With six legitimate contenders, the 2021 Ballon d’Or race is the closest it’s been for years.
Overall individual awards in sports have always been a sticking point. Just recently, there was a furore as no Springbok or New Zealand players were included in the shortlist for World Rugby’s player of the year award.
This despite the two powerhouses obtaining some memorable results in 2021 and also finishing 2021 ranked as No 1 and No 2 in the world rankings, respectively.
In football, the Ballon d’Or or Golden Ball award, presented to the best-performing player in a year, has been dominated by the incomparable Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Between 2008 and 2019, the duo won the award 11 times between them, with Messi bagging six to Ronaldo’s five.
Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modrić managed to break their streak when he picked up the award after a sterling 2018, when he led Croatia to a Fifa World Cup final and also won the Uefa Champions League with his club.
Due to some leagues being disrupted by Covid-19, the 2020 edition was scrapped. That year Robert Lewandowski was peerless, scoring 41 league goals and breaking several records, including the Bundesliga scoring record set by Gerd Muller almost 50 years ago.
His form has hardly dipped, despite that disappointment. However, a year later from when he was all but guaranteed to win the prestigious award, the race is more open.
Messi, Chelsea’s Jorginho, Karim Benzema and Mohamed Salah are all favourites for the Ballon d’Or.
The predatory and also lethal Polish striker has been in imperious form in 2021, sustaining the sort of prowess that saw him win a multitude of individual awards last season, including being crowned the player of the year at the Fifa Best awards. He picked up the Bundesliga crown with Bayern, having also helped them to the Fifa Club World Cup at the tail end of 2020.
In 2021, he has so far scored an eye-watering 64 goals for club and country. Halfway through the current season, the 33-year-old goal poacher has already scored nine Champions League goals from Bayern’s five games so far, including a sumptuous overhead kick goal against Dynamo Kyiv in midweek.
In the Bundesliga, he has found the net on 14 occasions and is the favourite to retain his top scorer award. He has claimed this accolade four seasons in a row.
Manchester City midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, has the Pole in pole position for the award.
“If I had to choose myself personally, I’m going to look at a two-year period because we didn’t have anyone [last year],” said the former Wolfsburg man recently.
“I’d choose Lewandowski for what he has done in the last two years – goalscoring wise – and also he’s won a lot with Bayern. He would be my pick.”
This year was far from ideal for the Argentine maestro as boardroom shenanigans, and indifferent form on the field under Ronald Koeman, hampered his and Barcelona’s ambitions.
They finished third in LaLiga, behind bitter rivals Real Madrid and eventual champions Atletico Madrid. In the Champions League, they were eliminated in the round of 16 after a 5-1 aggregate humbling by Messi’s current club – Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). They did manage to win the domestic Copa del Rey, though, after crushing Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in the final.
On a personal level, though, Messi had a solid 2021. After signing off at Barcelona by claiming the top goal scorer award for a record-extending eighth time, the Argentina captain enjoyed the highlight of his international career as he led his nation to Copa America glory after heartbreak in previous editions.
He also won both the top scorer award and was chosen as the player of the tournament for his outstanding individual displays.
What might hamper him, though, is his adjustment to life since leaving Barca for PSG. So far, the iconic forward has struggled, only netting four times from his nine appearances in the Ligue 1 and the Champions League this season.
A player who is continually improving, well into his 30s, the Frenchman has emerged from a supporting role to become Real Madrid’s star man in the wake of Ronaldo’s departure in 2018.
The 2020/2021 campaign was arguably his best yet, encompassing 30 goals for Los Blanco and a long-awaited return to the French national team, for whom he scored four times at the Euros.
This season, he leads the La Liga scoring charts with 10 strikes to date. He also contributed as France were victorious in the recent Uefa Nations League.
With off-field conduct taken into consideration for the award, the guilty verdict in his case surrounding the blackmailing of his former France teammate Mathieu Valbuena will knock him back.
On 24 November, Benzema was handed a one-year suspended jail term and fined €75,000 (R1.3-million) for playing the middleman as a group of individuals attempted to extort money from Valbuena using a sex tape of which they were supposedly in possession. The striker has since vowed to appeal the outcome of the 2015 incident.
Now 36, the Portuguese icon shows no signs of slowing down and last season, he finished as the top scorer in Serie A with 29 goals and the delayed 2020 Euros (5).
As well as setting a variety of new records during the continental competition, Ronaldo became the all-time leading scorer in men’s international football – equalling the record of Iranian striker Ali Daei, before later claiming the record for himself.
Since moving to Manchester United at the beginning of the 2021/22 season, the Portuguese icon has single-handedly won matches for the inconsistent Red Devils. He has scored 10 times in 15 appearances so far for the Manchester club.
The irrepressible Egyptian scored 31 times in total across all competitions for Liverpool in 2020/2021, becoming the first Reds player to find the net 20-plus times in three different Premier League seasons.
This season he has continued with that form, and he has already managed to find the back of the net 16 times from 16 games in all competitions. Some of those goals have secured their place as some of the most mesmerising goals in Premier League history.
He provided six additional assists for his teammates and made history when he became the highest-scoring African in the English top-flight’s history, usurping the colossal Didier Drogba, who netted 104 Premier League goals.
The Chelsea and Italy midfielder had a memorable 2021, winning the Champions League with his club and European Championship with his country. In both these successes, he was hugely influential.
However, his role as a midfield pivot puts him at a disadvantage compared to the other candidates, who are all attacking forces and whose contributions can easily be quantified.
The 2021 Ballon d’Or ceremony will take place in Paris on 29 November. DM