Philipp Lahm, the Bayern Munich and Germany icon, laughed off the Ballon d’Or as “a popularity contest for strikers” in 2016.
The embittered former full-back isn’t entirely off-base in his assertion of the award’s bias to forwards. Since Franz Beckenbauer was recognised in 1976, just one defender has been crowned the best player in the world.
If the honour voted on by 100 journalists is not entirely dependent upon on-pitch performances, the candidates would be best advised to state their case in a public forum.
Here’s what the nominees have had to say for themselves.
As the record winner of the award, Lionel Messi has been prodded for quotes about the Ballon d’Or on countless occasions. In September he parrotted a well-trodden line: “I have said it many times, the Ballon d’Or is very important due to the recognition at the individual level, but I never gave it importance, between quotes, the most important thing for me was always the awards at the group level.”
However, still basking in the glow of Argentina’s success in Qatar, Messi had a different view of the Ballon d’Or.
“I was lucky to have achieved everything in my career and after the World Cup, I’m thinking about that award much less,” he admitted, “my biggest award was that and I’m disguising my moment. If it arrives, good, and if not, nothing happens. I was lucky to achieve all my goals in my career and now I have new goals with [Inter Miami].”
“Am I the best?” Haaland asked himself in an interview with France Football in September. “Maybe,” he coyly concluded. “I know I can still improve a great deal; I’m still young. But yes, I believe I have a chance this year.”
The topic of individual awards naturally came up when Haaland was quizzed by The Telegraph earlier this month. “My father always said it doesn’t matter which trophy or recognition you get, you should always appreciate someone appreciating what you do,” Haaland explained. “He knocked this into my head.
“It’s been quite a few [awards]! It means you have done something right and I enjoy it as well: put on a suit and to get interviewed on stage…The same with the Ballon d’Or. It would be nice to win it, I will not lie, but it’s not the main focus: that’s about trying to get better, trying to perform, trying to win trophies and then all the other things come after that.”
“It’s difficult to talk about an individual trophy because you have to put yourself forward and it’s not well seen by the general public,” Kylian Mbappe offered when pushed on the subject of his Ballon d’Or chances in June.
With a keen analytic eye, Mbappe mused: “What are the new criteria? Is it to shine and make an impact? I think I fit the criteria. We’ll see. It’s the people who vote but I’m still optimistic.”
Taking the same dim view as Lahm, Rodri expects to join an illustrious list of overlooked midfielders. “I know it’s an individual award with a lot of marketing,” he told the Spanish outlet Cope. “Among the monsters I’m with, of course, I lacked marketing, like Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta. I worry about the things I can control, which is the collective awards.”
Unfortunately, Rodri got a degree in Management and Business Administration rather than Marketing from Catellon University.
“I think a certain Leo Messi is going to take it. Haaland is also a very large figure and has merits,” Manchester City’s pivot predicted.
Robert Lewandowski’s Barcelona teammate Ilkay Gundogan impishly joked that the Pole might have won the Ballon d’Or by now had he actually completed his mythical near-miss move to Blackburn Rovers a decade ago.
Even Messi, who claimed the award the following year, conceded that Lewandowski deserved the gong in 2020 when France Football controversially scrapped the award due to COVID-19.
As early as December, Lewandowski, perhaps jaded by his previous run-ins with the Ballon d’Or, declared Messi favourite for the 2023 iteration. “There is only one World Cup that decides who is going to win it this season and Leo is now in the top position for sure because of what he has achieved which means everything to him. He now can enjoy it,” Lewandowski sighed.
Despite becoming just the tenth man in history to captain a team to the European treble, Ilkay Gundogan didn’t once consider himself to be a genuine contender for this year’s Ballon d’Or.
“Oof! I think the race is between Lionel Messi and Erling Haaland,” Gundogan told El Mundo Deportivo shortly after his move to Barcelona last summer. “I don’t see anyone else close to them. They both had a great season, they both won titles. I’m glad I’m not the one to decide.”
Napoli’s Khivcha Kvaratskhelia had his revelatory 2022/23 campaign recognised with a Ballon d’Or nomination.
“Coming from such a small country it was difficult to imagine all this, it makes me feel that by putting your soul into what you do, your sacrifice has a reward,” the Georgia international told AS. “I dream of winning [the Ballon d’Or], one day, like everyone dreams.”
The man dubbed ‘Kvaradona’ – and ‘Che Kvara’ – tipped Messi as this year’s winner.
No goalkeeper has won the Ballon d’Or since Lev Yashin in 1963 and the best shot-stopper at the 2022 World Cup isn’t optimistic of breaking that drought.
Argentina’s Emiliano Martinez couldn’t even bring himself to finish every footballer’s predictable spiel about the importance of individual awards. With a broad smile across his face, he told BBC’s Match of the Day: “We know who’s going to win the Ballon d’Or: my mate Messi. I’m just proud to be in there.”