PARIS — If 11 is soccer’s dominant number — as in, which 11 players should be on the field? — then 10 is its perpetual pursuit. For after every match at the European Championships, or the Champions League, or the Copa América, as well as a vast majority of league matches played around the world, the most pressing question for fans and participants alike is this:
What were the ratings?
In some countries they are called marks. Others label them grades, or notes. But whatever the name, in an era of progressively more complex statistics and analytics, the premise for this sport’s most discussed scale has remained remarkably rudimentary: Each player is given a rating based on his contribution to the match by a reporter or analyst who watched it, usually ranging from 0 (unforgettably bad) to 10 (unforgettably amazing).
The ratings are then published and debated, in all languages, on radio, television and, perhaps more shrilly, the internet, as well as in bars, restaurants, taxicabs and, occasionally, the players’ locker room.
Do not be confused. Just because the system is basic does not mean it is simple. At L’Equipe, the signature news media outlet of these Euros, as many as six journalists will give their marks for the French national team after each of its games. The paper’s so-called official ratings will be an average of these scores.
Vincent Duluc, the paper’s longtime reporter covering Les Bleus and one of the country’s most respected soccer writers, chuckled when he described this setup, but noted, with a sigh, that “these marks are the heart of what we do; they are the first thing anyone talks about.”
Duluc continued, describing a frequent gripe from players: “Some people will say, ‘How can you grade them if you never played professional football?’ I have a colleague who used to say, ‘You don’t have to be half-naked to write about French cancan.’ So, for me, it is the same.”
Most graders begin from the same place, starting each player with a 5 (or a 6, if they are generous) before adjusting up or down during a game. A player who does not make much of an impact, but does little wrong, most likely stays in the middle. A catastrophic mistake that leads to a goal can drop a defender to a low mark, like a 3, even if the other 89 minutes of the player’s performance were decent. Likewise, scoring a goal can elevate a forward’s pedestrian day to a 7 or an 8.
These days, ratings matter to fans even more because in many countries the evaluations from the top newspaper are factored into the scoring of soccer fantasy leagues.
Thomas Müller, the veteran star for Germany, said he still checked his ratings after a match. He added quickly: “I don’t make a lot of research on it or anything.
“We play in a fishbowl, and it is part of that. Everyone likes a clap on the shoulder, but you cannot be too emotional about these things.”
Müller’s approach seems measured, but that could be because he generally receives good ratings (Germany is the defending World Cup champion). Other players can be more sensitive; for example, Joey Barton, the veteran English defender, was once peeved at even being mentioned in someone else’s rating.
José María Rodríguez, who frequently covers Barcelona for Marca, Spain’s most popular sports daily, said it was not uncommon for him to hear from players or people connected to them.
Rodríguez recalled covering Celta de Vigo earlier in his career and being accosted by the team’s coach, who pleaded with him to give the players better ratings because the low marks (the team was struggling at the time) were affecting the players’ confidence. After one game, the team’s goalkeeper accused Rodríguez of turning fans against him.
“I told him, ‘It’s just a rating in Marca,’ ” Rodríguez said. “This did not seem to help.”
Superfluous as they may seem, these ratings do matter. Duluc said he often heard from agents — typically those representing players who were seeking new contracts — trying to lobby for their clients to receive good ratings. Conversely, there have been journalists, hopeful of landing an interview with a certain player, who might artificially inflate a grade as a way of smoothing the way.
The former French international Willy Sagnol used to text or call reporters — sometimes even at halftime, but more generally right after a match ended — Duluc said, demanding to know what marks would show up in the next day’s paper.
“He would always say: ‘What am I getting? What am I getting?’ ” Duluc said. “One time it was bad, and he was told, ‘You’re getting a 4.’ He said, ‘Forget you know my phone number,’ and hung up.”
In general, perfect 10s are rare (as are zeros). Duluc said, somewhat proudly, that 10 players received a 1 during the recently completed French league season, and that he had handed out three of them. Rodríguez said the last perfect score he gave was to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi when he scored four goals against Arsenal in the 2013 Champions League, and Duluc added that he believed that game was the last time any player received a 10 in L’Equipe as well.
Marco Guidi, a writer for Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport, recalled Diego Milito’s display in the 2010 Champions League final — when he scored two especially pretty goals in Inter’s defeat of Bayern Munich — as an example of what is needed to receive a 10.
“Obviously, there has to be a majestic performance,” Guidi said.
Marking the superstar players can be difficult. Should, say, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo be judged against the other players in the game, or against his own body of work? But Rodríguez, who generally rates Messi as many as 40 times a season, said that he tried his best to balance the two.
“I don’t ask Messi for more to get an 8 or 9,” he said. “The thing is, Messi tends to play better more frequently, so he usually gets a good rating. You see what you see, and you try to be honest. It’s all you can do.”
Since rating a full game of players every week can become banal, the journalists doing the marking like to try to have a bit of fun. One of Duluc’s favorite marks came in a game 20 years ago, when one of the players he was watching had turned in a particularly wretched performance.
Instead of a 10-point scale, L’Equipe, at the time, was using a system that required reporters to give each player a number of soccer balls — 1 through 5 — as the grade. Duluc thought for a bit as he pondered his marks, then called his office.
“I asked them to give him one tennis ball,” Duluc said, laughing. “He had been so bad he didn’t deserve a football at all.”