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Where do the French Think Their Next Ballon d'Or is Coming From?

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2017

Ousmane Dembele (left) and Kylian Mbappe celebrate in France's summer win over England
Ousmane Dembele (left) and Kylian Mbappe celebrate in France's summer win over EnglandFrancois Mori/Associated Press

One day soon, it will be their turn again.

No French player has won the Ballon d'Or since Zinedine Zidane in 1998, when he was still at Juventus, and only three have made it on to the podium since 2006. Thierry Henry did so, in the same year he was edged out by Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon in the World Cup final and later for the individual honour.

Franck Ribery and Antoine Griezmann followed Henry in finishing third in the poll, in 2013 and 2016, respectively. It had felt as if Ribery was close, with Bayern Munich having become the first German club to win the Bundesliga/DFB-Pokal/Champions League treble that year.

That all changed in the third week of November 2013, with Cristiano Ronaldo effectively wresting the trophy from his competitors with his stunning hat-trick in the World Cup qualifying play-off second leg in Sweden. On the same day, in a curious twist of fate, the voting period for the Ballon d'Or was extended by FIFA, per the Mirror, apparently due to low turnout. Ronaldo couldn't have timed his run any worse in terms of Ribery's prospects.

The other aspect that complicated Ribery's candidature was the context he flourished in. Jupp Heynckes' Bayern had been a formidable team in the true sense of the word, and that had a two-pronged effect; partially overshadowing the extent of Ribery's contribution and splitting the vote. Four other Bayern players finished in the Ballon d'Or top 20 in 2013.

Particularly in the modern context of the award being about individual brilliance, heavily conditioned by the genius of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, Ribery probably did well to get as far as he did.

Bayern Munich's French midfielder Franck Ribery (R) receives his award from Real Madrid's assistant coach and former French midfielder Zinedine Zidane (L) during the presentation of the FIFA/FIFPro World XI awards at the FIFA Ballon d'Or award ceremony at
OLIVIER MORIN/Getty Images

Times could be changing now, though. The biggest concern for Didier Deschamps and France ahead of the 2018 World Cup is not about the talent available, but where on earth to put it all.

In a way, last June's late defeat in Sweden—when Hugo Lloris' skewed clearance gifted a stoppage-time winner to Ola Toivonen—did the national team a favour. With a draw from the tricky trip to Solna, Deschamps might have persisted with the old faithful—pretty much his Euro 2016 starters, give or take the use of Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy at full-back.

Instead, Toivonen's dramatic intervention provoked some introspection. Why weren't young talents such as Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar in from the start? Lloris' slip almost hastened the ascension of the next generation. That, and the prospect of the 2018 World Cup, in turn promise to quicken their recognition at the crest of the world game.

In the meantime, they have hardly been hiding their respective lights under a bushel. The sense that a change is on the way in terms of Ballon d'Or prospects comes not just from knowing Ronaldo and Messi are in their 30s but—from a French perspective—because the key candidates coming from the Hexagon are celebrated for their individual gifts, rather than their collective ones.

When assessing candidates falling into those criteria, we have to start with Mbappe and Dembele.

It might seem incongruous to call the two most expensive players in football history not called Neymar "rising stars," but neither is it completely unbecoming given their ages (Dembele is 20, while Mbappe only turns 19 this week) and the sentiment that they are only just beginning to unlock the full extent of their true respective potentials.

Mbappe, on the current state of play, is the man most in France expect to deliver them their next Ballon d'Or, despite being the junior of the two. In some quarters, such as AS Bondy, the local club where he took his first steps in football as a child, it has been expected for some time, as BBC World Service's John Bennett touched on recently.

In April, L'Equipe (via Made In Foot) begged Mbappe on its cover to stay for one more year, as Europe's finest circled Monaco. The public persona of the Paris Saint-Germain forward, perfectly balanced between unbridled joy at playing elite football and a total confidence that he belongs here, has equally endeared him to the country's general public and made him somebody they can believe in.

Mbappe has clicked perfectly with Edinson Cavani and Neymar
Mbappe has clicked perfectly with Edinson Cavani and NeymarGeert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

He is already dear to fans across the nation, and not just those in the capital. Standing ovations at away grounds—even at rivals such as Lyon—were commonplace during last term with Monaco, and the warmth has survived the move to Ligue 1's behemoth. At the weekend, he was mobbed by pitch invaders dressed as Ninja Turtles, per the Mirror, a nod to his longstanding nickname of Donatello.

That Mbappe has scored at a good rate this season (though he had taken heat in some quarters until his recent run of four in five games) is no surprise at all. What has really convinced the wider world of his star power this season is his all-round game. Having clicked perfectly with Neymar and Edinson Cavani, he already has 10 assists in Ligue 1 and the Champions League combined.

Though Dembele initially made his name with a raft of goals on his introduction to the Rennes first team, it was his widescreen game that caught the eye at Borussia Dortmund in 2016-17. He was outstanding. Despite getting just half of the 12-goal total he managed at Rennes in his debut Bundesliga campaign, everything BVB did going forward had the young Frenchman's fingerprints all over it.

Dembele tallied 18 assists in the Bundesliga and Champions League but impressive as that is, the numbers almost understate his impact. How else would he have left North Rhine-Westphalia after a year for a fee potentially almost 10 times the €15 million that Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke and company paid for him? He has the lot—two great feet, pace, vision and dribbling ability.

With these two young titans at the head of the queue, it's hard to see how Lemar or this year's two Ligue 1 standouts, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin—the latter two both in sensational form but in their mid-20s and yet to establish themselves with France—could compete.

That Mbappe finished seventh in this year's Ballon d'Or voting despite not making his full Champions League debut until February says a lot. Dembele's injury-blighted 2017-18 with Barcelona had a big influence in keeping him away from the shortlist.

When one of them finally does reach that individual pinnacle, the other will applaud; it will likely be a mere footnote in the greater achievements of these two good friends. France's future, far beyond the World Cup, appears secure with Mbappe and Dembele.

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