93 judges with 40 choices each, casting a total of 3,720 votes. Rich Laverty explains the complex process behind finding the Top 100 female footballers of 2019, as produced by The Offside Rule and the Guardian.
As you can imagine, putting together a list of the top 100 female footballers for two separate websites is not the easiest job in the world, especially when dealing with so many variables.
When I essentially stole the Guardian’s idea to do a top 100 list — only this time for the women’s side of the game — I had little idea that one day they would want to use it too.
It started off as a small thing, with around 30 judges in 2016. In 2017, we added quotes for each player from their manager and team mates, to add some substance and interesting insight into why each player was rated so highly.
The Guardian got in touch part-way through 2018 to ask if they could publish the list as it was so similar to theirs. In a meeting at their London offices, I was quite honest and told them that we’d essentially used their entire format – with a few tweaks – so it made sense to merge rather than run two separate lists.
After a successful first year which saw the list published across the Guardian website and its print newspaper over four consecutive four days — as well as the usual social media countdown plus quotes on the Offside Rule’s website — they were all too happy to do it again this year, especially with a World Cup on the horizon.
I won’t lie, it’s a nigh-impossible job; there is no way of coming up with the most accurate 100 out there.
Our method is designed to maximise exposure and potential, because we have some incredible names on the panel. It is humbling to think how the likes of the new USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, plus the likes of Aya Miyama, Sun Wen, Lotta Schelin, Anja Mittag, Jess Fishlock, Joe Montemurro, and Paul Riley were happy to sit down and spend God knows how long sifting through a spreadsheet of around 450 players deciding on their top 40.
The process is a long one for how quickly it is all over. I start adding names to a longlist (a very longlist) as soon as the previous edition ends. Voting spans a 12-month period so it’s important to be on top of who is doing well, who isn’t, or who has a long-term injury, because it will already start to influence the next voting form.
The panel is put together piece by piece throughout the year. I contact everyone myself, whether through clubs, FAs, players, friends of friends, or my own contacts. To be honest, that is one of the easier parts, as most are incredibly happy to take part.
We try and make things as diverse as possible, but are also aware that people in more remote parts of the world get to see little of women’s football outside the big tournaments. To their credit, some people have been open and honest and declined places on the panel because they feel they haven’t seen enough to make a fair judgement.
We always ensure anonymity in our voting, so that managers and former players can vote freely without worrying about what their players may or may not think of them if they find out they haven’t been included in their top 40 picks.
40 is a lot of players to decide on, but it mirrors what the Guardian do with the men’s list. We have noticed a trend that judges get past their first 20 or 30 choices, and then seemingly hit a brick wall; after this, they tend to put in players with big reputations, or ones they may have heard of or seen glimpses of.
The biggest issue I battle in this element of the process is the lack of worldwide TV coverage — paradoxically, even more so in a tournament year because it dominates the landscape. With no Champions League final and no World Cup, how many people will have seen Pernille Harder play this season? It will be fascinating to see how the new FA Player coverage affects the positions of the FA WSL players next season. I personally find it hard to pick our winner between Sam Kerr, Ada Hegerberg, and Vivianne Miedema as strikers, but it’s fair to say that in a league with the reputation of the NWSL — as well as its coverage via online streaming and even a few TV deals — more people around the world are probably more aware of Kerr’s goals and achievements than her rivals’.
It’s a Catch-22 situation. I don’t want to cut off the panel and narrow it down to people in women’s football hot-spots like western Europe, North America and select parts of Asia. In fact it was pleasantly surprising to approach people this year from Venezuela, Uruguay, Afghanistan, and Israel, who actually said they were already aware of the top 100 when we spoke.
It’s also difficult to get those who have probably seen more football than anyone else – international managers. The voting process happens in November and always falls right where there is an international window, meaning we often get politely turned down by managers away with their national teams and there is often more reliance on club managers who perhaps have only seen players regularly who are linked to their own domestic league.
It’s a worldwide game and, while the reach of certain players may not yet match the global attention some get, it’s not a battle we’ll give up on. It would be easy to say we won’t do the 100 again because of the lack of coverage around the world, or because we know once again the Olympics and then the European Championships will have a big say, but what can we do? We want the panel to be more expansive and more diverse every single year.
The weeks before the list is published are by far the most stressful, this year more than ever. For one reason or another I had to push the deadline back a few days, and given how close the top three were in the end, I was conscious we had to take extra care we had calculated the right winner based on the votes that had come in.
When you’re dealing with 93 people voting for 40 players each, the spreadsheet gets messy and it’s only too easy to pop a number in the wrong column. So it’s important, if time consuming, to go back and ensure everything is right and proper.
At the end of the day, the list can’t be a definitive thing. We can’t sit here and say it means Kerr is 100% the best player in the world: it’s the opinion of 93 selected people around the world. Given the closeness, if it had been 94, 95, or 96 judges it may have been different. 116 people agreed to judge and for various reasons 23 didn’t in the end, so who knows how the end result may have ended up?
Once we know our list there is little over a week for me to turn the whole thing around. I have 100 profiles to write which are then put on the Guardian site and our own site; for the latter I upload all of them myself, include links to other pages, and create 200 graphics (two for each player), all in the space of a week — plus adding things such as each player’s club, country, age, and league they play in. It’s a thankless task in little time!
Fortunately, the Guardian take care of their layout and I deal with the Offside Rule website. With us now publishing the list in the space of four days, I often sit up until 2am uploading the next 30 players for the next day, one by one, graphic by graphic, profile by profile, quote by quote.
Then there is scheduling the 30 tweets every single day, linking to each player’s Twitter profile, each club, each association, once again with all the right graphics. There’s not a huge amount of sleep involved when it comes to the week of actually publishing!
We didn’t get as many quotes as we would have liked this year, and the fact the deadline got pushed back didn’t help. It’s easy to guess some players who will make the list, so I’d written profiles for probably 30/40 players before we even started, knowing who would certainly make the cut somewhere along the line. But graphics can’t be made until I know for definite which number and how many points are going on each one.
The clubs and associations are generally great to work with, happy to be involved, and eager to get quotes for us. The insight this year from the likes of Paul Riley, Jess Fishlock, and Ella Masar I hope gives a really unique view of these players and what actually makes them remarkable, coming from people who have worked with them every single day.
We were quite ruthless with the longlist we sent to judges this year and left off some big names; then again, maybe we weren’t ruthless enough. There’s certainly some names in the list who wouldn’t make my 100. But my job is initially to find who is in the best 400 or 500, and after that we can’t tell people who to vote for. It’s completely up to the panel, and we simply publish those results.
All in all, it’s a busy and seemingly-endless task to put it all together; and it’s difficult to then spend four days watching people rip apart certain selections. But it is worth it to see everything go to print, and as I tweeted earlier in the week, also to see the reactions of the likes of Erin Cuthbert and Beth England for their first-time inclusions.
Because that really is why we do it. The likes of Kerr, Megan Rapinoe, and Lucy Bronze get that recognition every single day. They don’t need to be top of the 100 — it probably doesn’t bother them when compared to a FIFA award or a Ballon d’Or. We do it for those 60 or 70 players who have great years but never get talked about.
We do it because it offers recognition to 100 players from every corner of the world; we do it because it’s actually important for the women’s game to have something like this; and all in all we do it because it’s quite fun — it’s almost become a Christmas tradition!
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty