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The FIFA Women’s Best awards are kind of broken

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Voting for the women’s award has always been imbalanced thanks to the lack of coverage.

FIFA Best trophy

Today Carli Lloyd won the 2016 FIFA Best trophy for best female player of the year. This despite her national team getting knocked out of the Olympics in quarterfinals and her club team finishing eighth in their league. Lloyd might have put up a lot of goals, but most of them came against teams the United States was pasting by five or more goals. Meanwhile, German Melanie Behringer won a league title with Bayern Munich and helped Germany win gold at the Olympics, yet came third in finalist voting. What’s going on here?

FIFA Best (formerly Ballon d’Or, until the awards separated again this year and the Ballon d’Or reverted to being a French award) voting is done through a combination of fans, media representatives from each country, team captains, and coaches. According to FIFA, each group gets 25% of the vote. Players are ranked by first, second, and third choice, with weighted point values assigned. Five points for first, three points for second, one point for third.

The women’s game has never been easy to follow on an international level. Sure, highly-ranked and popular teams like the United States and France will get broadcast on TV most of the time, but even now with the ability to log in to ESPN or Fox online and stream games, it can still be dicey finding coverage outside of big tournaments. There’s also the option of illegal streaming (assuming your game is being broadcast in the first place so that there’s something to illegally stream) but that’s hardly a way to keep up with the women’s game either, especially if you aren’t already deeply entrenched in it. So is it any surprise when captains and coaches from women’s programs that don’t have a lot of support and don’t play a lot at the highest levels put down their vote for the names they recognize? Sometimes those votes line up with performance, and sometimes they don’t, leading to years when the player with the most name recognition wins. This was such a year.

Here are some first-place voting breakdowns showing how captains, coaches, and media voted. Country ranks are based on the latest FIFA rankings. “Median country rank” represents the median ranking of the countries that voted for each player. Values used for median do not include countries that were unranked either because they were “provisionally listed due to not having played more than five matches against officially ranked teams” or because they were “inactive for more than 18 months and therefore not ranked.” Totals also don’t completely line up because some countries submitted media votes, but not captain or coach votes.

Captains:

Coaches:

Media:

You can see that median FIFA rank of countries that voted is highest for Behringer, though Lloyd got plenty of votes from captains and coaches in top 20-ranked nations. The higher the level of competition, the more Behringer is represented among first-place votes.

The one place where Behringer ran away with the first-place vote was in media voting. You can see the number of first-place votes she got there is more than Lloyd and Marta’s votes combined. Perhaps in an Olympic year, she was able to stand out more to those whose job it is to watch the women’s game. It’s also interesting Behringer got the most votes from unranked countries also in the media category, although if you take those out, she still had far more media votes than either Lloyd or Marta.

It’s not Carli Lloyd’s fault that people know her name (well, in the strictest sense of the word, yes, it’s her fault, but you know what I mean). She earned that recognition in 2015 on top of an already established career. Her hat trick was deservedly all anyone could talk about in women’s soccer for weeks. It is the fault of sports media in general that there’s such a lack of coverage of the women’s game. How are players or coaches in underfunded programs or countries where women’s soccer (or women’s sports in general) don’t have a way to grab a foothold supposed to follow the game on a regular basis?

Unfortunately there’s not an easy fix to this problem, just the relentless grind over time towards equality. Possibly countries with inactive programs shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Otherwise there’s not really a test you can put before voters to ensure that all of them have seen a minimum level of games for all the nominees. So until coverage of the women’s game broadens, FIFA best-of voting will need context, especially as a reminder that for all the glitz and pomp at the high end in Zurich, there are plenty of tiny women’s programs wallowing at the bottom who need funding and training.