Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 15: The end is nigh for Messi and Ronaldo at the Ballon d'Or

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 15: The end is nigh for Messi and Ronaldo at the Ballon d'Or

JAMES JOHNSON runs through the runners and riders for the 2018 Ballon d’Or award to see if the Messi/Ronaldo era of dominance is at an end, and also to look at who will be the leading contenders for future success when the ‘big two’ finally wind their careers down. Part 15 of our 18 for 18 series.

So it comes around again, football’s answer to the Oscars – the Ballon d’Or – when the great and the good come together for a back-slapping party.  A whole generation of fans have grown up since anyone other than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo won it way back in 2007 (the Brazilian, Kaka). Is there about to be a changing of the guard? This year’s 30 nominees, a kind of eccentric shortlist, were announced in October, so let’s see what the class of 2018 has to offer after first looking back at the award’s history.

Gabriel Hanot – a French sports writer and ex-professional footballer who wrote for the magazine L’Equipe – came up with the idea of an award for the best player in Europe. The publication France Football effectively sponsored the award until 2009. The first winner was Sir Stanley Matthews in 1956 and all the European greats followed: Alfredo Di Stefano(2), Franz Beckenbauer (2), Johan Cruyff (3), Michel Platini (3), Marco van Basten (3), Zinedine Zidane, surprisingly only once, although there is one glaring omission; that of Ferenc Puskas. Di Stefano was Argentinian but took Spanish nationality and played for Real Madrid, whereas neither Pele or Diego Maradona, who had great success with Napoli, qualified during their playing career. In 1995 the qualification was extended to any player as long as he played for a European team and finally, in 2007, it went global.

When Stanley Matthews won the first award in 1956, he had turned 40 that year but was still capable of performing with the best. Although still one of the top players in world football at the time, we can surmise that he won it because of his lengthy career and that the football writers blessed with a vote were a romantic bunch. He won his first England cap aged 19 in 1934 and his last came in 1957 aged 42. Perhaps what clinched it was his performance against a Brazil side that was to win the World Cup two years later; he starred in England’s 4 – 2  victory at Wembley after many thought his international career was over.

The winners of the inaugural European Cup in 1956 were Real Madrid, who then retained it for a further four seasons. Their star man was, of course, Alfredo Di Stefano, nominated by Spain in 2004 as its best player of the previous 50 years. For some Di Stefano was a player comparable to Pele or Maradona. In another poll conducted by France Football he came fourth behind those two and Johan Cruyff in a list of Player of the Century. As he played mostly in the pre-TV era we are left with the memories of those who saw him play. He scored in all of Real’s European Cup final victories including a hat-trick in the 7 – 3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960.

Di Stefano was simply too good a player to be ignored and he won it twice in 1957 and 1959, with clubmate and Frenchman Raymond Kopa winning it in 1958 – a World Cup year when Brazil were successful.  France came third in the 1958 tournament, losing 5 – 2 to Brazil in the semi-final. The Ballon d’Or jury chose Kopa ahead of his colleague Just Fontaine who scored 13 goals – a record that still stands to this day. They also effectively ignored the exploits of the Swedish team which reached the final only to be beaten Brazil, for whom Pele won Player of the Tournament.

Embed from Getty Images

The only Scot to have won the Ballon d’Or is Denis Law in 1964, while in 1966 Bobby Charlton became the second Englishman beating countryman and World Cup winning skipper Bobby Moore.  There is debate about the decision given Moore’s hero status amongst English fans, but is there any argument that Bobby Charlton wasn’t the key to England’s success in 1966? His goal against Mexico in the second game was not just a magnificent strike from 30 yards but it seemed to lift an England team that for the first game and much of the second was playing like England teams of the next 50 years. His two goals in the semi-final saw England through against a technically better team in Portugal.

Charlton came second in 1967 and 1968 when team mate George Best was successful. It was the year Manchester United won the European Cup with Best starring in the final. Moore missed out again in 1970, that time to West Germany’s Gerd Muller.

The early 70s belonged to two of the giants of world football, Cruyff and Beckenbauer, as their respective club sides – Ajax and Bayern Munich – dominated the European Cup. In turn, their national sides – Holland and West Germany – were also the leading lights on the international stage.

In 1977 Kevin Keegan missed out to Allan Simonsen of Borussia Moenchengladbach despite his Liverpool side’s victory over Die Fohlen in the European Cup Final, although he then won the trophy twice in succession while with Hamburg: in 1978 when, ironically, Liverpool again won the European Cup and 1979 as Hamburg won the Bundesliga. The only English player to win the Ballon d’Or since Keegan is Michael Owen in 2001. It is worth some thought that; despite Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Liverpool dominating the European Cup between 1977 and 1984 and Manchester United winning a treble in 1999. English clubs were of course banned from European competition for several seasons from 1985 – 1990 but had that never happened who knows, maybe Neville Southall, Gary Lineker, Ian Rush or John Barnes might have been successful?

A World Cup can be hugely beneficial to a player’s chance of success. Take Paolo Rossi in 1982 for example. He had only recently returned from a ban (the Totonero betting scandal) and had played just a few league games for Juventus before the tournament in Spain where he finished as top scorer with six goals as the Azzurri were crowned world champions.

Another factor is that basing a competition on a calendar year covers two seasons; it’s a bit like having your school report spread over two school years. Not surprisingly some players are slow to respond after their summer exertions – some said this about Harry Kane, although he seems to be finding his feet now, whereas Eden Hazard has returned into a new management set-up at Chelsea and is on fire. Mohammed Salah, on the other hand, suffered a bad injury in the Champions League final and almost missed the World Cup. His importance to Egypt was such that he was bound to play. Kevin de Bruyne had an outstanding season for Manchester City and figured heavily for Belgium as they secured third place, but injury has meant his start to this campaign has been curtailed. These are just some of the contenders but has anyone really done enough to justify a vote ahead of Messi or Ronaldo?  

The last winner in a World Cup year that wasn’t Messi or Ronaldo was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. This also pre-dated the FIFA link-up so mirrors the traditional voting system of journalists. Cannavaro captained Italy to their fourth World Cup triumph and proved a formidable defender and leader. In the season ending immediately before the World Cup in Germany, Juventus won the Scudetto (the Italian League) with Cannavaro as a key part of their defence. The  ‘Calciopoli’ match fixing scandal caused Juventus to be relegated and he moved on to Real Madrid. However, logic dictates that he won the Ballon d’Or primarily because of his World Cup performances and Italian league success.

Embed from Getty Images

Briefly tracking back, World Cup year winners were: 2002 – Ronaldo; 1998 – Zinedine Zidane;  1994- Hristo Stoichkov; 1990 – Lothar Matthaus; 1986 – Igor Belanov. Hopefully you get the drift; if it’s a World Cup year then the winner is likely to be a World Cup winner, unless as in 1994 (Brazil) or 1986 (Argentina) and the old rules applied.

The reality is that roughly two-thirds of the nominees have little chance, but it stokes interest so here are some thoughts on who might upset the proverbial apple cart and where it leaves things moving forward. Firstly, those who didn’t play for either of the two World Cup finalists, secondly those who did and finally the Messi/Ronaldo monster.

Trophies are the usual measure of success in football and several worthy candidates simply played for the wrong team. Harry Kane for instance had a fine season, scoring 30 goals in the Premier League, winning the Golden Boot in Russia and captaining England. However, Tottenham won nothing. Kane faded after the last 16 game against Colombia and despite the general hysteria back home, England’s ride to the semi-final could hardly been easier and every time they played a good side they lost. However, Kane is more than a goalscorer; he leads on the pitch, his all-round play has improved, and goal scorers have won the Ballon d’Or before. Spurs fans will hate me saying it but at some point he will probably have to move to a Champions League winning side to become a genuine contender for the individual honour.

Belgium had a fine World Cup and many were disappointed that they lost to France in the semi-final. They beat Brazil in the quarters and generally played the best and most expansive football across the tournament but as we all know often such a team does not lift the trophy. Both Hazard and De Bruyne were key players. Hazard scoring three times and assisting twice and winning the Silver Ball as second best player in the tournament. De Bruyne scored once and assisted twice. De Bruyne had an outstanding season as Manchester City became the first EPL team to reach 100 points, however, City failed again in the Champions League, eliminated by Liverpool in the quarter-finals.

Chelsea’s season ended with an FA Cup final victory over Manchester United – never something to sniff at – and Hazard’s run that led to the penalty award was a typical example of his technical qualities, particularly of running at top speed, changing direction, maintaining control and eventually luring the defender into a hapless challenge. However, Antonio Conte’s team had a miserable season in the league finishing fifth and losing to Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League. Hazard, however, still managed to be top scorer with 12 goals. To sum up, Hazard had a better World Cup than De Bruyne, although to be fair that could partly be attributed to the less attacking role that Roberto Martinez gave De Bruyne who, when he did have a more offensive role against top opposition in Brazil, scored a superb goal. Both could win next year and indeed in 2020 when Belgium’s golden generation will have another opportunity in the Euros, but not this year.

In passing, a few nominees are worth a mention: Thibault Courtois had a good World Cup and was outstanding against Brazil. Sergio Ramos led Real Madrid to another Champions League victory, although he lost a few more friends along the way over the Salah incident but the Spanish World Cup was another disaster. Mohammed Salah was the Premier League’s Golden Boot winner with 32 goals and a Champions League finalist but the injury he sustained in that final cost him and his season has only recently sparked into life since the World Cup. Diego Godin helped Atletico Madrid to win the Europa League, finish second in La Liga with the best defence and he led Uruguay to the last 8 at the World Cup. Godin is a good fit for the classic Cannavaro type winner but not this year and at 32 his best days are surely past him.

Embed from Getty Images

So the true candidates, the likely winners, if it isn’t to be either Messi or Ronaldo?

In the absence of a stand-out performer why not start out with the captain of the World Cup winners? Hugo Lloris plays for Tottenham, but had he played for say Real Madrid he would likely have been a strong candidate. However, previous goalkeeping legends like Gianluigi Buffon and Peter Schmeichel never won the Ballon d’Or so it’s hard to make a case for Lloris other than he captained France.

Many rate N’Golo Kante of Chelsea and France; they will cite statistics, passes, tackles won, consistency and so on. However, given Chelsea’s moderate season he would have had to have had a World Cup akin to that of Zidane in 1998 to win it which simply wasn’t the case. Which leads us on to his fellow midfielder, Paul Pogba. Has so much been written about a player who has, as yet, failed to prove his apparent greatness? Setting aside Pogba’s modest season at Manchester United and his start to the new season which has hardly excited the Old Trafford faithful, he did have a good World Cup scoring in the final. Pogba was the heartbeat of the French team but to be a winner his performances would have had to be on another level, and I don’t think that was the case. France won the World Cup because they had a very strong squad, allied to a strong team ethos, something which in previous French squads was sadly lacking. They also had a coach who was a World Cup winner and who understood why France had previously failed despite their obvious qualities.

So that leaves the two attacking players who led the French charge, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe (sorry Olivier Giroud). Griezmann had another good season with Atletico Madrid, winning the UEFA trophy for best player in the Europa League and helping Atletico to their win as well as finishing second in La Liga. He also won the Bronze Ball in Russia for being the third best player in the tournament. He scored 4 goals and was Man of the Match in the World Cup final.

Mbappe is the new ‘Wunderkind’ and he did excite in Russia with some electrifying performances and is favourite to pick up the Under 21 award. It’s fair to say that Mbappe’s day will surely come but unless PSG can win the Champions League, he is likely to have to wait until France win another trophy or, more likely, move to a better league. He has been fast-tracked into the superstar category and against Argentina, and then in the final against Croatia, he showed why as he is an express train with boots on. The U-21 award should be the start of more to come.

So finally, Croatia had two outstanding individuals – Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. Rakitic had a very good World Cup and England fans will remember his performance after half-time as Croatia came from behind. With Modric, he helped drag Croatia to the final but he also had a good season with Barcelona as they won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey.

However, all roads must lead to Modric if any one player can claim the Ballon d’Or. He was a leading light as Real Madrid retained the Champions League and was outstanding as Croatia reached the World Cup final. He was voted FIFA Player of the Year 2018 and UEFA Player of the Year 2018 and won the Golden Ball as World Cup Player of the Tournament. There is something in the air that suggests it is his year and in the absence of an outstanding individual in the French side who could match his performances at the highest level, the momentum is with him. It’s also possible, that like Stanley Matthews 62 years ago, good old romanticism could play a part in awarding the midfield maestro at the culmination of a great career.

Embed from Getty Images

So what about about Messi and Ronaldo: has their time come and gone? For Ronaldo, the alleged events in Las Vegas several years ago, which have been all over the media in recent months, might well prick any hopes he has of winning another Ballon d’Or. Like Messi, his World Cup fizzled out early on, although his goal-scoring feats continued in both the Champions League and La Liga.

As for Messi, well the stats don’t lie – he scored loads of goals, helped Barca to another La Liga title and has recently showed his class seems undiminished by time. However, everyone has been waiting for Argentina to win the World Cup with Messi as its inspiration, but it hasn’t happened and it looks like it never will. It just feels like everyone is ready to move on to a new era, which probably means Messi will score another 50 goals this season, Barca will win the CL and Messi will win the Ballon d’Or in 2019.

So that is the class of 2018, how did it do? Perhaps we have become immune to the idea that football might one day exist without Messi or Ronaldo. That day hasn’t yet arrived, and it is quite possible that a year from now Messi will likely be a contender again. Being a World Cup year it allows the jury to look beyond them to consider other candidates. Hazard and De Bruyne are well placed to be contenders over the next 5 years; Mbappe is the stand-out young contender; Kane and Salah are strikers who could be future winners simply by virtue of their ability to score goals. Pogba has the talent but does he have the mentality? Neymar has the talent but does he have the team commitment or the will to ditch his thespian antics? Isco and Griezmann are also potential winners.

All things considered, I anticipate a Luka Modric victory and to compensate, a French player as runner-up, with Mbappe winning the new Kopa Trophy. It should be a great December night for Croatia when the award is presented.

So where are tomorrows winners? The heir apparent to Messi or Ronaldo is Mbappe, but they have set the bar so high can he rise to the challenge? We’ve talked about Salah, Kane, Griezmann, Hazard and De Bruyne; of Isco and Pogba. What about beyind?

There are ten short-listed for the Kopa award including Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. The quick-footed Christian Pulisic has started the season brilliantly with Borussia Dortmund but he would have to star in a Champions League and Bundesliga campaign first. Could he achieve that at Dortmund? Justin Kluivert, like his father before him has the confidence, some might say arrogance to succeed, after all in football if you don’t believe in yourself then life is tough.  Despite interest from Manchester United he chose to move to Roma, some might say a wise move.  However, his natural ability and inner confidence has to find an outlet and so far that hasn’t happened at Roma. His talk of playing for Barcelona is one thing, proving you have the right attitude to supplement the talent is another. Rodrygo Silva de Goes is playing for Santos but Real Madrid now hold his contract, but who will be his manager when he finally joins in 2019? He clearly has that natural Brazilian talent but until he becomes a regular in Real’s first team and presumably in the Brazilian national team it is too early to make a judgement.

Perhaps the worrying thing is that talent is simply hoovered up so that the best end up playing for the European giants. Atletico Madrid have shown that with the right manager and a long-term plan a challenge can be made, but even so, they have not managed to win the Champions League. Godin has probably missed the boat but Griezmann could still win the Ballon d’Or if Atletico have another good run. The amount of money being spent by just a few clubs means that top players end up playing for a diminishing group of uber-rich clubs and the chances of a player winning the Ballon d’Or from anywhere else is waning. A sad reality and perhaps the wrong direction for those who look at football with a romantic view.

Embed from Getty Images

FOLLOW JAMES ON TWITTER @JamesJo64540595