Whenever a soccer player is asked about an individual award, he tends to play down its importance. It is always nice when your work is recognized, the player will say, but the most important things in the game are collective achievements. These players are, for the most part, telling the truth. Prizes such as a domestic league title, the Champions League, and the World Cup are more highly valued than gongs handed out for individual contributions. But deep down, players are also desperate to come out on top when it comes to individual awards, and the only reason they do not admit it more readily is for fear of being branded self-centered rather than team-focused.
The most prestigious individual award in soccer is the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the male player deemed to have performed the best over the course of a calendar year. It was founded way back in 1956 by France Football, an influential magazine that will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. FIFA launched its own World Player of the Year award at the start of the 1990s and that was later merged with the Ballon d’Or between 2010 and 2015, but the two have now gone their own way once more. Despite no longer benefitting from an association with FIFA, the Ballon d’Or retains substantial cultural significance.
At first, the prize was restricted to Europeans, hence why the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona – undoubtedly two of the greatest players of all time – never got their hands on the trophy. Argentina-born Alfredo Di Stefano did manage to win it twice, but only because he was registered as a Spain international for much of his career. The inaugural victor was the legendary English winger Stanley Matthews, who was playing for Blackpool when he received 47 votes in 1956. Suffice to say, no Tangerine has scooped the gong since.
George Weah became the first – and to date only – African to win the Ballon d’Or in 1995, while Ronaldo was the first South American recipient two years later. The award has been dominated by six-time winner Lionel Messi and five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo since 2008, with Luka Modric the only man to disrupt the duopoly in the last 12 years.
Ordinarily, most would expect another new winner to be crowned in the latest round of voting, but for the first time in the award’s 64-year history, the event has been canceled for 2020.
The reason for the cancellation is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. “For the first time in its history, which began in 1956, the Ballon d’Or will not be awarded in 2020, due to the lack of sufficient fair conditions,” read a statement by France Football, published in July.
“Why? Because such a singular year cannot – and should not – be treated as an ordinary year. When in doubt, it is better to abstain than to persist. Because the Ballon d’Or trophy conveys other values – like exemplarity, solidarity and responsibility – rather than merely sporting excellence alone.”
It was a grandiose statement by a respected publication, but four months on and it is increasingly difficult to see the wisdom in breaking the 64-year streak. Of Europe’s five major leagues, only France’s Ligue 1 decided not to continue their 2019/20 campaign following the near-universal lockdown. But realistically, no player will win the award because of their exploits in the French top flight. Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, two potential candidates, still took part in the Champions League, helping Paris Saint-Germain reach the final.
France Football also spoke of its 220 jurors being “distracted or diverted from their observation”. To an extent that is true, but many people have reported watching more football this year, not less, due to the need to spend more time at home. Canceling this year’s event increasingly always felt like a hasty judgment on the part of France Football, particularly as FIFA’s equivalent – ‘The Best FIFA Football Awards’ – will proceed as usual.
That is good news for Robert Lewandowski, the overwhelming favorite to take home the gold medal for 2020. However, even though the Poland international does not need a string of awards to validate his achievements this year, he would nevertheless be entitled to feel disappointed that the Ballon d’Or has been canceled.
When the 2019/20 Bundesliga season restarted in January following the winter break, Bayern lay third in the table. A few matchdays earlier, they had been as low as seventh. In 2020, though, they were utterly relentless, collecting 49 points from a possible 51 – a creditable 0-0 draw with RB Leipzig was the sole aberration – and ultimately finishing 13 points clear of second-placed Borussia Dortmund.
Lewandowski, of course, was not the only reason for their success, but Bayern would not have been so dominant without him. He scored 34 Bundesliga goals in total last term, 15 of which came in his 14 appearances in the competition in 2020. In the Champions League, meanwhile, he found the back of the net five times this year as Bayern won the trophy for the sixth time in their history.
Lewandowski offers much more than just goals to Bayern. He is a world-class version of the traditional center-forward, able to hold the ball up, link the play and bring others into the game. He is strong in the air, can finish with either foot and is highly intelligent both in and out of possession.
Lewandowski’s ability to find the net on a regular basis – he scored all four of his team’s goals in the 4-3 victory over Hertha Berlin on Sunday – is one of the main reasons why Bayern are overwhelming favorites to win yet another Bundesliga title this term, with BetMGM offering odds of -769 on them retaining their crown and +500 on Borussia Dortmund toppling the perennial champions. Lewandowski is as close to a guarantee of goals as you can get in 2020, and it is a shame that he will not end the year with the Ballon d’Or that his performances deserve.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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