Since 2008, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player of the year five times each.
Even when one of the two didn’t claim the award, they finish second in the voting. Only Andres Iniesta, the hero of the 2010 World Cup, has broken that duopoly in the last 10 years.
Now, however, there may be a change. Argentina crashed out of the World Cup in the last 16, as did Portugal. Mohamed Salah, injured to start this year’s tournament, couldn’t drag Egypt into the knockout stage.
Might this be the year that a non-forward, from a country that isn’t considered one of the sport’s superpowers, claims the 2018 Ballon d’Or?
Luka Modric received the World Cup Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, and rightfully so. There is also a strong argument that he should win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player in 2018 as well.
The bookies seem to agree, too. Due to poor World Cup performances, Messi is not among the leading candidates to claim the award. Modric, however, is the odds-on favourite.
Ronaldo, not surprisingly, is trailing closely behind along with Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid and France, who is gaining momentum by the day.
But Modric’s argument to win the award has been significantly bolstered since the summer.
Not only did Modric’s Croatia reach their first-ever World Cup final, the midfield maestro was arguably the team’s best and most consistent player. Scoring goals is arguably the most difficult aspect of the game but dictating the tempo in a high-stakes tournament is right up there, too.
No player at the World Cup covered as much ground or logged as many minutes as Modric. He was among the top 10 in key passes per game, via WhoScored.com. Modric attempted an average of 69 passes per match with an 87 per cent completion rate, which helped him shatter a couple of national team records.
Luka Modric has had himself one hell of a #WorldCup…
Croatia's joint-top scorer (2)
Most distance covered (63km)
⏱ Most minutes played (604)
Most accurate set-pieces taken (30)
Fourth-most chances created (16) pic.twitter.com/OI6dqixHvM
— TheFootballRepublic (@TheFootballRep) July 13, 2018
When the pressure ramped up as the knockout stage progressed, Modric became more integral to the cause. Whether he was asked to play direct or keep it short and concise with his passing, the midfielder obliged.
At Real Madrid this past year, Modric was crucial to the team’s run to its third straight Champions League title. He delivered a masterclass in the final against Liverpool, helping Madrid bypass the counter-pressing from the Reds en route to a 3-1 victory.
Anyone who watches Modric regularly sees how consistently brilliant he is in the midfield, be it in La Liga or the Champions League. If not for the Croatian virtuoso, Real Madrid might not have lifted the European Cup this year.
Compare that to Messi. His Barcelona was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and Argentina crashed out of the World Cup by the round of 16. That’s not entirely his fault, but voters – specifically journalists – will use that against him.
The same might occur with Ronaldo due to the World Cup. Despite his best efforts, Portugal just couldn’t penetrate the stingy Uruguayan defence and the Euro 2016 winners were sent home.
Mohamed Salah, also deemed a favourite before the World Cup, unfortunately missed the start of the tournament due to the shoulder injury he suffered in the Champions League final. Salah also hasn’t been as breathtaking this season with Liverpool compared to his sensational 2017-18 campaign.
Fair or not, World Cup results matter, even when determining an individual award in a team sport.
Modric was the best player on a World Cup finalist and was integral to a Champions League triumph. The only player who matches those results is his Real Madrid teammate in Raphael Varane. As incredible as he is, it’s arguable that Modric was more influential for his country, and even at Madrid, than Varane.
Ronaldo might be considered to be the favourite. He was the top scorer in the Champions League and has accumulated a total of 44 goals this calendar year, including four at the World Cup.
However, no goals in the semifinals or final of the Champions League, plus his slow finish to the World Cup might hinder his argument.
Griezmann, on the other hand, doesn’t have the club accolades to back up his candidacy. Atletico Madrid didn’t win La Liga and crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage. Los Colchoneros salvaged their European campaign by winning Europa League, although it’s not exactly an equal achievement to Real Madrid’s title.
This only strengthens Modric’s status as the current favourite for the Ballon d’Or.