Discussions over who should win—or at least who is in pole position to win—the 2019 Ballon d’Or are rife.
It’s a more popular and more important subject than almost anything else in football right now, with Virgil van Dijk’s UEFA Champions League success with Liverpool propelling him into a genuine challenger’s position for the crown alongside Lionel Messi.
It’s important to remember the Ballon d’Or is a calendar year award, given to the male player deemed to have performed the best over the previous 12 months. In this case, that’s January 2019 through to now.
Historically, you need to tick two boxes to be in contention for this award: You have to be considered one of the world’s best players (generally) and to have seriously impressed on the game’s biggest stages (Champions League, major international tournaments). We’ll follow those guidelines here.
All statistics you see will be calendar year statistics unless clearly noted otherwise.
10. Kylian Mbappe, Forward, Paris Saint-Germain
Key stat: 20 Ligue 1 goals in 2019
You know this list is stacked with quality when Kylian Mbappe, the man Forbes listed as the most valuable player in world football at the beginning of 2019, kicks us off in 10th.
He’s scored with unerring frequency this year, netting 20 in Ligue 1 alone, and was the only person to really come close to challenging Lionel Messi for the European Golden Shoe. His turbo speed and incisive finishing simply prove too much for French defences week in, week out.
Where Mbappe’s case for the 2019 Ballon d’Or falls short, though, is that he was unable to make any sort of defining impact in the Champions League this year. PSG’s shock elimination to Manchester United put paid to his chances of progressing through the tournament and tormenting some of the very best.
Had Presnel Kimpembe’s fateful last-gasp handball not been given by VAR in February, who knows what sort of pedigree Mbappe might have behind him right now.
9. Eden Hazard, Forward, Real Madrid
Key stat: 16 combined goals and assists in 2019
As farewell gifts go, the UEFA Europa League trophy is a fair effort. Eden Hazard left Chelsea on a high, having played a major part in bringing that piece of silverware to Stamford Bridge, and he departs having put together one of his best-ever seasons in blue.
The number of games he almost solely decided this year has been eye-popping, with the six-goal, six-assist tally in the Premier League in 2019 failing to paint the true picture of his consistent dominance in games. He’s doing the same thing he always has done—cut in off the left and wriggle goalward—but he seems to be getting harder and harder to stop.
In the wake of his blockbuster move to Real Madrid, some fans on social media have wondered aloud whether he might be the third-best player in the world right now, behind only Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Becoming the latest Galactico has likely only encouraged that kind of talk.
8. Cristiano Ronaldo, Forward, Juventus
Key stat: 15 goals for club and country in 2019
It hasn’t quite been the outstanding, otherworldly campaign we’re used to seeing from Cristiano Ronaldo; and on Juventus performances alone, there’s not much of a case for the 34-year-old to even be talked about in the Ballon d’Or stakes.
Seven goals and five assists in league play in 2019 was OK; plenty have managed more. Five goals in four Champions League knockout games, including a spectacular hat-trick in the comeback victory against Atletico Madrid, made things better but not good enough.
It’s the UEFA Nations League triumph with Portugal—a feat he was a huge part of—that catapults him into top-10 consideration. A sensational hat-trick in the semi-final against Switzerland dragged the Selecao into a final against the Netherlands, which Ronaldo again played well in as they won 1-0.
Make no mistake: His efforts up to this point shouldn’t be enough to seriously challenge for the 2019 Ballon d’Or, but he is now an outside shout at the very least.
7. Mohamed Salah, Forward, Liverpool
Key stat: 17 combined goals and assists in 2019
So much for the one-season-wonder chat.
Mohamed Salah was judged under a far harsher spotlight in his second season at Liverpool, as those who scoffed at his incredible rise in the campaign before looked for holes to pick at.
Very few were found.
The goals dried up a little for a spell this year, but the performances were still strong and still vital to his team winning game after game. Jurgen Klopp rightly showed zero concern over the Egyptian’s blanking in front of goal given the amount of chances and space he was affording others—namely Sadio Mane.
And once his dry spell came to an end, he scored a litany of crucial goals that either put Liverpool ahead or drew them level in situations where they could afford nothing other than a win. That includes the venomously struck penalty in the Champions League final which set the Reds on their way to glory.
Ultimately there’s just one blemish to speak of: a poor performance at the Camp Nou in the Champions League semi-finals, where he missed a close-range chance that could have changed the dynamic of the tie.
Still to come: Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt
6. Raheem Sterling, Forward, Manchester City
Key stat: 20 combined goals and assists in 2019
It’s been a monumental year for Raheem Sterling, who has evolved as a person and a player and stands as a role model for all in life to look up to.
He has shone on and off the pitch, and being handed the England captain’s armband for the Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands capped his season off in style.
The phrase that aptly sums up Sterling’s 2019 is “taking responsibility.” He scored a lot of goals for Manchester City, at times making himself seem more valuable to the team than anyone else, and he turned up in every competition.
Eight Premier League goals over the final stretch helped his team win the title; three in the FA Cup helped secured the unprecedented men’s domestic treble; and four in the Champions League came within an inch of helping his side into the semi-finals.
5. Alisson Becker, Goalkeeper, Liverpool
Key stat: 27 clean sheets in all competitions in 2019
It’s very rare that goalkeepers get the credit they deserve in the Ballon d’Or stakes, but if any individual can buck that trend, it’s Alisson Becker.
A record-breaking transfer (at the time) to Liverpool last summer placed an immense amount of pressure on his shoulders, but from the off he oozed confidence, showcasing immense calm on the ball, super-safe hands when shot-stopping and amazing distribution.
He won the Premier League Golden Glove, keeping close to as many clean sheets (21) as goals conceded (22). His form was consistent across both halves of the campaign.
His true standout game of the year came in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona, where he foiled Philippe Coutinho one-on-one and made further excellent stops on Messi and Jordi Alba.
Then, in the final, he racked up eight saves and showcased crisp handling under pressure.
Still to come: Copa America with Brazil
4. Sadio Mane, Winger, Liverpool
Key stat: 14 Premier League goals in 2019
Rewind one year and it would have been very difficult to foresee Sadio Mane becoming this important to Liverpool, but things can change quickly over the course of the season.
Where Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino used to be the bonafide Red threats, Mane is now the most feared and most productive in their three-pronged attack.
He scored a number of crucial goals to maintain Liverpool’s winning habit, often netting the opener when things were about to get nervy (example: 3-0 vs. Bournemouth at home), or provided vital moments in big games (example: golazo vs. Bayern Munich in Germany, won the penalty in the Champions League final).
That he ended up sharing the Premier League Golden Boot with Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is testament not only to his scoring prowess, but also to his incredible improvement in those situations. It’s something which spurred Liverpool on to new heights.
Still to come: Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal
3. Bernardo Silva, Midfielder, Manchester City
Key stat: 16 wins from 17 club games in 2019
Set an incredible pace by Liverpool, Manchester City were forced to win 14 straight Premier League games to clinch the title—a feat they managed, but not without more than a few wobbles on the way.
It’s in those moments that big players must step forward and make the difference, and for City that player was Bernardo Silva more often that not. Yes, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero scored consistently, and Vincent Kompany’s rocket against Leicester City was the final emotional step on the path to glory, but the Portugal international was arguably more important than all three over the stretch.
His breathtaking combination of mazy dribbles, progressive passes and recovery tackles made him the most important attacking player. City players started trying to pass to him as often as possible—somewhat similarly to the way Barcelona do with Messi—and there were times when Bernardo’s ankle-breaking runs into the box actually reminded of the Argentinian.
Then in the Nations League he took command, assisting once in each match as Portugal secured the trophy and earning Player of the Tournament despite Ronaldo netting three in the semi-final.
There isn’t a soul on Earth who doubts this man’s ability now.
2. Lionel Messi, Forward, Barcelona
Key stat: 30 club goals in all competitions in 2019
Messi has plenty working in his favour with regard to the 2019 Ballon d’Or.
He was the best player in La Liga, the best player in the Champions League, scored 30 goals in all competitions this year and is the best player in world football.
Some of those goals were sensational, like the chips against Real Betis and Sevilla, the nutmeg-and-strike against Fred and Manchester United, or the remarkable free-kick against Liverpool.
There were some who revelled in Barcelona’s second-leg collapse at Anfield and pointed the finger at Messi, but he was outstanding even in that 4-0 defeat, laying on three one-on-ones or crucial chances for team-mates, who contrived to fluff their lines.
Rightly or wrongly, though, the fact Barcelona failed to haul in the Champions League trophy (and the Copa del Rey, for that matter) inflict slight damage to his Ballon d’Or credentials. Slight, but enough to drop him to second for now.
Still to come: Copa America with Argentina
1. Virgil van Dijk, Defender, Liverpool
2018-19 PFA Player of the Year and Champions League winner
Based on the criteria seemingly at play when awarding the Ballon d’Or in recent years, Van Dijk has an extremely strong case based on his 2019 credentials. The strongest, in fact, but only by one frizzy strand of hair.
He’s excelled on a consistent basis for one of the world’s biggest and best clubs, won the Champions League to crown a magnificent season, and he has rapidly become one of the biggest names in football, revered as one of—if not the—best defender on the planet.
Despite coming up against an array of elite attacking players this year, not one of them has managed to successfully dribble past him. The Netherlands’ Nations League final with Portugal was the last chance anyone will get this season, and neither Bernardo Silva or Ronaldo could manage it.
For the first time in a long time, the elite attackers have a genuinely elite defender to rival them for this kind of award. In the same way it feels rather hopeless trying to stop Messi, getting past Van Dijk feels like mission impossible at times.
Some may write off Van Dijk’s Ballon d’Or claim because the Netherlands lost the Nations League final, but what would have been more damaging would have been if he played poorly. He didn’t, and he’s got that shiny Champions League trophy backing his corner in these stakes for the rest of the year.
What can change from here?
The Ballon d’Or is a calendar year award, but it has also tended to be decided by July in past years. That Luka Modric won it in 2018 after a great World Cup but a terrible start to the 2018-19 season only served to cement that pattern.
That means we have a good idea of who is in contention now and not much will move that needle. Crucially, though, the Copa America and the Africa Cup of Nations are still to come and do have the potential to reshape things.
Storylines undoubtedly effect the Ballon d’Or voting, and if Messi secures a first-ever major trophy with Argentina, that could swing things his way at the top. For others, a Champions League-Africa Cup of Nations double might represent the pinnacle, encouraging them to give top marks to Mane or Salah.