Ballon d’Or 2021 is ever so near and it is time to reminisce about past winners and losers. The 2003 Ballon d’Or had a controversial winner and the tale must be re-told to a new generation. First of all, it is necessary to understand the evolution of Ballon d’Or over the years. From 1956 to 1994, only players born in Europe were eligible for the award. Hence, the award was seen as a continental honor rather than a global one. Many legendary players such as Pele and Maradona thus could not win the award. This also limited the award’s importance in many ways.
In 1995, rule changes allowed Non-Europeans plying their trade in the domestic leagues of Europe to be nominated for the award. Since then, the award has become synonymous with the tag of “best player in the world”. This is one of the reasons why Thierry Henry not winning the Ballon d’Or in 2003 can be attributed to a glitch in the matrix. Let us travel back in time to an era where Arsenal were a dominant force in the PL, thanks to their talisman Thierry Henry.
By the beginning of the 2003/04 season, Henry was firmly established as a world-class striker. Just like Ronaldo Nazario, he was much more than a poacher as he often dropped back and created problems with his pace. He had scored 32 goals in the 2002/03 season but his best was yet to come. On the other hand, Pavel Nedved was instrumental in Juventus’ run to the UCL final. He also played a vital role in Juve’s Serie A victory.
🔴 Thierry Henry in the 2003/04 season:
Premier League Player of the Season
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The King of North London. 👑 pic.twitter.com/q2OwqSIhnT
— Sporting Index (@sportingindex) November 25, 2021
Nedved was a world class attacking midfielder and one of the finest to come out of eastern Europe. But the way Henry carried Arsenal’s attack in the early 2000’s simply sets him apart. In the 2002/03 season, Henry scored 24 goals in the Premier League and was named the player of the year by both PFA and FWA. In addition, he registered 20 assists in the league, a number matched only by Kevin de Bruyne. In the same season, he scored 7 UCL goals, although Arsenal were eliminated in the second group stage.
Since Ballon d’Or is awarded for performances in a calendar year, we must also take into account Henry’s exploits at the beginning of the 2003/04 season. By the time the 2003 Ballon d’Or ceremony came around, Henry had 10 league goals to his name. In the UCL, he scored a superb brace against Inter Milan away from home. Yet by the end of November, it became clear that Henry is not the favorite for the award.
Results of the 2003 Ballon d’Or award clearly showed the importance of UCL. Pavel Nedved’s outstanding performance against Real Madrid in the UCL semi-final essentially decided the Ballon d’Or. The voters preferred performances in knockout stages, which should not be the only criteria. Player winning the Ballon d’Or should have produced consistent performances week in, week out.
On this day in 2003, Thierry Henry finished 2nd in the race the the Ballon d’Or. The Frenchman managed 78 G/A in the calendar year, setting the Premier League assist record in the process. Pavel Nedved, who beat him to the crown, had just 20 G/A in the same period. Robbery. pic.twitter.com/I1FF9Qy1QG
— Patrick Timmons (@PatrickTimmons1) December 22, 2020
Henry not winning the Ballon d’Or showed the flaws in the voting system. In 2003, journalists believed that Serie A was a tougher league for attacking players than the Premier League. This helped Nedved, along with the fact that there was no advanced metrics to analyze the performances of an attacking midfielder. On hindsight, it is evident that Henry had a better season in many ways. Same fate awaited Henry in 2004 as Shevchenko won the Ballon d’Or ahead of him despite clearly inferior numbers.