Following the first cancelled Ballon d’Or ceremony in history in 2020 due to COVID-19, who are the frontrunners and outsiders to win the coveted accolade in 2021?
Voting for the Ballon d'Or is split between journalists and national team coaches and captains. Despite no element of a public vote, there is most certainly still a bias and a romanticism about the voting system.
While individual brilliance is certainly a fundamental requirement to be considered for the Ballon d’Or, it is very much accepted that team honours play a large role. Luka Modrić famously captained Croatia to a World Cup semi-final and won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 2018 to break a 10-year streak of Messi and Ronaldo wins.
With the criteria in mind, let’s look at how the 30 shortlisted candidates announced on 8th October rank in terms of likelihood.
There are certainly a few names on the list that get in based on team honours. César Azpilicueta and Mason Mount, though fantastic players for Chelsea, would not be on this list if it wasn’t for their Champions League triumph in Porto. Lautaro Martínez and Nicolo Barella are similar – great players, but primarily shortlisted due to Inter Milan’s Serie A title triumph. You could argue the same for Luis Suárez with Atlético.
There are also players who have performed to ridiculous levels in certain competitions but not others. Raheem Sterling set EURO 2020 alight but has been fairly subdued at club level. Likewise, Gianluigi Donnarumma has been exquisite with Italy but is yet to cement first team status at PSG.
Finally, there are players who are just not quite on the level of performance of those who are most likely to win. Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Harry Kane, Simon Kjær, Riyad Mahrez, Luka Modrić and Gerard Moreno fall into this category.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really such a thing as a total ‘dark horse’ when it comes to the Ballon d’Or. Due to the nature of the voting, you can usually narrow down the possible winners to four or five names. Thus, players like Bruno Fernandes, Rúben Dias and Romelu Lukaku will likely miss out on a
podium finish. Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kevin De Bruyne are usually in the conversation, but they haven’t done enough this year to break the top 3.
Despite Erling Haaland’s ridiculous goalscoring, he’s unlikely to take an award home this year – but he likely will one day. Similarly, Kylian Mbappé is another who feels destined to win the trophy, just not in 2021. These and all the names above, unfortunately, will likely miss out on the top 3.
There isn’t a great deal that separates the top six, and it’s hard to say for sure who will clinch the award.
Karim Benzema is unlikely to win but is deservedly in the conversation for a podium finish given his talismanic status for Real Madrid. Likewise, N'Golo Kanté has been essential to Chelsea’s Champions League success but will probably finish below team-mate Jorginho due to the latter’s involvement in Italy’s EURO 2020 win.
But in terms of individual excellence, three names stand above – in my opinion, at least. Mohamed Salah is the first. The Egyptian has started the 2021-22 season in scintillating form and is arguably the best player in
the world right now, but lacks the accolades that make Jorginho such a frontrunner.
The bookies’ favourite is record six-time winner Lionel Messi, who has, as per usual, performed at the very highest level the game has to offer. Many would argue that Robert Lewandowski is the rightful winner, as he had been a shoo-in for the cancelled 2020 trophy and has continued his spectacular form into this year.
Trophies get you a long way in the Ballon d’Or race, as previously illustrated by Modrić. For this reason, I think Jorginho will pinch a third-place finish, controversially finish above the fantastic Salah, who probably deserves it more. I predict that Robert Lewandowski will take home silver, and that Lionel Messi will clinch a seventh Ballon D’Or to further extend his historic record. After all, only one player other than Cristiano Ronaldo has won the award other than him since 2007.
The winner of the 2021 Ballon d’Or will be revealed on 29th November.