The End of an Era

Over the last 12 weeks, I have introduced you to ten players that I believe could compete for the biggest individual prize in football, The Ballon d’Or.

In the last decade, the award has been shared by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, arguably the best ever to play the game. Generation defining players and in the same conversation as Matthews, Law, Best, Charlton, Pele, Maradonna, Gascoigne, Beckham and Ronaldo Luis, that we, our fathers and grandfathers remember fondly.

It’s very unlikely that we will experience this duopoly of the award again in our lifetime, just in compiling the list of ten players that I wrote articles on, it became clear there are easily another seven or eight that have a credible claim to a future Best Player in the World Award.

Shot Blocked

What has become obvious in researching for and writing these articles is that the award is dominated by attacking flair players. Even prior to the last ten years, players like Kaka, Ronaldinho, Zidane and Henry contested to win the award. Every now and again a Goalkeeper would creep into contention and, bar 2006, Defenders would rarely be part of the conversation at all.

Are we witnessing a shift in that dynamic? David De Gea was the subject of one of my articles and when asked who should make this round off as an “Honourable Mention” two other keepers were consistently part of the recommendations.

Gianluigi Donnarumma is still a teenager and yet has three full seasons under his belt as AC Milan number one, making over 115 appearances, as well as his 6 caps at international level. Known for his imposing stature and ability to save crucial penalties under huge pressure, most notably versus Paulo Dybala in the Supercoppa Italiana. He currently stands as the youngest player to make 100 Serie A appearances and at barely 19 years of age looks set to make a fair few hundred more, for a resurgent Milan side that will be playing Europa League football next year.

Donnarumma will, of course, be held in the same standard as any other keeper who hopes to win the award, he must win the Champions League, domestic league and/or World Cup in the same year to be in the conversation, at least that’s the current narrative. I’ve noticed that fans and managers are becoming ever more statistically aware and with Petr Cech, De Gea, Ali Al-Habsi, Manuel Neuer and Lukas Fabianski being named their Club or Nation’s Player of The Year, on multiple occasions in some cases, are we seeing the beginning of unilateral recognition of the Goalkeepers contribution to a winning side?

Further testament to that is the inclusion of a second Keeper amongst my honourable mentions list, Jan Oblak. Oblak has been Atletico Madrid’s last line of defence for the last three years, his transfer from Benfica back in 2014 stands as a La Liga record fee paid for a Keeper at 18 Million Euro. Jan has claimed the Ricardo Zamora Trophy for La Liga Best Keeper for each of those three seasons, with 2015/16 a stand out year, conceding only 18 goals all season and finishing runner-up to Real Madrid in the Champions League Final.

Jan Oblak also has a penchant for saving high-pressure penalties, his most notable was that of Thomas Muller’s in the Champions League Semi-Final, a game they lost 2-1 on the night, but progressed to the final on away goals. Oblak’s Atletico will have to break the dominance of Real and Barcelona domestically if he has any chance of being considered for the Ballon d’Or, and realistically if Atletico has any hope of doing that it may have to coincide with Ronaldo’s and Messi’s decline.

All Class and No Style

Another name that kept getting mentions was Real Madrid’s unsung hero Luka Modric. Playing in the same squad as superstars Ronaldo, Benzema, Marcelo, Kroos and Sergio Ramos, Luka is often the forgotten man that works silently in the shadows and keeps the engine room lit. Three consecutive Champions League titles, and three consecutive La Liga and UEFA Team of the Year selections could see Modric step up into the top 5 as soon as this year, but at 32 years old time is in short supply if he has any designs on being named Best Player in The World.

Naming Modric as Ballon d’Or Winner would again buck the trend of players with flair and a goal threat being recognised as the best. This again reinforces the idea that people are becoming more statistically aware and recognise that being the best is so much more than being able to dribble it around 4 players before scoring their 30th of the season. Modric has only contributed nine league goals in his six years at Madrid but has set up his teammates on 32 occasions.

He has also maintained 1.8 Key Passes per game, a key pass is defined as either an assist or the pass directly prior to an assist, with an 88% pass completion average across his 228 La Liga and Champions League appearances.

Modric winning The Ballon d’Or seems unlikely, when comparing him against the competition and as stated time is not on his side so if he were to win, it would probably need to happen this year or next.

The Pharaoh and The King

Keeping with the tradition of The Ballon d’Or, in that flair based goalscorers are usually the ones named Best in The World, we couldn’t have a discussion about future winners without a mention for one Mohammed Salah. Egypt’s most influential man (seriously, over a million voters spoiled their ballot paper in the presidential elections writing on it Mo Salah) has had a stellar year, getting Liverpool into the Champions League Final, finishing fourth in the league just two points behind Tottenham and six behind second-place Manchester United.

Salah scored a record number of Premier League goals in a single season at 32 and smashed home 43 in total in all competitions, add to that 14 assists and 2 key passes per game, it becomes a lot easier to see why Salah is in the same conversation as Ronaldo and Messi for this year’s award. Unfortunately, the Champions League Final ended early for Salah after a controversial challenge or judo throw by Ramos who dislocated his shoulder. Had Salah played the full 90 minutes there’s no telling what the scoreline might have been and had Liverpool lifted the trophy, you could count on Salah being named Ballon d’Or winner in 2018, let alone any other year in the future.

The big question is can he repeat the success of the past season? If he can and Liverpool can tighten up at the back, we could see Liverpool lift their first ever Premier League title, again this may put Salah in the running for the 2019 award. Provided Salah can maintain his form, and Liverpool challenge and/or win cups and titles, we could certainly see the first African winner of the award since George Weah.

The Champions League Final last Saturday gave us a moment from a player that could also be considered for the award in short order. The King of Wales, Gareth Bale. drifted into the box and as Marcelo checked on to his right foot and sent a looping cross in, Bale adjusted his body position as the ball started to travel behind him, and with the same gymnastic flair as Team GB’s James Hall, threw his left foot high into the air and crashed home a bicycle kick past a forlorn Loris Karius.

Bale is now coming to the end of his 5th Season in Spain and rumours are that he’s going to call it time, with Manchester United interested in securing the services of the £75m rated attacker. Bale is more than capable of scoring a varying range of goals, and provides a creative outlet too, laying on double figures of assists in three of his five seasons at Real.

Gareth, just like Mo, is the archetypal winner of The Ballon d’Or and is just two weeks shy of his 29th Birthday, he has a little more time on his side than other contenders. Bale at United is an interesting prospect too, under Jose Mourinho they are likely to challenge for a number of the trophies and perhaps push City a little closer next season than they did the season just gone in the Premier League.

The Future of The Ballon d’Or

For many reading this series, it’s likely you won’t remember a time when the award was won by anyone beyond Ronaldo and Messi. Even at 30 years of age, I struggled to name a winner prior to Ronaldinho in 2005, winning the Ballon d’Or was just one of those things that happened at the end of each year, but the focus still very much remained on the team achievements. With the advent of social media and celebrity culture, the individual has now become the focus and thus The Ballon d’Or has taken centre stage as the curtain closer to the calendar year, it so happens that Ronaldo and Messi have dominated this age of always on, access to information, sharing the ten awards between 2007 and 2017 evenly.

Will we ever see a more competitive battle between two overly dominant players, I for one think it’s highly unlikely. Right now there are at least 18 players that could be considered for the award and realistically there are eight truly phenomenal players that will look to win it over the next five years.

Will Messi or Ronaldo claim the 2018 award? Ultimately that will depend on who wins this summer’s World Cup, if Argentina wins it Messi surely claims the Ballon d’Or as La Liga and World Champion.

Should Portugal stun the world for the second time in as many years then Ronaldo could well make it number six. One thing is certain, the split of the vote I think will be a lot more thinly spread than in previous years and beyond 2018, we can start to look forward to new faces lifting the famous golden ball.

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