Barcelona star Lionel Messi won his sixth Ballon d’Or by a historically small margin over Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk. Messi received 686 points to Van Dijk’s 679, a difference that could have been flipped by a single ballot.
The Ballon d’Or voting works as follows: each country has one ballot decided by (almost always one) journalist, in which players are ranked one through five. Players receive six points for being ranked first, four points for second, three points for third, two points for fourth, and one point for fifth. Because the gap was only seven points, a single voter could have flipped the result, as he or she could have added up to six points for Van Dijk while simultaneously subtracting up to six points for Messi. To give but one example, Francisco Antonio Rivas of Honduras gave Messi six points and Van Dijk none. He could have flipped the entire result by awarding Messi zero points and Van Dijk just two, just to name a scenario.
The most curious thing is that Messi had lost a similar contest earlier this year. While he had won FIFA’s The Best award, he did so due to votes from national team coaches and captains. He lost the media portion of that award, which operates under similar rules, by a decently substantial margin. The Best only allows journalists to rank players one through three, rather than one through five. Still, if the Ballon d’Or scoring system was applied to The Best’s media vote, Van Dijk would have won by 102 points. What changed?
177 journalists from 176 countries voted in the Ballon d’Or. This is because one country, Bulgaria, allows two journalists to submit a combined ballot. However, their ballot only counts as one ballot and thus there are still only 176 ballots. Of these 177 journalists, 171 are men, while only 6 are women. In addition, it is notable that 28 journalists who voted in the Ballon d’Or also previously voted in this year’s The Best award. The remaining 149 did not vote in The Best.
Some of these 28 repeat voters changed their minds and rearranged their ballots from The Best, which was awarded in September. However, all ballots had to change at least a little simply because the Ballon d’Or asks voters to list five players. All in all, these adjustments were positive for Messi. He gained 26 points from them. However, Virgil Van Dijk gained nearly as much - 23 points. Juventus’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who was third for the Ballon d’Or, actually lost a net of 5 points. This three point difference is very little, but again, when the contest was decided by seven points, it is notable.
However, the original margin was 102 points. The bulk of that was simply non-repeat voters having very different preferences than the original The Best voters. Most non-repeat voters were journalists from the same countries as The Best, however, a few countries who were in The Best did not have submitted ballots for the Ballon d’Or and vice versa.
Interestingly, if we look at the Ballon d’Or voting, Messi would have still lost if we only considered journalists’ choices between one and three. Considering points from being ranked one through three, Messi would have lost to Van Dijk by 12 points. That’s still a deficit, but a marked improvement from a 102 point loss.
Van Dijk was chosen first by 69 countries, while Messi got 61 such votes and Ronaldo 17. Messi was chosen second by 48 ballots, Van Dijk had 39 such votes, and Ronaldo 38. And Messi and Van Dijk both got 25 third-place votes, with Ronaldo 52 such votes.
How did Messi go from a 12 point deficit among votes 1-3 to a 7 point win among all votes? Consider this: Only 10 of the 176 ballots cast left Messi completely off the ranking. Meanwhile, 22 ballots did not have Van Dijk’s name at all, while 25 ballots left off Ronaldo.
Messi received 21 fourth-place votes, while Van Dijk only received 13 of these. That is equivalent to 16 points, and enough to put Messi back in front by 4 points. He also received 11 fifth place votes compared to Van Dijk’s 8, giving Messi an additional 3 point advantage for a total of a 7 point win.
The system is designed to give the player with the most first-place ballots an advantage by giving him 6 points, rather than just 5, for every first-place vote. But it’s also specifically made to allow a player who has less first-place votes, but is an overall consensus winner, to have a path to victory. Messi found it, and not just because of fourth and fifth place votes, although that did make a difference. Think about this, too, 109 voters had Messi first or second, while only 108 voters had Van Dijk first or second. That, plus the fact that voters simply could not find a way to keep Messi off the ballot, are the reason he won.