This is the time of year when the winner of the Ballon d’Or – football’s most prestigious individual award – is handed to who has been regarded as the greatest player in the calendar year.
But like much else in 2020, this year is different. There will be no Ballon d’Or, as the year has been too ‘experimental’ due to the coronavirus pandemic altering the course of both the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons.
Time will move on however and before we know it, the 2021 Ballon d’Or awards will be here, meaning we have decided to create an XI and substitutes of players who could go on to win the prize in the coming years.
Of the positions that have won the award, goalkeepers have taken home the fewest, with Lev Yashin’s 1963 victory being the only time a ‘keeper has been classed as Europe’s greatest player.
Do we envisage that to change over the next few years? Not particularly, but if anyone is to do it, it’s probably Jan Oblak.
The shot stopper has been absolutely fantastic since signing for Atlético Madrid, filling the sizable gloves of Thibaut Courtois with 149 clean sheets from 273 games, conceding just 185 goals along the way.
Whilst Diego Simeone is at the helm, Atléti will always be a contender for both La Liga and the Champions League, and if Oblak could help them lift either trophy in the next few seasons, he’ll definitely be a contender.
We go from the position with the fewest wins, to the first of those yet to have one at all – as Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold fills in at right-back.
Whilst there are still questions over the 22-year-old’s defensive capabilities, there is no doubt that he is one of the finest attacking full-backs in world football right now – armed with a deadly delivery from both set piece and open play situations, as well as copious amounts of natural talent.
Having played in the centre of midfield in his youth, there is also a chance Alexander-Arnold could return to the centre of the park as his career progresses – heightening the chances of him being the first Liverpool player to win the award since Michael Owen.
Matthijs De Ligt
Only three centre-backs have ever won the Ballon d’Or, and just two have reached the podium places since 1996, but Matthijs De Ligt certainly looks as if he could join Matthias Sammer, Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro in that exclusive club.
After a stellar 2018/19 season with Ajax, De Ligt moved to Juventus for £76m, making him the third most expensive centre-back in world football at present – and for good reason.
The 21-year-old seemingly has it all; leadership, strength, pace, an eye for a pass and more, all before he is anywhere near the prime of his career. Barring injury, De Ligt should be recognised as one of Europe’s elite defenders in the coming years, before beginning to push the more attacking players at the top of the Ballon d’Or rankings.
He is also the only defender to ever win the Golden Boy award too, which perhaps stands him in good stead to break the mould when it comes to the real thing.
Virgil Van Dijk
The closest a centre-back has come to winning the award in recent years is Virgil Van Dijk, whose second placed finish in 2019 is the first time a defender has been in the top three since Fabio Cannavaro won it in 2006.
Many will argue that the Dutchman should have taken home the accolade after his Champions League winning exploits with Liverpool last year, and he certainly would have if it wasn’t for the preternatural genius of Lionel Messi.
With a Premier League title already in the bag, and the promise of more silverware to come at Anfield, how Van Dijk recovers from his current ACL injury will most likely predict how close he gets in future years.
After just over two years in Europe, Alphonso Davies has already made over 50 appearances for Bayern Munich, 17 for Canada and won a treble – all before his 21st birthday.
Whilst, again, a full-back probably won’t win a Ballon d’Or anytime soon, like Alexander-Arnold on the other side, versatility could be the key to success.
During 19/20, Davies’ marauding runs from left-back became a feature of Hansi Flick’s all conquering Bayern Munich side, as the Canadian cemented himself as one of world football’s best and most exciting defenders. But considering he began his career as a left winger, Davies’ best years could well be spent further forward.
If he does move upfield, there is every chance he could become the first North American/Canadian to ever win the award – assuming other exciting talents like Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic don’t beat him to it.
The greatest compliment I can pay to Joshua Kimich and his development at Bayern Munich is that the German is not only world class in one position, but two.
Deployed at both right-back and in central midfield during his time in Bavaria, Kimmich generally patrols the centre of the park these days – making him more likely to win a Ballon d’Or, and earning him praise as a Philipp Lahm ‘regen’.
His leadership, commitment and reading of the game have earmarked him as a potential captain for club and country for many years to come – much like Lahm did throughout the 2010’s.
Assuming success continues to flow with Bayern, and the national side can back up their 2014 World Cup win with further international success, Kimmich’s stock should only rise from here.
Frenkie De Jong
Watching Ajax in the Champions League in 2018/19 was an absolute joy to behold. The aforementioned De Ligt was commanding the backline, with Frenkie De Jong powering through teams in the centre to feed the likes of Hakim Ziyech and David Neres to wins at the Bernabéu and Juventus stadium.
That run, along with some stellar form in the Eredivisie, propelled De Jong to superstardom, leading to a tug of war between some of Europe’s best clubs with Barcelona coming out on top.
Things haven’t been perfect in Catalonia, but once things settle down in the boardroom and dugout, Barca’s diamond should be able to sparkle at the base of the midfield for years to come.
He just is going to, isn’t he? Barring a terrible injury, nothing should prevent Kylian Mbappé from being crowned as the best footballer on earth many times throughout his career – and we personally can’t wait to see it happen.
Since he burst onto the scene with Monaco as a teenager, he has had a staggering 204 goal involvements in just 198 club games, whilst also adding 29 in 36 for the national side. These exploits have led Mbappé to four Ligue Une titles, four domestic cups and a World Cup in the process – all before his 22nd birthday.
Mbappé is blessed with blistering pace, dazzling skills and close control. All are married with sangfroid in front of goal and decision-making wiser than his years – creating an intoxicating cocktail of talent; a supernova of explosivity whenever he touches the ball. He, quite literally, has everything, and will do for many years to come.
My dimension is universal and by being with me I think I can help you to..(explosion signal)
– this is what José Mourinho said to Harry Kane in his first meeting with the striker after being appointed as Tottenham manager, and he hasn’t disappointed.
Whilst Kane was breathtakingly good under Mauricio Pochetinno and, to a lesser extent, Tim Sherwood and his gilet, the Englishman is on fire under Mourinho – contributing 26 goals and assists in just 17 games this term.
Knowing the Portuguese, he’ll make Tottenham compete for titles, and if Kane can follow up a fourth place World Cup finish with some international silverware, there is no reason why he can’t one day be ranked as Europe’s finest player.
As this list is perhaps a signifier that we are sadly reaching the denouement of Lionel Messi’s career, it felt only right to include the next great hope of the Camp Nou, in the shape of Anssumane Fati Vieira.
Despite only recently turning eighteen, it’s clear for all to see that Fati is going to be something very special, with the Spaniard already bearing down on fifty senior Barcelona appearances – proving to be a bright spark in an otherwise bleak looking season for the Blaugrana.
Whilst the teenager is still raw, his natural ability and eye for goal are incredibly exciting to watch, fitting in with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suárez and Messi himself over the past season as if he had played there all his life.
Barcelona fans can rest a little easier knowing that when Lionel Messi does eventually leave the club, Ansu Fati is more than ready to share his weight of the Barca burden.
Growing up idolising Michu, loving the Champions League and hating small talk – Erling Haaland sounds like any kid who was raised watching Premier League Years and Masters Football, but he is so much more than that.
Since bagging a hat-trick on his Champions League debut for RB Salzburg back in 2019, Haaland has evolved into one of the deadliest and most complete strikers in Europe at the tender age of 20, scaling the heights of Salzburg and Borussia Dortmund in the process.
A staggering 49 goals have followed that European treble against Genk – including four more hat-tricks – and there are surely many more in the tank for supernatural Norwegian, who is on a collision course with stardom.
It feels like Gianluigi Donnarumma has been around forever, and with over 200 games played for the Rossoneri at the age of 21, it’s easy to see why.
To have played so many games at such a young age is very uncommon for a goalkeeper as the young Italian is still at least five years away from his prime, and how good he should be by then is a scary proposition.
After just nine goals and three assists in his debut campaign for Atlético Madrid, some doubted the 21-year-old following his mammoth £114m move from Benfica in the summer of 2019. However, a bright start to this campaign has silenced many of his critics.
As Los Rojiblancos sit pretty at the top of La Liga, Félix has already contributed eleven goal involvements for Diego Simeone’s men – just one fewer than the whole of last season – whilst his budding partnership with Luis Suárez should grow and grow.
From Micah Richards and Michael Mancienne flying the flag of Brits abroad in the early 2010’s, to Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham representing them now – it certainly has been a decade of development in terms of British players plying their trade overseas.
And what a resounding success Sancho has proved to be in Germany, contributing 81 goal involvements in just 106 Bundesliga and Champions League matches, as well as earning eighteen England caps at the age of 20.
Whilst it seems inevitable he will return to England sooner rather than later, if he continues his current trajectory, he will certainly be in with a shout in the years to come.
Kevin De Bruyne
From a former Manchester City player to a current one, Kevin De Bruyne has been the best midfielder in world football over the past eighteen months or so, and is perhaps one step away from challenging for a Ballon d’Or, having placed in the top 20 every year since 2015.
Whilst age is certainly not on the Belgian’s side – meaning he of course has fewer chances to win it – Luka Modrić proved that an excellent club season, married with international triumph, renders age as just a number – with the Croat lifting it three months after his 33rd birthday.
When you’re looking for someone who has ‘wonderkid’ potential, there are a few tell-tale signs. Making your senior debut at 16, or having two nations battle it out in a tug of war to see which can land your international allegiance are two of those – both of which Camavinga has experienced.
He eventually chose to represent France at senior level, whilst his style of play has likened him to a combination of three of the nation’s world champions – Blaise Matuidi, N’golo Kanté and Paul Pogba. This is due to his destructive nature in the centre of the park, mixed with an ability to maraud forward as a box-to-box midfielder.
At just 18, it is of course difficult to map out where Camavinga’s career goes from here, but one would predict the only way is up.
As you will have seen by now, this list isn’t just your Eduardo Camavinga’s or Ansu Fati’s – there is an inherent chance that an already established player could scoop the award, and I tip Neymar to burst through the shadow of the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to lift his first Ballon d’Or.
That’s not to say it will come easily for Neymar. There will always be questions regarding his attitude, motives or effort, but his talent can never be questioned and, with any luck, that will shine through in the coming years.
With Paris Saint-Germain now closer than ever to winning the Champions League, and a somewhat resurgent Brazilian national side, now is the time for the 28-year-old to truly fulfill his potential.
We finish off with another Brazilian winger, but one who is at the other end of his career. Rodrygo is a part of the new batch of young talent emerging at the Bernabéu, along with the likes of Vinicus Júnior, Martin Ødegaard and Takefusa Kubo, but he is the one who I envisage as having the highest ceiling.
His numbers in La Liga may not be anything to shout about yet, but his record of ten goal involvements in eleven Champions League games – including a perfect hat-trick against Galatasaray – have certainly made the world sit up and take notice of the teenager.
As Zinedine Zidane continues to clear the decks of his older players, now couldn’t be a better time for a young forward to stamp his authority on Los Blancos.
There’s our XI, but make sure to let us know any players you would have included! Honourable mentions go to Sadio Mané, Sandro Tonali and Robert Lewandowski.