Awards are stupid, but we need awards. In the United States, awards are such a prominent aspect of sports culture that we've reached the point where we're now arguing over semantics. With the Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award given in all the major sports, there's no real agreed-upon definition. Does it go to the most important player? The most outstanding? The best? Of course, it says "valuable" in the name, but what even is value? Are we talking value provided on the court? In the locker room? To the franchise's overall open-market valuation?
Like I said, it's dumb, but it's important. Awards voting serves as a historical record. Look at the top 10 in MVP voting in any given season in any given sport and you'll have a pretty good sense of who the most important players were that year. The order of those players often won't make a ton of sense, but the group of players usually serves as an accurate cast of key characters. Same goes for the All-NBA teams and the NFL's All-Pro teams.
In soccer, we've got the Ballon d'Or, yes. But that is riddled with inconsistencies and the voting population isn't the most scrupulous. So many votes come down to a single game or two; people are swayed by rivalries, or the one time they saw that one player shine. Beyond the Ballon d'Or, most leagues have their Player of the Year (POTY) awards, but the processes are opaque and like in the Premier League, there's not a unanimously recognized single POTY award. In fact, there are more than one: Premier League POTY, Professional Football Association (PFA) Players' POTY, Football Writers' Association (FWA) POTY, PFA Fans' POTY.
Plus, these things are all skewed toward attackers and they don't have much of a place in the culture of the sport. Did you know that Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo have the same number of Spanish LaLiga Player of the Year wins? Didn't think so. They each have one; Lionel Messi has nine.
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However, there's a group of 14 European sports magazines -- two from both Germany and the Netherlands, plus one each from England, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Russia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hungary and Italy -- that have been maintaining a consistent process that produces an American-sports style historical record.
Every month, the members of European Sports Media (ESM) vote on a best XI across the continent, and after each season, they add up the number of appearances in Team of the Month to determine the Team of the Year. This website contains ESM data going all the way back to the 1995-96 season. So, what can it tell us?