Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

He knows the best-kept secret in sports. No, he won't tell.

Pascal Ferré, the editor-in-chief of the weekly France Football is one of only two people who knows beforehand the winners of Football's most coveted individual prize, the Ballon d'Or

By Rory Smith
Published: Nov 27, 2021

He knows the best-kept secret in sports. No, he won't tell.Pascal Ferré, the editor-in-chief of France Football, with the Ballon d’Or at his office in Paris, Nov. 25, 2021. Encrypted email servers, secret meetings, strict confidentiality: The identity of the winner of the Ballon d’Or, soccer’s biggest individual prize, is guarded like a state secret. (James Hill/The New York Times)

At this time of year, Pascal Ferré fields the same call, over and over again. They come from around the world. Sometimes, it is a team executive or a club president. Often, it is an agent, charming and inquisitive. Occasionally, it might even be one of the world’s most famous players themselves.

Regardless of the voice on the other end of the line, they all follow much the same pattern with Ferré, the genial, bearded editor-in-chief of the weekly France Football. They start by shooting the breeze, asking casually after Ferré’s general health. Then they start to shift gear.

They ask how preparations are going for the magazine’s annual gala, the one at which the men’s and women’s winners of the sport’s most coveted individual prize, the Ballon d’Or, will be announced. Fine, fine. Has the voting finished? Has it all gone well? Yes, yes. Ferré knows what comes next, the real reason for every call. They want to know the one thing he cannot tell them.

There are, perhaps, two ways to best illustrate how jealously Ferré and his staff guard the identity of the winners of the Ballons d’Or. One is that he is one of only two people, even within the magazine, who knows who has won. The other is that the second, his trusted executive assistant, is told only in case something happens to him. “Imagine if I had an accident,” he said. “There would still have to be a Ballon d’Or.”

Ferré cannot be coaxed into letting the name slip. “This is my sixth year in charge of the event,” he said. “I have not made a mistake yet.” All those thinly veiled efforts to inveigle an answer are met with a stock response. “I don’t want to lie,” he said. He knows who has won. “But I tell them that I can’t share their name because the winners do not know yet, and it would not be right for them not to be the first to find out.”

He leaves it until the last possible moment to invite the winners into his circle of trust. He was planning on informing this year’s winners this week, a few days before the gala at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet on Monday. Even that is something of a concession to practicality: He has to alert them, he said, so he can make sure they know how the ceremony will work.

It is only then that Ferré’s secret will be out of his control. For months beforehand, it is treated as a matter of the strictest confidentiality, protected by a regimen of such discretion that even Ferré will admit that it could, in a certain light, border on the “paranoiac.”

Preparations for the gala take, effectively, all year. But it is in late September that the work begins in earnest. Ten France Football staff members are charged with putting together two lists: the 30 men’s players and the 20 women’s players who, they believe, warrant inclusion on the shortlist. Once those names are submitted, they gather in the magazine’s office for what Ferré, gently, calls “a discussion.”

In truth, of course, many of the names have a clear majority behind them. “For the men, maybe 20 or 22 players will be obvious to everyone,” he said. “We discuss the final eight or 10. The meetings can be long, two or three hours, but we need everyone to be proud of the final selection. It is not just the list of the chief. And we try not to forget anybody: We worked out a couple of years ago that, between us, we had watched 1,000 games or more that year. To be on the list at all is something very serious.”

Once something approaching a consensus has been reached, France Football sends its shortlists to its jury of more than 170 vote-wielding journalists around the world (as well as announcing them in public) in early October.

It is at this point that the veil of secrecy descends. The jurors — one per nation — submit their five choices, in order, to what Ferré describes as a “private email server.” Pressed on quite what form that takes, he demurred: The system is so secret that he declined to divulge even how it worked, except to say that only he and his secretary have access to it. The rest of the France Football staff are kept in the dark.

“We are very careful,” he said. “But the identity of the winner of the Ballon d’Or is a big secret. There is not an equivalent in the rest of sport, I think.” He sounded vaguely doubtful when it was put to him that the most immediate parallel was, perhaps, the results of the Oscars.

That the responsibility weighs so heavily on Ferré, and his magazine, should not be attributed to an inflated sense of their own importance. They treat the Ballon d’Or seriously because they know exactly how much it means to players. When Ferré called Luka Modric, the winner in 2018, to give him the news that he had won, the Croatian “cried like a child,” Ferré said.

“It is Christmas for them,” he said. “It is the only chance you get in a team sport to celebrate by yourself.”

It is a significance that only seems to grow with every passing year. The primacy of the Ballon d’Or is something of a curious phenomenon. In 2010, it was married to FIFA’s official equivalent, the World Player of the Year award, to become the FIFA Ballon d’Or.

When that partnership ended, in 2015, and FIFA launched the imaginatively titled The Best awards, it would have been possible to believe that the Ballon d’Or’s luster might fade a little.

Instead, the Ballon d’Or’s appeal only continues to grow. Kylian Mbappé has described it as “an ambition for any player who aspires to be the best.” His France teammate Paul Pogba made it plain several years ago that it was an award he was “aiming for.”

Even Robert Lewandowski, who once scoffed at France Football’s choices — “I don’t know why one player finishes 50th and another 25th and another fifth,” he said in 2017 — has had a change of heart.

Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich striker, was widely regarded as favorite to win the prize last year before it was canceled — not uncontroversially — because of the pandemic. “My achievements answer this question,” he said when asked if he would be a deserving recipient. “It would mean a lot to me to win it.”

Quite what lies at the root of that respect is open to debate. It could be that it is indicative of the sport’s gradual shift toward focusing on individual stars, rather than collective success, or the rise of a perception of players, first and foremost, as brands.

It may be that the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to see who can win it the most has turned the award into a proxy measure of greatness. “Ronaldo has only one ambition, and that is to retire with more Ballons d’Or than Messi,” Ferré said, “and I know that because he has told me.”

To Ferré, though, the award’s appeal is far more simple. The enduring glamour is rooted in its history. The Ballon d’Or has been running since 1956. George Best won a Ballon d’Or. Franz Beckenbauer and Alfredo Di Stéfano won two. Johan Cruyff won three. To claim one, to Ferré, is to claim a spot in the sport’s pantheon.

“It is not to do with money,” he said. “It is only the trophy. But to have one is to have a place in history. I think that if you looked at the statistics of Messi and Ronaldo, you would see they always score a lot of goals in September and October, when the voting is happening. That is not a coincidence.”

That is what is at stake as autumn draws in and the votes start to come through. It is that which explains why so many players and agents and executives simply cannot wait to find out if they, or their player, has won. And it is that which illustrates why Ferré and his magazine treat the name of their winner like a state secret until the last possible moment. Some things, after all, are worth the wait.

©2019 New York Times News Service