Why the World's Leading Footballers Went Mad for the Ballon d'Or

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 3, 2018

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 09: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF poses with his five Golden Ball (Ballon d'Or) trophies   prior to start the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Sevilla FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 9, 2017 in Madrid, Spain . (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

To appreciate the extent to which the Ballon d'Or has become a Holy Grail for modern footballers, you need only read the words of 14-year-old Borussia Dortmund youth player Youssoufa Moukoko.

"If I'm honest, my goal is to become a professional with Dortmund, win the Champions League and win the Ballon d'Or," Moukoko told German magazine Sport Bild in a recent interview (h/t Bundesliga.com).

Once upon a time, budding footballers were motivated purely by dreams of hoisting aloft major trophies. Maybe scoring a goal at the end of the ground where they stood as a kid. Representing their country.

Those ambitions endure, of course, but many young players have been subsumed by a greater goal: winning the Ballon d'Or.

Having been jealously hogged by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for the past 10 years, the gilded orb could pass into a new pair of hands when the winner of the 2018 prize is announced on Monday, with Luka Modric, Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane and Kylian Mbappe among the favourites.

Footballers used to be coy, even dismissive, when invited to speculate about the potential winners of individual awards, yet the Ballon d'Or has become a subject on which everyone is expected to have an opinion. A player who makes the shortlist can expect to receive vocal backing from his team-mates and manager. Clubs' PR departments mobilise. Fans take up the fight on social media.

Modric and Griezmann are among the favourites to end the Messi/Ronaldo domination of the award.
Modric and Griezmann are among the favourites to end the Messi/Ronaldo domination of the award.ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

Those in with a shout of winning the award openly covet it. Griezmann says he "dreams" of winning the Ballon d'Or; Mbappe believes he has "all the ingredients" of a winner; Ronaldo (naturally) thinks he "deserves it."

Speaking in November to France Football, the magazine that hands out the award, Varane said: "It gives you an aura, and for the rest of your life."

We have reached the age of the Ballon d'Or bonus. Neymar reportedly has a clause in his contract that means a windfall will be triggered if he wins it. So too Anthony Martial. And Andre Gomes. Mbappe is said to have asked for one to be included in his contract when he signed for Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco. When Neymar left Barcelona for PSG in 2017, his desire to win the Ballon d'Or was cited as the primary reason.

"Being a part of the academy of Ballon d'Or winners means something," Pascal Ferre, the editor-in-chief of France Football, told Bleacher Report.

"It doesn't surprise me that even the youngest players have it as one of their objectives. Because if you have the Ballon d'Or, you usually have all the big contracts that go with it.

"It's like at the cinema. An actor who wins an Oscar becomes much more bankable. A player who wins the Ballon d'Or increases in market value."

At a time when every top-level footballer is not just an athlete but a one-man brand, the Ballon d'Or carries huge commercial cachet. After his sensational exploits at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Mbappe has emerged as one of the most likely candidates to succeed Messi and Ronaldo as the world's best footballer. Should he inherit their golden crown on Monday, it would represent a changing of the guard both on and off the pitch.

Mbappe is being tipped as a future winner.
Mbappe is being tipped as a future winner.LUIS ACOSTA/Getty Images

"If Mbappe were to win, it would be like the passing of the commercial baton," says Professor Simon Chadwick, a sports branding expert from the University of Salford.

Nothing divides—and animates—football fans quite like the Ronaldo vs. Messi debate. But discussion over who might succeed them as Ballon d'Or winner has proved almost every bit as lively. A spokesman from British bookmaker William Hill told Bleacher Report that this year has seen the company smash its record for the number of bets placed on the Ballon d'Or.

In a testament to the significance the award has come to hold, the 2018 Ballon d'Or will be presented at a star-studded ceremony in Paris hosted by David Ginola. When Sir Stanley Matthews won the inaugural award, in 1956, it was presented to him by Gabriel Hanot, then-editor of L'Equipe, at Blackpool Town Hall. The Blackpool winger was accompanied by his wife, Betty, and the only other people present were the Mayor of Blackpool, Herbert Henson, and Stoke supporter Spencer Copeland, who presented the club's former star with a china plate. In the years that followed, France Football editor Max Urbini would hand over the prize at the side of the pitch prior to a game involving the winning player's club.

The Ballon d'Or owes much of its modern pre-eminence to two coinciding phenomena.

The first was the simultaneous emergence of two of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Football has known great player rivalries before, but the sport's very best have generally blossomed in isolation. In the 1960s, nobody compared to Pele. The '70s belonged to Johan Cruyff, the '80s to Diego Maradona.

But Ronaldo and Messi came along within two years of each other, scored goals at roughly the same preposterous rate and played for the two biggest clubs in Spain at exactly the same time. And they were so different—as players, as human beings—that they seemed diametrically opposed. The subject of who was the best player in the world passed from a topic of idle message-board chatter to a question that demanded an answer. Enter the Ballon d'Or.

The second phenomenon was the temporary merging of the France Football award (voted for by journalists) with FIFA's Player of the Year prize (voted for by national team coaches, captains and media representatives).

FC Barcelona and Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (R) holds his trophy as he shakes hands with Real Madrid and Portugal's forward  Cristiano Ronaldo after receiving the 2015 FIFA Ballon dOr award for player of the year during the 2015 FIFA Ballon d'Or awa

Previously, the sport's two leading individual prizes could be split between different players. Romario was FIFA's Player of the Year in 1994, but France Football gave its crown to Hristo Stoichkov. When Michael Owen won the Ballon d'Or in 2001, Luis Figo took the FIFA honour. In 2003, Pavel Nedved and Zinedine Zidane shared the gongs. A year after that, it was Andriy Shevchenko and Ronaldinho.

Between 2010 and 2015, there was only one prize—the FIFA Ballon d'Or—and it was during those years that the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry reached its intoxicating peak.

The partnership between France Football and FIFA came to an end in 2016. FIFA set up a new award, The Best, but images of Messi and Ronaldo proudly collecting the twinkling golden sphere at those FIFA Ballon d'Or ceremonies (along with the terrible suits, awkward seating arrangements and strange victory cries) had become seared on football's common consciousness. The prestige clung to the Ballon d'Or.

"With those players, we've had the two best players of the 21st century," says Ferre. "Like all great champions, they don't accept second place. They've fought mano-a-mano for 10 years and France Football has benefited."

Messi seems to have enjoyed his five Ballon d'Or wins—smiling at the rostrum, saying nice things—but if anyone defines what the award has come to represent, it is Ronaldo.

His 2015 documentary film, simply entitled Ronaldo, is a case in point. Ballon d'Or ceremonies open and close the film, and his pursuit of the award is presented as nothing less than his No. 1 source of motivation.

At the beginning of the film, to a soundtrack of mournful strings, we see Ronaldo sitting in his chair, staring glumly into the middle distance as Sepp Blatter presents Messi with his fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or in 2012.

When Ronaldo wins the award the following year, five years after he won it for the first time, he weeps on stage. His mother, Dolores Aveiro, is shown crying in the audience. Ronaldo describes it as "one of the most beautiful moments in my life."

A year later, as he arrives for the ceremony in Zurich, he says in a voiceover that the award represents "the climax of a year's work." It is an honour that "stays for life."

"The Ballon d'Or [ceremony] is a day when your heart beats faster," Ronaldo explains. "You sweat more. You're more anxious, more tired, both psychologically and physically. It's a very intense day."

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo poses with his five Ballon d'Or trophies ahead of the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid and Sevilla at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid on December 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHI

Ronaldo has come to embody the individualisation of modern football, a world in which social media numbers are scrutinised almost as closely as goal tallies and where some young fans' allegiances lie with individual players rather than teams. Every facet of his image is painstakingly sculpted—his hair, his abs, his array of sponsorship deals—and the Ballon d'Or has effectively been co-opted into that gleaming universe.

"Some brand experts talk about 'brand constellations.' Ronaldo is at the centre of a brand constellation," says Chadwick. "You have the 'CR7' nickname, you've got his Nike contract, his underwear brand, and you've also got the Ballon d'Or."

The player who will receive the 2018 Ballon d'Or knows already that he has won. He has been interviewed and photographed by France Football and took to the pitch at the weekend safe in the knowledge that he is—officially—the best player in the world. (Such is the level of secrecy required, Ferre says, that only "four or five" people at the magazine know who has won the award before the official announcement.)

Whoever it is, when they wake up on Tuesday morning, they will be the envy of the football world.