What a time to be alive! There is a new Ballon d’Or winner for the first time in 10 years and it isn’t Neymar, not the World Champion duo of Antoine Griezmann – who made the final three shortlist for the second time in three years – nor the teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe who has taken world football by storm since his breakout season at Monaco two years ago, it is Luka Modric.
‘Lukita’ has had a year to remember. A decent showing at Real Madrid who finished a distant third in the league last season and crashed out of the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stage but had the Champions League win to disguise what was an absolutely horrendous year; coupled with a beastly performance at the World Cup. In Russia, the world saw a different Modric from the one who wasn’t even Real Madrid’s best midfielder last season. He dictated every move on the pitch. He wasn’t just leading by heart, he was the heart of the team, propelling Croatia to an unprecedented world cup final. Despite the loss, no one could begrudge Luka Modric or his input, it was a beauty to watch.
Until the decade-long world domination of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who was favored to win the award for a record sixth time – the Ballon d’Or had always looked like an award a midfielder could win. In the eight years preceding Cristiano Ronaldo’s first win in 2008, only three of the eight winners were strikers. It wasn’t about how many goals you score; it was about the level each player contributed to the team.
Yes, goals win games, but it’s someone else’s job description to provide them.
So, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan who both enjoyed an absolutely prodigious season in 2010, both played integral roles in the successes of Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid as well as guiding Netherland and Uruguay to the final and third place respectively at the World Cup, watched as they were considered not good enough to make the final three-man shortlist. The world was shocked beyond comprehension, yet it made no difference.
Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez are two other magicians on the field whose illustrious careers deserved a couple of Ballon d’Ors, not as an honorarium, but as an acknowledgment of the superlative display of their majestic feet and mind. These two, at their absolute peak, worked the ball like it was a quadratic equation. They had everything figured out, they weren’t just the core piece for Barcelona, it was extended to Spain, and world football was dominated for such a long spell, only bettered by the stranglehold of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the individual awards. Yet, neither came particularly close to winning it as Modric did.
In truth, Ronaldo and Messi were at the peak of their powers and doing numbers that were unheard of and would probably not happen again in a lifetime, it was difficult to reward someone else, it defied logic. There was no way to prove that another footballer had a better season than either one and representing the same team only makes it worse; you wouldn’t even be the star of the team.
Neymar found out, and as soon as he saw a team willing to buy-out his contract, he played his part. Maybe the Brazilian star would have stood a chance if his season didn’t end abruptly, and arriving at World Cup in flight mode, perhaps we would have made an impression and his summer switch justified.
Is it a coincidence that Modric’s win coincides with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, who was unarguably Real Madrid’s best player last year, had a decent showing at the World Cup and is having a better start to life in Italy than Real Madrid have endured over the past five months?
Modric’s win leaves a lot of questions than answers.
But it will be naïve to think this win has signaled a change in the ‘order of things’. With the level Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are currently playing, even though it is below their usual best, it is still better than everyone else and who is to say the next award won’t go to either of these two?
Kylian Mbappe wins inaugural Trophee Kopa
The future is at the feet of the French sensation, none of his age mates is at his level and he knows it. He is still a teenager, but in few days he will be 20 and then he needs to decide if he still wishes to be seen as the best U-21 around or one of the best in the world, going toe-to-toe with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Luckily enough, he doesn’t have to worry about carrying the weight of either PSG or France, it is firmly on the shoulders of more established superstars like Neymar, Cavani and Antoine Griezmann, so he can focus on his development.
Mbappe has the next four years to determine what he wants to be: an early bloomer like Lionel Messi who was the world’s best at 21 or stay in the periphery before taking over the world at 23 like Cristiano? The road is tedious but the choice is his.