Sport Soccer

Friday 14 December 2018

Modrić's magical 2018 deserves to be capped by breaking the Ronaldo-Messi decade-long Ballon d'Or stranglehold

Luka Modric
Luka Modric

Tony Considine

With the winner of the Ballon d'Or due to be announced this evening, did we witness enough in 2018 for a changing of the guard?

For the last decade, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have played tiki-taka with the award passing it back and forth with no one else getting close enough to touch it.

Yet after both players exited the biggest stage in the world at the round of 16 this summer and heir apparent, Neymar gaining as much attention for his diving as his play, who are the candidates that may take over?

Luka Modrić may have fallen short in his dream of lifting the World Cup trophy but there’s no denying that he lit up the tournament. And while being awarded the Golden Ball for Player of the Tournament will have been scant consolation, his body of work over the year means that he merits serious consideration.

While Ronaldo has generally taken the plaudits for Real’s domination of the Champions League since the finally won la Décima in 2014, the diminutive Croat has started in and won all four finals since joining the club.

Although Gareth Bale made the headlines in the final with his brace from the bench, Modric kept things ticking over and his performances saw him selected in the Champions League team of the year for a third successive season.

Had he followed this up with leading his country of just four million people to football’s greatest prize, surely a Ballon d’Or would have been guaranteed. As it is, there’s certainly an argument his World Cup performances along with his Champions League victory put him above Ronaldo and Messi for the last 12 months.

If medals on the table count, then Antoine Griezmann can point to his World Cup gold on top of his dominant Europa League final performance.

The Atlético Madrid striker may only have placed third in the World Cup player of the tournament yet his man of the match performance in the final followed up big moments in the business end of the competition.

Griezmann scored or assisted in every knockout match and capped it off with a goal and assist in the final. Although he may not have reached the heights of his Euro 2016 campaign, when the chips were down he delivered.

But is a two-goal performance in the Europa League final enough to improve on his previous best Ballon d’Or placing of third?

After all, Atleti only dropped into that competition after a disappointing Champions League campaign saw them lose out to Roma and Chelsea in the group stages. The feeling is that Griezmann may have needed a La Liga or a Champions League to get over the line.

One man who can point to a Champions League and a World Cup winners medal is France’s 25-year-old Raphaël Varane. After taking the blame for France’s elimination by Germany four years ago and missing Euro 2016 through injury, the classy centre-back needed a good tournament.

And boy, did he deliver. Not content with marshalling the defence through every minute of every game, the Real Madrid stopper also chalked up the opening goal in France’s quarter-final win against Uruguay.

Yet, defenders have traditionally been short of the credit they deserve when it comes to the Ballon d’Or. Only Fabio Cannavaro has bucked the trend in recent times after captaining Italy to the World Cup in 2006.

So it’s hard to see Varane getting the votes needed despite becoming only the fourth player, after Christian Karembeu (1998), Roberto Carlos (2002), and Sami Khedira (2014), to win the biggest club and international competitions in the world in the same season since the Champions League era began.      

For this observer, despite his heartbreak in Moscow, it has to be Modrić. It’s unlikely the 32-year-old can ever have a better year and winning it would be a just reward for a career that has built beautifully to this peak.

With goalscorers traditionally reigning supreme when it comes to Ballon d’Or votes, the bookies had originally thought Ronaldo’s 49 goals at club and international level in 2017/18 would give him the nod. Yet, with Modrić already claiming the FIFA Player of the Year award, he has now come into odds-on favourite.  

It’s been a year when the more unsung heroes of the game should be celebrated. With rumours that Messi may not even make the final three and with the likes of Verane’s teenage teammate, Kylian Mbappé waiting in the wings, it feels like the Ronaldo / Messi duopoly has finally come to an end.

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