The Ballon d’Or, long regarded as the biggest prize given to the best football player in the world, is making its long-awaited return this year after the award was scratched in 2020 because of Covid-19.
That barren year means that more excitement and suspense have been tacked on to this already glitzy affair. Who will pick up this ultimate accolade will be known on Monday 29 November at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, the same venue that was used for the 2019 awards.
A packed field of 30 contenders have made the shortlist but probably not more than 10 are considered serious challengers for the title.
Until Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah caught fire, Lionel Messi of Paris St-Germain was the odds-on favourite to lift the golden football, which would be his seventh time. In second place could have been Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, followed by Jorginho of Chelsea.
In his last year with Barcelona, Messi was top scorer in La Liga with 30 goals and kept his side in the title race. Most importantly, the Argentinian superstar helped his country win the Copa America, his first major international trophy.
Lewandowski, the player that many people felt deserved to win the prize last year, scored 40 goals in all competitions last season as Bayern Munich reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and won the Bundesliga. The striker from Poland hopes to win his first Ballon d’Or after winning the not as well-known FIFA’s men’s player of the year in 2020.
Completing the big three favourites – again, before Salah’s heroics – is midfielder Jorginho who won the Champions League with his club and Euro 2020 with Italy, the two top prizes in Europe for club and country.
Now Salah. Egypt’s brilliant forward is also on the list but where exactly is he on the totem pole? Liverpool finished a disappointing third in the Premier League after winning it in dominating fashion the year before. They also did not win any other titles. Salah missed out on the league’s top scorer award, and has been a peripheral figure for his country in both the qualifiers for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations and the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
So why should Salah and his supporters entertain any hope that he would bag this year’s Ballon d’Or if he did not do better this past season than many other contenders? Because these days Salah is being called the world’s best player. If true, and it certainly looks that way, then the Egyptian deserves to be at least part of the conversation, if not the main character.
Why Salah might win it…
- He’s probably the best player in the world on current form. Outside of Egypt just ask his Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, or Alan Shearer on Match of the Day, or Sportsmail’s Chris Sutton. Brazilian and Liverpool legends Rivaldo and Ian Rush think likewise, as do pundits Jamie O’Hara and Dion Dublin. Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher and ex-Liverpool forward Dean Saunders sing the same song. Not everybody is willing to go as far as describing Salah the best of the best, but they nevertheless wax lyrical about him. That would include former England stars Peter Crouch, Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand and Bayern Munich’s CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Even NBA giant Lebron James, who is now a part owner of Liverpool, got into the act, taking to Twitter to show his praise for the forward.
- Salah has made a blistering start to the current season, scoring in 10 successive games, and taking his tally to 15 goals in 12 appearances in all competitions, while providing five assists. Liverpool’s thrilling 3-2 victory against Atletico Madrid, in which Salah struck twice, leave them on the brink of qualification for the last 16 after just three games. Liverpool have also started strongly in the Premier League, sitting just a point behind leaders Chelsea after nine matches and boasting the only unbeaten record in the English top-flight. Salah’s recent goals against Manchester City and Watford in the Premier League were absolutely magical, leaving, in the two attacks, multiple defenders for dead. And his unstoppable rise was on full display in Sunday’s 5-0 Liverpool humiliation of Manchester United in Old Trafford which culminated in a Salah hat-trick. None of this Liverpool glory would have happened without Salah. Liverpool are loaded with talent but it is Salah’s presence, above all others, which so many times makes the difference and makes Liverpool the kind of club they are.
- Since an overall view of a player’s career is factored into the voting, so far Salah has scored 142 goals in 215 games for the Reds since his move from Roma in 2017. That number of goals is even more remarkable given Salah usually operates from the right side rather than as a central striker. It is hard to overstate Salah’s importance to Liverpool. Since his arrival from Roma, he has won two Golden Boots, a PFA Player of the Year award, the Champions League, Premier League, European Super Cup and Club World Cup. His four completed seasons at Anfield have seen him finish with 44 goals, 27, 23 and 31. He has missed only seven league games in that time.
-Again, looking at the totality of Salah’s career, his record-breaking 2017-2018 Liverpool year was out of this world. His 32 goals that year were not only the most scored in the Premier League but the most ever scored in one season in the Premier League. That Salah put away more goals in his debut season with Liverpool than the world’s biggest stars on the world’s biggest stage -- the best, the wealthiest, most popular and toughest football league in the world -- was an extraordinary achievement, without parallel in football history. The only reason Salah didn’t win the Ballon that year? Messi scored 51 goals in all competitions against Salah’s 44.
-Salah narrowly missed out on the Premier League’s top scorer award last season after finishing with 22 goals, just one behind Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane.
-Salah has also been within touching distance of the Ballon d’Or, coming fifth in 2019.
…and why he might not
-Salah might not be a frontrunner to win the Ballon d’Or, given that Liverpool did not win any titles in 2021. If the Ballon d’Or is meant to reward performance across the entire calendar year, Liverpool’s third-place Premier League finish, disappointing Champions League run last season, and a mediocre member in Egypt’s international matches could likely hinder his chances of winning the award.
-Even though Ballon d’Or voters are expected to look at an entire year’s worth of play, there is a sneaky suspicion that the leading contenders are decided long before the new season of the year gets underway. It doesn’t always seem to matter what players do at the start of a new season as much as how they fared at the end of the season before.
-Voters certainly have a history of favouring trophy winners. They like familiar names and the name Lionel Messi is as familiar as it gets. It’s true that a Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo had to start somewhere, but they needed super-duper seasons, better than anybody else by far, to get their names etched onto their maiden trophies.
- The hope is that those who are voting show their professionalism but bias could seep in. The initial 30-man shorlist is compiled by the editors at France Football, the organisers of the event. Once that list has been completed, a selection of international journalists from 180 countries-one representative from each nation-come together to decide the winner.
They are each asked to choose their top five players from the 30 selected, and order them from firsdt to fifth based.
The player who is selected as the winner by each of the selection panel is awarded six points , second-place is given four points, down to one point for fifth place.
The total points for each player from every journalist are then added together to decide third, second and first place.
We presume that journalists will be fair, at least fairer than some players. When asked who he would vote for if he were allowed to, Messi immediately selected his PSG teammates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe even though neither has had a sterling season.
Al-Ahram Weekly’s sports journalist Inas Mazhar, a juror in the voting representing Egypt, insists it is not about favouring one player over another. “Our selection of the best five players in the world and best three goalkeepers is based on a certain criteria,” said Mazhar who has been a Ballon jury member since 2007. “We are asked to look at individual and collective performances during the year, player class and an overall view of the player’s career,” Mazhar added. “We, as voters, are not allowed to discuss the vote, publicly or privately, until the official announcement.”
The votes were submitted on 24 October. Who voted for who will be published in France Football on 4 December.
- Salah remains one of the world’s most underrated superstars — if there is such a thing. Recently, an article was published on the website of The Telegraph, one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, which asked: “Mohamed Salah is the world’s best player, so why is he not idolised more?” Klopp wondered as much, claiming that if Ronaldo or Messi had scored the remarkable Manchester City goal, fans would be talking about it more.
- Salah often loses out when he is compared to Messi or Ronaldo because the comparison is grossly unfair. Of course they’re better than Salah (or were). Ronaldo and Messi are the undisputed giants of 21st century football. Salah is well behind the pair in goals and championships, longevity and sustained excellence. To constantly belabor the argument is useless, maybe even a bit xenophobic, and makes Salah constantly look like the best man (even though the Ballon d’Or is about the here and now - 2021 - when Salah can be compared more favourably).
- This undervaluing of Salah could potentially damage his Ballon chances. While his present salary is not chicken feed, Ballon jurors could be swayed into believing Salah is not as good as some of his contemporaries because he makes less money. He can’t even pen a new contract with his club. Liverpool are yet to meet Salah’s financial demands to keep him at Anfield. His current deal expires in 2023 and he reportedly wants to be paid according to his status as one of the Premier League’s top players. Salah is reportedly demanding £500,000 in weekly wages. He currently receives £200,000 a week from Liverpool. If we wish to compare, Ronaldo earns £931,000 per week from Manchester United. Messi gets £963,216 a week. Why the huge discrepancy in salaries? One Liverpool explanation could be they are averse to signing players as old as Salah who is 29. However, Ronaldo is 36 and Messi 34.
Ever since its inception in 1956, when England’s Stanley Matthews was the first winner, the Ballon d’Or has been the most coveted individual award in all of football. Any player would love to get his hands on it.
Although a team sport, individuals are what dominate football. That puts those voting in the Ballon d’Or in a quandary. How would you rate a good player who is on championship teams versus a great player whose teams do not do very well?
A star player on a winning club is the ideal, and Salah, at least at the start of this season, fits the bill.
Is there anyone in world football playing better than Salah at this moment in time? It is a legitimate question. He is in irresistible form, strongly suggesting he is No 1. And if those voting in the Ballon d’Or believe Salah is the best as we speak, his current vein of form could take him, in one month’s time, all the way to the pinnacle of the sport. The Egypt international has been a star for years. Soon he might officially become the greatest show on earth.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly