When I bring up the topic of the Ballon d’Or, the immediate question in mind varies depending on who knows or doesn’t know what it is. For those who don’t know, the obvious question becomes what exactly the Ballon d’Or is. And to that the simple answer was it’s the award given to the world’s best performing male soccer player in a calendar year. For those who do know, the main question would be centered on who’d win the Ballon d’Or. And when this question has been asked in the last decade, everybody’s answer seemed to be one of two options. But this year’s Ballon d’Or awards ceremony has changed that narrative. It is this year’s historic ceremony alone that will change the way we answer these questions from now on. And here’s how —
The Kopa Trophy
The 2018 Ballon d’Or ceremony inaugurated two new awards. The first is the Kopa Trophy, given to the best active soccer player under the age of 21. The Kopa Trophy is the expansive successor to the previous Golden Boy Award, expansive in that the recognition is open to footballers outside of Europe and is associated with the Ballon d’Or ceremony unlike its predecessor. The trophy has brought in intrigue and light to some talented young prospects. Justin Kluivert, son of iconic Dutch footballer Patrick Kluivert, is coming into his own for Italian side AS Roma. English right back Trent Alexander-Arnold has helped stabilize a Liverpool team looking to win their first Premier League title. Gianluigi Donnarumma looks to continue the legacy of elite Italian goalkeepers named Gianluigi (after Buffon). There’s also Christian Pulisic, the American midfielder/winger who has wowed both Europeans and Americans alike with his technical ability and flair. But even an American captain like Pulisic comes a distant second thanks to the presence of French winger Kylian Mbappe. This will be the Frenchman’s third young player prize in the last two years, after the Golden Boy Award in 2017 and the FIFA World Cup Best Young Player Award in 2018.
Ballon d’Or Féminin
For the first time in the long history of the Ballon d’Or, there will be a Ballon d’Or for female footballers called Ballon d’Or Féminin. This isn’t the first time an award has existed to reward the best woman footballer. Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, and Carli Lloyd were American footballers announced as FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year (existing from 2001 to 2015). That same year in 2015, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced the inception of an annual award given to the best woman footballer of a calendar year as voted by fans. The inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or voting tally was a tight one, and it all came down to a close race between Norwegian striker Ada Hegerberg and Danish striker Pernille Harder. In the end, Hegerberg defeated Harder by 6 points and earned the distinction of being the first recipient of the women’s Ballon d’Or. Though Hegerberg may be somewhat perturbed (due to the controversy involving DJ Martin Solveig), it should not downplay the historic accomplishment she has made and is an integral part of. She is the first of hopefully many Ballon d’Or Féminin winners designed to recognize the best female footballer in the world, and the introduction of this very award is a symbol for just how the sport of soccer is properly progressing in recognizing women as amazing athletes.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
For the first time since 2007, neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi won the Ballon d’Or. It’s taken more than a decade to see this type of result transpire. That’s not to say neither of them winning the Ballon d’Or eliminates them from discussion involving the award. Ever since Messi’s last Ballon d’Or win in 2015, he hasn’t been able to reclaim the top of the mountain. But 2018 was a major step back for him. Messi finished second in 2016 and 2017 Ballon d’Or voting, but this year he finished fifth (the lowest he’s finished since 2006). While Messi was out of contention for winning this year’s Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo was not. And he looked to use this particular calendar year to do something no one had done before, win a sixth Ballon d’Or. But his second place finish in 2018 not only prevented a record sixth win, but also kept him tied with Messi at first place with 5 Ballon d’Ors. On top of that, Ronaldo again failed to accomplish something Messi had done before (win three consecutive Ballon d’Ors). The bright side for Ronaldo though is that his total 5 first and 6 second place finishes surpass Messi’s 5 first, 5 second, and 1 third place overall finishes to earn the distinction of being the most decorated individual in the history of the Ballon d’Or.
Luka Modrić: Ballon d’Or Winner
The 33-year old Croatian midfielder had a 2018 to remember. In March, Modrić was called as a witness for a tax evasion and embezzlement trial of a former Croatian team executive. This led to an eventual perjury charge he would not get cleared of until October. Whilst this was happening, Modrić still had to play on the pitch. And his display in 2018 turned out to be the best we’ve ever seen from him. In May, he helped cement Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League (UCL) dynasty three-peat by contributing to their third straight (fourth overall) UCL title victory. His efforts earned him a spot in the UCL Team of the Season and the award for the UCL’s Midfielder of the Season. In June, Modrić captained the Croatian national football team to a second place finish in the World Cup (the highest Croatia has ever finished in the tournament). Though Modrić didn’t hoist the World Cup at the end, his efforts won him the Golden Ball (awarded to the best player in the World Cup). In August, Modrić was celebrated for his Champions League performances with the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year Award (the first not named Ronaldo or Messi to win since 2013). In September, Modrić then won the inaugural Best FIFA Men’s Player Award. And with this Ballon d’Or win, Modrić becomes the first Croatian in the history of the Ballon d’Or to win the coveted award.