The Canadian women’s soccer team made history this summer by striking gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
Now, three key members of Canada’s “golden generation” have their eyes on winning another major honour, specifically the Women’s Ballon d'Or, presented to the world's top soccer player.
Here’s what you need to know about the 2021 Women’s Ballon d'Or award, which will be handed out on Nov. 29.
History of the Ballon d’Or
In 1956, respected soccer magazine France Football came up with the idea of honouring Europe’s best men’s player by polling the top soccer journalists across the continent and awarding him the Ballon d’Or (The Golden Ball).
In 2007, France Football opened it up to players from the rest of the world, regardless of their nationality or their pro club. This change meant that the Ballon d’Or effectively became a world player of the year honour. To this day, it remains one of the most prestigious individual honours in world soccer.
In 2018, France Football handed out the inaugural Women’s Ballon d’Or award when Norway's Ada Hegerberg won the prize. American Megan Rapinoe won the award in 2019. No honour was given out last year due to the global pandemic.
It’s important to note that the Ballon d’Or is separate from The Best FIFA Football Awards. Those honours are voted on by fans, and will be announced on Jan. 17, 2022.
Who votes on the Ballon d’Or?
The winners of both the women’s and men’s Ballon d’Or will be announced Nov. 29. Fifty journalists who specialize in covering women's soccer vote on the women’s award, while approximately 180 journalists from around the world vote on the men's award.
Sinclair, 2 other Canadians among the finalists
For the first time in history, Canadians are among the finalists for the Women’s Ballon d’Or award this year.
Forward Christine Sinclair, who plays in the NWSL with the Portland Thorns, highlights the list of Canadian nominees. Sinclair, a 38-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., ranks as international soccer’s all-time leading scorer (for both men and women) with 188 goals.
Two of Sinclair’s cohorts from Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the Tokyo Olympics are also up for the Ballon d’Or: full-back Ashley Lawrence (Paris Saint-Germain) and midfielder Jessie Fleming (Chelsea).
"Long overdue recognition," Canadian striker Janine Beckie posted on Twitter of her Canada teammates.
"It's about damn time Canadians get some respect on the international stage," Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe concurred. "Gold medal helped but these three have been phenomenal for the last few years."
Do the Canadians stand a chance of winning it?
Given that Canada won gold at the Olympics this summer, and that Sinclair, Fleming and Lawrence were key players for the Reds in Tokyo, all three are in the mix. But of the three, Fleming has the best chance of winning it.
The 23-year-old native of London, Ont., scored from the penalty spot in Canada’s 1-0 win over the United States to send her nation to the finals of the Olympic tournament. She went on to convert two more penalties against Sweden, as Canada won the gold in Tokyo. Fleming underlined her reputation as the key cog in midfield by starting in five of Canada’s six games, and playing in all but 45 minutes of her team’s magical run to the final. At pro level, Fleming played a minor supporting role in helping Chelsea win the Women's Super League and FA Cup.
Lawrence, 26, was one of Canada’s most important and durable players in Japan, starting all six games, and logged 591 minutes of playing time (out of a possible 600). The Toronto native proved to be a versatile option for the Canadians, as she was deployed both as a full-back and midfielder in Tokyo. Lawrence was also a major contributor for a Paris Saint-Germain side that won a historic French league title last season, and reached the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
Sinclair scored one goal in five appearances at the Olympics, and it was her quiet leadership and steadying presence up front that provided Canada with the platform it needed to bring home the gold. Of Canada’s three candidates, Sinclair had the strongest season at club level, playing a starring role for the Portland Thorns as they won the Women's International Champions Cup, as well as the NWSL's Challenge Cup and Supporters' Shield.
The top international contenders
Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas looks to have the inside track on the award. She was voted the 2020-21 UEFA Women's Player of the Year after tallying 16 assists and scoring 26 times for FC Barcelona, including a goal in her club’s 4-0 win over Chelsea in the Champions League final.
Sam Kerr is also being touted as one of the top candidates. The Australian forward scored 21 goals in 22 games last season as Chelsea won the Women's Super League and FA Cup. She was also the second-leading scorer at the Olympics with six goals as the Socceroos finished fourth after losing to the U.S. in the bronze medal match.
Spanish striker Jenni Hermoso won a treble last season with Barcelona: UEFA Champions League, Spanish league title and Spanish Cup. She also finished as the Spanish league’s top goal-scorer (33 goals) for the third straight year, and was the joint top scorer in the Champions League with six goals.
The 20 candidates for the women’s Ballon d’Or are:
Sam Kerr (Australia)
Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence, and Christine Sinclair (Canada)
Christiane Endler (Chile)
Pernille Harder (Denmark)
Fran Kirby and Ellen White (England)
Kadidiatou Diani, Marie-Antoinette Katoto, Wendie Renard (France)
Lieke Martens, Vivianne Miedema (the Netherlands)
Jennifer Hermoso, Sandra Panos, Irene Paredes, and Alexia Putellas (Spain)
Stina Blackstenius and Magdalena Eriksonn (Sweden)
Samantha Mewis (U.S)
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, click here.