Late last year, Matthew Briggs was forwarded an email from the football federation of Guyana, the country he’d only started captaining in the summer. The email had zig-zagged across the world, having been written in Zurich and sent to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. It was then dispatched back towards the south of England, where Briggs — who was once the youngest player in Fulham’s history — currently lives.
Briggs has an Android phone. He is not tech-savvy by his own admission and for some reason, this meant he initially struggled to access the link. “It was an invitation to vote for the FIFA Men’s Player of the Year for 2021,” he remembers. “To be honest, when I realised I couldn’t work the link I decided to leave it — I couldn’t be bothered with all the messing around.”
When he was prompted to complete the forms, however, he looked at it again. “I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about my decision,” he admits. “It was pretty easy for me. Mo Salah had to be number one.”
Briggs was one of only 17 national team captains to vote for the Egyptian, who came third in the final standings behind Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi. Two of those votes came from team-mates at Liverpool, with Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk and Scotland’s Andy Robertson also placing him first.
The captains of Brunei, Ghana, Jordan, Lithuania, Palestine, Peru, Qatar, Switzerland, Syria, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Zimbabwe also voted for Salah. He would not have finished in the top three, however, without support from national team coaches, 27 of whom considered him to be the best player on the planet.
Briggs will be 31 next month and he thinks more experienced figures in football are more likely to choose Salah over Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, who received two fewer votes among captains but did not get enough recognition from the coaches to finish inside the top three, ensuring his absence for only the second time in 15 years.
“Messi and Ronaldo are obviously absolutely brilliant footballers,” Briggs says. “But in my view, Salah has been ahead of them for three or four seasons now, including this one and the last one. His consistency has helped his team become one of the best in the world. As you get older, you tend to see the footballer for what he is rather than the brand. For younger people, Messi and Ronaldo are everywhere. It means they are very difficult to ignore.”
Ultimately, neither Salah or Ronaldo would get anywhere near enough votes to compete with the winner — Lewandowski balloted first 82 times among the captains alone. Though his club Bayern Munich did not win a major European trophy in 2021, he broke all sorts of goalscoring records and there is a prevailing feeling in football of sympathy towards the Pole — who surely would have won the award in 2020 when he spearheaded Bayern’s successful campaign in the Champions League had the FIFA awards not been cancelled because of the pandemic.
Salah, meanwhile, only came seventh in the polls when the winner of the Ballon d’Or was announced in November. This award, chosen by journalists, went to Messi even though 2021 has been a challenging year for him at club level. His transfer to Paris Saint-Germain reflected this because at Barcelona, he did not win La Liga and the team only made it to the round of 16 in the Champions League.
It is commonly thought Messi was voted in for a seventh time, at the age of 34, because of his role as captain in Argentina’s victory at the Copa America. If such logic is applied to Salah and he continues to perform for Liverpool as he has for so long (a club that is currently fighting on four trophy fronts), would winning the Africa Cup of Nations this weekend boost his chances of receiving wider individual recognition?
Briggs, a tallish left-back, would hate to play against Salah, who is small, quick and left-footed, meaning he darts a lot infield from his position on the right of either Liverpool or Egypt’s attack. “Some of my decision was based on who I’d find the hardest to mark,” Briggs says. “Salah would irritate the life out of me.”
Yet Briggs also voted for Salah because he is visible to him. In England, he is spoken about and written about all of the time. Abroad, perhaps that is not quite the case — unlike Messi or Ronaldo who still have the capacity to form parts of everyday conversation no matter who they are playing for.
Given Salah’s influence at Liverpool and Juventus’ willingness to offload Ronaldo to Manchester United, where the team’s struggle has led to a managerial sacking, it seems incredible that only two votes separated the players when international captains returned their forms to FIFA HQ.
Perhaps the sharpest reflection of Ronaldo’s regard relates to the fact none of the captains from the current best 12 countries positioned him in their first three slots.
The pattern for him began to improve at number 13, where Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka saw something that no one in front of him had identified and, somewhat typically — as his critics might say — he became the first to jump in, putting him in at No 2 (though Xhaka, in fairness, also placed Salah ahead of Ronaldo).
But for third-place votes from the Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and Colombia’s David Ospina, the only other bit of recognition inside the top 20 for Ronaldo came from a new Manchester United team-mate.
Put it this way, it would be interesting to know who, at Carrington, was sitting next to Victor Lindelof during lunch hours around the time the votes were cast — the Swede, who picked the Portuguese at No 1, being the only other national team captain at the club aside from Ronaldo.
Further afield, Ronaldo retains appeal. According to 14 other captains (from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ecuador, Hungary, North Korea, Kyrgyz Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Tajikistan and Timor Leste in case you were wondering), he was the best player on the planet for 2021.