Since its inception in 1956, no Belgian footballer has ever won the prestigious Ballon d’Or award for the best player in the European leagues. But could 2022 be the year that we see that all change?
Every year as the season draws to a close, debates over who could potentially win the most coveted of individual awards in football begin. Many base their arguments on the number of goals scored during the season, with strikers almost always favoured over defenders or goalkeepers, or on how many trophies one player has helped their team win.
The award should, in all honesty, be awarded to the player who has played at a consistently high level all season and has been instrumental in his club’s success. While this has not always been the case, should this criterion be applied this year, then Manchester City’s Belgian talisman Kevin De Bruyne is in with more than a shout.
The arguments have already begun. De Bruyne has been outstanding as Manchester City push for the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League double this season. His name should have been in the mix long before his performance in this week’s win over Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League final, putting him amongst the frontrunners for the award. If consistency and influence are key to winning the Ballon d’Or – politics and favouritism aside – then the former Genk player should be a strong challenger this year.
But De Bruyne is just one of many players who have stood out this season for Europe’s top clubs. A player who shared the limelight in the breathless Champions League match on Tuesday night is probably De Bruyne’s main rival for the Ballon d’Or. Using European success as a barometer, then Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema is the favourite for this year’s award. Scoring twice in the 4-3 first leg defeat to City, Benzema grabbed his 13th and 14th Champions League goals of this campaign. The four-time European Cup-winning Frenchman has also revived his team’s domestic superiority with Real Madrid one win away from their latest La Liga title in Spain.
Of course, should Manchester City see off Liverpool’s challenge in England, while also reaching the Champions League final in Paris and claiming that prize too, then Kevin De Bruyne – it could be argued – would have eclipsed the season Benzema has had. However, with 25 goals in La Liga at the time of writing, Benzema has an advantage in the Ballon d’Or stakes that De Bruyne cannot match.
The Belgian, of course, isn’t a striker – another factor that might sway the decision away from him – but he has still managed 11 goals in the Premiership this season and, while his Champions League return of just two goals pales beside Benzema’s tally, he scored the goal that knocked out Atletico Madrid in the quarter-final and scored the competition’s fastest ever goal in the win over Real Madrid this week.
”It’s a very difficult choice, because of course they play in a different position,” said former Real Madrid player Raphael van der Vaart after Tuesday’s game. “But I think Benzema really deserves it now, when you see how he still performs at his age. If you’ve played at Real Madrid, you know how hard it is to always play there and keep performing. A Ballon d’Or would be a crowning achievement for his phenomenal career. For De Bruyne, that could happen later.”
“I think De Bruyne is the best midfielder in the world at the moment,” the ex-Netherlands international continued. “A lot has changed in football in a short time compared to the time when I was still playing at the highest level. The game has become faster and more dynamic. That fits perfectly with De Bruyne. He has everything: technique, insight, running ability … He’s a real aggressor.”
It’s not only Benzema that stands in the Belgian’s way. De Bruyne faces competition as well from Mohamed Salah whose 22 Premiership goals have helped Liverpool cut Manchester City’s lead at the top of the league to just one point, with only a handful of games to go. Liverpool are also looking to reach the Champions League final in Paris this season and reclaim the title they last won in 2019, which would be the club’s sixth. Salah has eight Champions League goals this season. His club is also chasing an unprecedented quadruple of titles which, should they achieve this feat, would catapult Salah as the frontrunner for the Ballon d’Or.
Liverpool also have another challenger in Sadio Mané. The Senegalese has already helped his country win the African Cup of Nations and qualify for this year’s World Cup. He has also contributed 14 goals to aid Liverpool’s title challenge. As with Salah, if the Reds complete a historic quadruple this season, he may also stand a good chance of winning the Ballon d’Or.
And who would rule out a win at last for Bayern Munich’s prolific and record-breaking forward Robert Lewandowski who helped his club win their 10th Bundesliga title in a row, or the ever-thrilling Kylian Mbappe at Paris St. Germain? Could there even be another upset with an underperforming Lionel Messi once again being handed the award for the eighth time for being, well, Lionel Messi?
As yet, all these questions have no answer. The Ballon d’Or more often than not reflects European success and with the destination of the continent’s main prize still undecided, it is all pure speculation as to where the Ballon d’Or will end up.
But – whisper it – maybe if Manchester City win their first Champions League this season, a certain flame-haired Belgian could walk away with the most glittering individual prize in the European game.