In 2007, when they asked Amitabh Bachchan why he thought he had been selected the greatest film star of the millennium in a BBC online poll, beating the likes of Marlon Brando, Lawrence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin, he said he believed it was due to the exceptionally large number of Indians in the world. His compatriots in the millions, he thought, had probably flooded the poll’s website with e-mails in his favour.
Bachchan is an iconic actor, one of the best India has ever had. He probably did not need the help from his brethren but if this was the manner in which he won the award, it was not the fairest way. It was not dishonest but he had a tremendous head start with a country of over one billion people, 17 per cent of the planet at the time. If only the tiniest of Indian fractions voted for him, he would surely have won hands down. Which is exactly what happened.
Can Egypt and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah win the FIFA Best Player award, to be announced in Zurich on 17 January, the way Bachchan was voted the best actor? Before getting to the answer, let’s see what the three FIFA finalists have done in their profession, the real criteria for judging success. Salah is vying with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski and Paris Saint-Germain forward Lionel Messi after being named in a final shortlist for the prize. As was the case in the Ballon d’Or which was awarded in November last year, Salah comes up again against his old nemeses in the FIFA award, Argentina’s Messi and Lewandowski of Poland, who came first and second in the French magazine’s result.
Lewandowski broke two Bundesliga records by scoring 41 goals for Bayern Munich in the 2020-21 season and 43 in the calendar year of 2021. Both marks were held since 1972 by the original Bayern great, Gerd Müller.
Messi was the top scorer in La Liga last season while playing for a Barcelona team that had lost several teeth from their heyday, and helped Argentina win the Copa América for his first senior title with the national team.
Thus far, Salah has had an explosive season with Liverpool. The Egypt international is currently the Premier League’s top scorer, with 16 goals after 20 games, 23 goals in all competitions. They were defined by some breathtaking strikes, including brilliant solo goals against the likes of Watford, Manchester City and Chelsea. In the last few months, Salah has been touted by many observers as currently being the world’s best player. That description is supported by a scintillating few months that no player has really been able to replicate.
But here comes the rub. Those who are voting in the FIFA award are only looking at the period from 8 October 2020 to 7 August 2021. That was not one of Salah’s best stretches.
During those 10 months, Liverpool managed only third in the Premier League and lasted until the quarter-finals in the Champions League. Egypt’s only claim to fame was qualifying for the AFCON, not a difficult task considering the relative weakness of its group opponents. Individually, Salah lost out to Tottenham’s Harry Kane for the Premier League scoring title.
At that same time, Messi had his hands on the Copa America and Lewandowski was firing at will in the Bundesliga.
Unfortunately, FIFA’s Rules of Allocation mean that Salah’s recent terrific exploits, which began in earnest in August this year, will not be counted. It won’t be looked at. That’s what the fine print says.
It’s the same problem Salah faced in the Ballon d’Or vote in which he came seventh.
However, now comes the part that might help Salah in the FIFA vote. As opposed to the Ballon d’Or in which only journalists voted, in the FIFA award, voting is done by national team coaches and captains, journalists and fans on FIFA’s website.
The votes of each category shall make up one quarter of the poll.
The prediction is that even if Salah does not fare well with journalists, as was obviously the case with the Ballon d’Or, he might do better with coaches, captains and more surely, online where 25 per cent of the vote lies.
Egypt has over 100 million people. There are in the world 436 million Arabs altogether and 1.9 Muslims in total. If even just some of these people vote for Salah, a football hero lionized in the Arab and Muslim word, that would be a sizeable chunk of humanity that could get him over the bar.
But is this way Egyptians, or anybody else, would like Salah to win, based not on his value, but on sheer force of online voting numbers?
Being a global name, one the most dominant actors in the long history of the Indian movie scene, Bachchan might have won the award in that actors’ poll 15 years ago without the help of his fellow countrymen and women online. But he himself admitted that the apparent deluge of their online polling - plus his large overseas following in the Indian subcontinent, South Asia, Africa and the Middle East - carried him to victory. So it’s possible that he won the easy way, not necessarily on merit. The yardstick by which Bachchan was measured was not based on performance on the silver screen but on where he comes from. Should we want Salah to win his footballing award the same way?
If Salah is going to win the Best FIFA Men’s Player, the hope is that he will be voted the best because it was deemed he is the best. No athlete should win an award based on his or her nationality, religion, skin colour, appearance, gender or political affiliation. If that were to happen, the results would be a farce.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.