega star. I suppose you can put it down to the zeitgeist, the German word which means the prevailing spirit of the times.

There is probably a case for abolishing polls of any kind, whether they refer to footballers, films or writers. They will always be contentious, and always subject to the whims of the younger generation of the time. Fans for example for whom the name of the incomparable Alfredo Di Stefano, grand master of the Real Madrid team which won all five of the first European Cups, will have no true significance. Besides, football changes so much across the years that comparisons have scant validity. Would Dixie Dean of Everton, scorer of 60 goals in a season, (1927/28) have done as well in the 20s and 30s had keepers come off their line?