Opinion: Ballon d'Or could lose relevance in post-Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo era, and that's a good thing
The Ballon d'Or has been defined by the duel between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the last decade, but European football is changing. Robert Lewandowski could finally win the award after the cancellation of the 2019 prize while Jorginho is also widely seen as a candidate after a very successful year.
Ballon d'Or - Watch the moment Lionel Messi collects the trophy in 2019
Only one player has won the Ballon d’Or more times than Cristiano Ronaldo (five) and it’s the player against which his entire career will be measured - Lionel Messi (six). For all the countless honours they have won for their club and country over the last decade-and-a-half, their dominance of the sport’s most prestigious individual award perhaps illustrates their premiership best.
Even at this late stage with Messi and Ronaldo well into the twilight of their respective careers, it’s impossible to discuss the Ballon d’Or without mentioning the two greatest players of their generation. Their grip, however, is undoubtedly loosening on the prize, something that will surely be demonstrated by this year’s voting.
Robert Lewandowski is the favourite among most bookmakers to win the 2021 Ballon d’Or with Karim Benzema and Jorginho also tipped to get their hands on European football’s most famous golden orb. Messi is still in the discussion, but a record seventh Ballon d’Or won’t necessarily end up in his possession while Ronaldo is expected to be a long way down the list.
This presents us with a preview of a future without Messi and Ronaldo setting the standard at the top of the game, and with a future in which the Ballon d’Or loses relevance. Without its place in the greatest individual rivalry the sport has ever seen, the France Football award might not occupy so many column inches. This, however, would be a good thing for football and the way fans and experts view the sport. Comparison between players playing in different positions is awkward to the point of futility.
While the Ballon d’Or has always been revered as the greatest individual award in football, it merely became a weather vane to determine whether the wind at any given time was blowing towards Messi or Ronaldo. It came to define the intense rivalry between the pair in a way that actually diminished the true prestige of the prize.
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The contest between Messi and Ronaldo has done nothing for the way the best football players are assessed. The numbers registered by the pair at the peak of their powers reduced the comparison of the sport’s great and good to binary factors when football is too fluid for this to be appropriate.
If Messi and Ronaldo’s decline prompts a rethink on what constitutes a good football player, this can only be good thing. This could be reflected in the sort of players that are pushed forward for the Ballon d’Or in the coming years. Goalscorers might not be the only ones considered for individual prizes. Maybe one day, a goalkeeper might even win the Ballon d’Or for the first time since 1963.
Lionel Messi e Cristiano Ronaldo durante Barcellona-Real Madrid del 6 maggio 2018 al Camp Nou.
Image credit: Getty Images
This process might have already started with the nomination of Jorginho, a player defined by more nuanced things than his goalscoring ability, as a potential Ballon d’Or winner this year. It might even have started with the voting of Luka Modric as the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner, when the Croatian midfielder finished above Messi and Ronaldo.
N’Golo Kante has also recently been spoken about as a potential Ballon d’Or winner and might have been pushed closer to the front of this year’s voting had France made it further at Euro 2020. Despite this, the chances are that the 2021 Ballon d’Or will still end up in the hands of a goalscorer, whether it’s Benzema, Lewandowski or Messi. It might take more than just Messi and Ronaldo’s depreciation for this to change.
Of course, it’s possible that the Messi-Ronaldo era will be succeeded by the Erling Haaland-Kylian Mbappe era, in which case football will continue to evaluate players in the same old overly-simplistic manner. The sport might never be able to shake its habit of only seeing its greatest talents for the numbers they produce.