It’s official: the Ballon d’Or is no longer the exclusive preserve of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
On Monday evening, Luka Modric was named the world’s best player for 2018. Ronaldo was forced to settle for second spot, while Messi didn’t even make the podium – the first time he’s failed to finish in the top three since 2006, when he was still a teenager.
So, is this the end of an era? Is the reign of Ronaldo and Messi now over? Will we see either man win another Ballon d’Or? After all, Ronaldo is now 33; Messi just two years younger. They have dominated the global game for a decade; for how much longer can we really expect them to continue rewriting the record books?
Particularly with the likes of Kylian Mbappe now snapping at their heels. The Frenchman looks destined to win multiple Ballons d’Or. He even had a strong case for this year’s prize. He scored 32 goals for club and country in 2018, with four of those strikes coming during France’s triumphant World Cup campaign.
Remarkably, he is still only 19 years of age. He is only getting better. Therefore, he is the most obvious obstacle to either Ronaldo or Messi reclaiming the Ballon d’Or. There are others, though.
In 2017, Neymar stepped out of Messi’s shadow and into the spotlight at Paris Saint-Germain with the aim of establishing himself as the best player on the planet. He has instead cemented his reputation as the most hated player on the planet due to his incessant and pathetic play-acting.
The talent is still there, though. At times against Liverpool last week, he was a joy to behold; at others, an embarrassment.
However, were Neymar to lead PSG to a first Champions League title in 2019, and follow that up with a Copa America success on home soil in Brazil, the extravagantly gifted No.10 would be the obvious choice as the next Ballon d’Or winner.
It is difficult to see how Antoine Griezmann improve upon his 2018, though. After firing Atletico Madrid to Europa League victory – the forward scored in every knockout round, and twice in the final – he played a pivotal role in France’s World Cup win. Indeed, no player was involved in more goals at Russia 2018 yet he could only manage a podium place in this year’s Ballon d’Or.
Unless Griezmann proves Atletico’s hero in an unlikely Champions League triumph in 2019 – though they do have the added incentive and potential benefit of home advantage should they reach the final – it’s hard to see the 27-year-old ranking any higher in 12 months’ time.
The same goes for Mohamed Salah, who only managed sixth place – despite breaking the goals record for a single Premier League season (32) and netting ten times on Liverpool’s surprise run to the Champions League final.
Injury/Sergio Ramos essentially put paid to the Egyptian attacker’s Ballon d’Or hopes, as collective honours are important when it comes to taking the trophy, though it is not decisive.
After all, Real Madrid and France centre-half Raphael Varane lifted both the Champions League and the World Cup in 2018 – only the fourth man in history to win both titles in the same year – yet he didn’t even make the top three.
At least Tuttosport will be happy, though, with the pro-Juventus, Turin-based tabloid having expressed their outrage at a baseless rumour that Varane had made the top three ahead of their now beloved Ronaldo with the incredibly disrespectful “Varane who?”. When even the Italians are no championing the art of defending, you know the days of centre-halves winning the Ballon d’Or have long since passed.
Ronaldo and Messi’s Ballon d’Or dominance may well be drawing to a close too. They are not done just yet, though.
Ronaldo, who swapped Real Madrid for Juventus during the summer, has made a predictably prolific start to life in Turin, and is already well on his way to achieving legendary status. Not since John Charles 60 years ago has a new signing netted at least 10 times for the Bianconeri in the first 14 rounds of the Serie A season.
Juve were willing to make Ronaldo the most expensive thirty-something in history and hand him a bumper four-year contract because they fully believe he will still be scoring goals at 37 – and who can blame them?
As he was so keen to remind us after last month’s goal against Manchester United, Ronaldo remains in prime physical condition and Portugal team-mate Bernardo Silva can see no reason why the striker won’t still be the Seleccao’s skipper at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Because he is getting old, everybody is expecting him to stop playing as well as he used to,” the Manchester City ace told reporters after Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain in Sochi in June, “but he is getting better and better.”
One could say the same about Messi. At 31, he may no longer be as fast as he once was with the ball at his feet but he uses it more intelligently than ever before.
In a Barca side no longer blessed with passers of the calibre of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Messi has become Barcelona’s principal playmaker, meaning he now starts as well as finishes their attacks, with his wonderful Wembley masterclass a captivating case in point.
Indeed, Messi 4.0 may well the best version yet. He certainly seems more motivated than ever before. After being handed the captain’s armband at the start of the year, he made it clear that his primary focus was bringing the Champions League back to Camp Nou. Six goals in just three games proves that those were not empty words.
It would also be a surprise if Messi does not return to the Argentina squad after his current sabbatical, refreshed and determined to finally end his wait for international honours. What better way than to do that than by winning the Copa America in Brazil, thus banishing the bitter memory of the World Cup final loss to Germany in Rio in 2014?
In a nutshell, after a decade of unprecedented dominance, Messi and Ronaldo remain driven by personal and collective goals. As a result, it would be a major surprise if one of the two men who have defined a generation do not reclaim the Ballon d’Or this time next year.
They have many worthy rivals, as Modric has proven this year, but, even in their advancing years, they remain without any equals.
“If you take the player in the purest form, there’s nobody better [than Messi and Ronaldo] yet,” Mbappe recently reasoned. “This year, they were again the best two players in the world.
“Messi finished the best goalscorer in Europe; Ronaldo was the top scorer in the Champions League.
“Nobody is doing better [than them] at the moment and we can’t say it’s the end of their era because it will only end when somebody else does better than them.”
In short, Modric hasn’t ended the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly; he’s merely interrupted it.