It was projected that the 2023 Ballon d’Or was going to be a contentious event somewhere in March of this year, when Bayern Munich had eliminated Paris Saint-Germain from the UEFA Champions League.
There is no clear winner, unlike in 2022, and Lionel Messi’s World Cup victory makes everything more complicated.
If someone could win the Ballon d’Or after being eliminated from the Champions League so early, that was the debate that arose at the time.
Admittedly, the World Cup takes precedence over European’s elite competition.
Luka Modric rode on his highs with Croatia in 2018 to break the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly, although the midfield veteran had won the Champions League as well that year.
Karim Benzema, Marcus Rashford, and Erling Haaland were backed as potential stars who could wrestle the title from Messi’s grasp.
Benz was in for his ability to inspire Real Madrid to a 15th Champions League title – a dream that has now ended with a sting after a 4-0 shellacking in Manchester on May 17.
Rashford, at that time, couldn’t stop scoring, but his case was made hard by the fact that he wasn’t competing in the Champions League or for the Premier League title.
And at the time, Haaland was down the pecking order, because it looked highly unlikely that Manchester City would close in on Arsenal and go within one win of defending the league again.
But how the tables have since turned! The City striker has undeniably narrowed the gap on Messi or even surpassed him, depending on how you see it.
1. Lionel Messi
Messi’s early elimination from the Champions League notwithstanding, the Argentine delivered for his country in Qatar. He played a role in almost every game, bar their opening match against Saudi Arabia.
Apart from the World Cup, the 35-year-old has the Ligue 1 trophy in waiting, as well as the French Cup. If you combine his assists and goals, he almost matches Haaland’s astronomical numbers.
2. Erling Haaland
Picture this, the Norwegian wins the Premier League (as early as this weekend), and then inspires his side against Manchester United in the FA Cup final on June 3, before rounding it off by winning the Champions League vs Inter Milan on June 10.
He then gets denied the Ballon d’Or – the question would be, what more could a man do?
Even if he misses two of the three trophies, his 50-plus goal tally in a league considered the toughest in the world will surely do him a lot of favours.
Other possible Ballon d’Or winners
The other candidates won’t really offer much competition. Benzema and Vinicius Junior will only have the Copa Del Rey to show, with Robert Lewandowski currently outscoring them in Spain.
Rashford has hit a rough patch of form, and the only trophies he can realistically finish with are a domestic cup double.
Qatar 2022’s top scorer, Kylian Mbappe’s chances are dwarfed by Messi’s presence in the PSG team.
Also, preserve a thought for Julian Alvarez – he is in a position to win a unique quadruple, but won’t make the cut for the Ballon d’Or- not when he plays with the frontrunners in the same team and club.
Whichever way you look at it, it is a two-horse race, with the rest having to settle for places in the top 10.
The question the journalists who decide where the award goes will be answering in October is: which holds more water: the Champions League or the World Cup?
But first, Haaland must finish the job in Istanbul to put them in such a spot.