The Best of the Best
The nominees for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award have been announced, with some of the biggest names in world football set to go head-to-head for the coveted accolade in Paris on November 29. Perennial contenders Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo once again headline the list of players looking to walk away with top honours, but the legendary duo face stiff competition from across the globe. KICK OFF’s Liam Bekker profiles 10 of this year’s favourites to claim the honour and title of being crowned the best footballer in the world.
Robert Lewandowski (33) Poland & Bayern Munich
Denied an almost certain Ballon d’Or in 2020 after the awards ceremony was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bayern Munich superstar Robert Lewandowski is back in the running this year and is one of the favourites to walk away with the coveted trophy. At the time of his nomination, the prolific striker had netted 14 times in 10 appearances across all competitions for Bayern, adding to the remarkable haul of 48 goals he scored in just 40 games last season. Lewandowski’s lethal form in front of goal fired the Bavarians to a record-extending 31st Bundesliga crown and the FIFA Club World Cup title during the 2020/21 campaign, while he also won the domestic and European Golden Shoe awards, seeing off perennial contender Lionel Messi by 11 goals in respect of the latter accolade. ThThe reigni ing FIFA Men’s Player of the Year has won almosta all there is to win in terms of individ ual awards in football and could well crowwn his collection by walking off with the BBallon d’Or at the glamourous event.
Lione el Messi (34) Argent tina & FC Barcelona / Paris SSaint- Germain
Even in a so-called bad year – at least by his own lofty standards – sixtime Bal lon d’Or winner Lionel Messi unsurprissingly features as one of the frontrunnners to once again claim the award he has woon more times than any other player.. The 34-year-old spent the better part of last season embroiled in a bittter transfer saga with FC Barcelona, wh o faced political and financial crissis, and which culminated in one of t he most-talked about transfers of a ll time when he joined Ligue 1 giannts Paris Saint-Germain at the start of th e current season. Despite the unceertainty surrounding his future at thhe time, Messi still managed to scoore 38 goals in 47 appearances for the Catalan giants, including twoo in the club’s Copa Del Rey final win over Athletic Bilbao. His greatest achiievement of the year came on the inte rnational front, however, where he fifinally won his first major piece
of silverware with Argentina after captaining La Albiceleste to the Copa América trophy – the nation’s first senior trophy win in any competition since 1993.
Jorginho (29) Italy & Chelsea
One of the dark horses to win this year’s award is Chelsea and Italy star, Jorginho. The 29-year-old enjoyed a remarkable run following the turn of the year in which he claimed the UEFA Champions League with the Blues in May before helping his national team win the UEFA European Championship trophy just over a month later. The Brazilian-born midfielder’s super individual performances in the middle of the park earned him a spot in the Team of the Tournament for both competitions, while he was also recognised with the coveted 2020/21 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award, seeing off competition from Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and teammate N’Golo Kanté to take home the trophy.
Karim Benzema (33) France & Real Madrid
With Cristiano Ronaldo having left Real Madrid in 2019, Karim Benzema has emerged as the club’s star man over the last two-andhalf-seasons. That was perhaps most evident during the 2020/21 campaign in which the France international netted an impressive 30 goals in 46 appearances for Los Blancos as the team narrowly missed out on the LaLiga title to domestic rivals Atlético Madrid. His impressive form at club level also caught the eye of France coach Didier Deschamps, who ended the 33-year-old’s six-year enforced hiatus in order to rope him back into the national fold. And, while Benzema wasn’t able to help Les Bleus to the UEFA European Championship title earlier this year, his return did pay dividends at the UEFA Nations League in October where he netted in both the semi-final against Belgium, and in a Man of the Match performance in the final against Spain to help the reigning world champions win their first title in the new competition.
Cristiano Ronaldo (36) Portugal & Juventus / Manchester United
Looking to equal arch-nemesis Lionel Messi’s six Ballon d’Or wins, Cristiano Ronaldo will once again be among the frontrunners at this year’s awards ceremony. The 36-year-old faces stiff competition to achieve that feat but did his chances no harm with 36 goals in 44 appearances for Juventus last season, before completing a sensational return to Manchester United at the start of the new campaign. Ronaldo hit the ground running at Old Trafford, netting five goals in the first five matches of his second spell with the Red Devils.
Mohamed Salah (29) Egypt & Liverpool
Arguably the Premier League’s in-form player at the moment, Liverpool star Mohamed Salah has hit the ground running during the 2021/22 season to mount a late charge towards the Ballon d’Or. The Egyptian forward, who ranked as high as fifth and fourth respectively for the award in 2018 and 2019, has emerged as one of the favourites to go all the way this time around after netting 12 goals in his opening 11 matches for the season, following on from the incredible 31 goals he scored for the Reds last season. Salah’s lack of silverware with Liverpool or Egypt last season may ultimately count against him but that hasn’t stopped the two-time African Footballer of the Year’s from playing himself into contention with a string of world class performances, including a club-record run of scoring in 10 consecutive matches across all competitions.
Kylian Mbappé (22) France & Paris Saint-Germain
Kylian Mbappé’s remarkable progression
in recent years suggests it’s a matter of when rather than if the 22-year-old will one day win the Ballon d’Or. The Paris Saint-Germain star scored an incredible 42 goals in 47 appearances last season alone, including 27 in the league to win a third consecutive Ligue 1 Golden Boot award, and only narrowly missed out on the equivalent UEFA Champions League accolade to Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland. Mbappé’s remarkable performances were ultimately not enough to help PSG win either competition, although he did taste success with France last month where his late goal in the UEFA Nations League final against Spain proved to be the matchwinning effort.
Luis Suárez (34) Uruguay & Atletico Madrid
Discarded by FC Barcelona in unceremonious fashion at the start of last season, Luis Suárez came back to haunt the Catalan giants by scoring 21 goals for Atlético Madrid to inspire Los Colchoneros to a famous LaLiga triumph over his former side and Real Madrid. The veteran Uruguay star’s performances solidified his status as one of the leading strikers in the world and he remains one of the best players never to have won the Ballon d’Or. The 2021 edition could be his final chance to set that right although it remains to be seen whether his contributions to the Atléti cause will be enough for him to finally get his hands on the trophy this time around.
Romelu Lukaku (28) Belgium & Inter Milan / Chelsea
Similarly to his new Chelsea teammate Jorginho, Romelu Lukaku stands an outside chance of winning this year’s Ballon d’Or. The prolific striker scored 24 goals in 36 league appearances last season to inspire Internazionale to the Serie A title, breaking Juventus’ nine-year stranglehold on the trophy in the process. Add to that the six goals he scored across the Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League, and the 11 goals he has netted in just 12 games for Belgium this year alone, and it’s no surprise that Chelsea splashed a reported club record fee of £97.5 million (R1.9 billion) to re-sign him ahead of the current campaign. The 28-yearold had since scored four goals for the Blues at the time of his nomination, and will no doubt be in contention in Paris when the votes are tallied for this year’s award.
Erling Haaland (21) Norway & Borussia Dortmund
Featuring as the second-youngest player to be nominated for the Ballon d’Or – behind only 18-year-old FC Barcelona starlet Pedri – Erling Haaland is as much a star for the present as he is for the future. The Norway international is the son of former Leeds United and Manchester City midfielder AlfInge Håland but and is forging a remarkable career in his own right, and it is one which could see him reach the very top of the game. The 21-year-old netted a goal-agame total of 41 for Borussia Dortmund last season, which included a tournament-high 10 goals in the UEFA Champions League, and improved on that ratio in the current campaign by firing home 13 times across his opening 10 matches for the Bundesliga side. Håland’s prolific form in front of goal has already been recognised in Germany where he was crowned as the Bundesliga Player of the Season last campaign, while he also walked away with the Champions League Forward of the Season crown at the end of the 2020/21 competition. This year’s Ballon d’Or may have come too soon for the former Red Bull Salzburg star, but he will no doubt be a regular feature at the ceremony for years to come.
N’golo Kanté (30) France & Chelsea
The other half of Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League-winning midfield, N’Golo Kanté equally deserves his spot among this year’s list of nominees. While Jorginho won the overall UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award, due in part to his international success with Italy, it was Kanté who arguably played a bigger role in the Blues’ continental success last season after starring with a Man of the Match performance in the final against Manchester City. The 30-year-old was subsequently rewarded with the UEFA Men’s Midfielder of the Year gong following the tournament and also enjoyed a triumph on the international stage after starring for France in their UEFA Nations League triumph.